“It’s quite widespread in rock culture, that mythology of a shooting star. I’d rather be the North Star. As Bob Dylan says, you can navigate by it.” — Bono

The celestial North Star is the visible anchor in the northern sky. It represents a point, a coordinate, unwavering and trustworthy. Its bright glow has guided travelers to their destination for thousands of years. The celestial North Star represents a beacon of hope and inspiration for many cultures.

In the same way, the product north star must represent a point, a coordinate, which is unwavering and trustworthy. It is the vision you will use to navigate your product to success over the next five years. It will bring you back on course when you stray. Without a north star, your product will not reach its destination.

Let’s go back to astronomy for a moment. The celestial North Star is only visible from the Northern Hemisphere.

Attempting to navigate from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere using the celestial North Star would be impossible. You would need the bridging reference point to first get to the Northern Hemisphere.

Your product north star also connects your product (Southern Hemisphere) to your enterprise objectives (Northern Hemisphere). For these reasons, setting the north star is the first and most important step a product strategist must take.

Let’s make it real. If we look back at our hypothetical donut shop, what would happen if we set the product north star as $100 million from Gen Z. Would this be useful? Perhaps for the enterprise. Not for the product team. The product north star must also depict a vision the product can achieve, not solely a metric the enterprise wants to hit.

Based on our prior post (How do I close the strategy to execution gap in a product company? | by John Utz | Apr, 2022 | Medium), for our donut shop, the product north star is delicious physical donuts paired with unique digital donuts in the form of an NFT. A piece of digital artwork that only that buyer would have. The north star is the reference point by which the product team will navigate to the $100 million.

Let’s deconstruct the donut shop’s north star. At its core, the north star for our donuts encapsulates a few critical pieces:

  • A deep understanding of users. In this case, Gen Z. But Gen Z isn’t a user; it’s a segment. Within the segment, what personas are the most likely users of the product. Conduct user research, understand their needs and barriers, spend time with them, and ask questions. Clearly, we learned Gen Z doesn’t dig donuts from our last post (link). However, we realize they dig NFTs and cookies (think Crumble).
  • A link to a higher-order need. In this case, you can’t make the argument that donuts serve the need for food. However, they can meet the need for a quick sugar high. And better yet, with NFTs, they can also become hip and are a digital representation of your style. What could be better than triggering the reward system once? Triggering it twice.
  • A clear 3 -5 year aspiration. In our case, equating donuts and their digital counterparts as works of art. Remember, it’s meant to be a stretch. You are setting the aspirational anchor for the product strategy and product teams. To set the aspiration grab your design team and conduct a working backwards workshop.
  • Identify the medium-term needs. What do you need to do now? In our case, $100 million from Gen Z in the next 2–3 years.

In our case, a delicious donut (the sugar high — reward one) paired with a unique digital donut in the form of an NFT (look cool, a collectible, maybe make money — reward two). Our aspiration is for our NFTs to be valuable art (5 years out). Our shorter-term objective is to follow this north star to $100 million in new revenue from Gen Z in 2–3 years.

Now, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of Christopher Columbus. His north star was to discover new routes to India, China, Japan, and the Spice Islands. New ways to reduce the time to reach these lands and speed up access to resources and riches. To me, that’s a clear and aspirational ‘product’ north star. His north star had to drive him through long isolating voyages on the ocean, through life and death situations. It also so happens he used the stars and celestial North Star to navigate. Would it be wise to set sail without either? Would his team sign up to wander the oceans without purpose and with no means of navigation? It’s unlikely, and if they did, they wouldn’t get very far.

So as you develop your product north star, think of Christopher Columbus’ crew. You must reach the same level of meaning, motivation, and clarity in your north star for your crew, the product team. Until you do, iterate based on feedback from your team. Either way, I wouldn’t commit until you complete a few rounds of revision. It takes time to get it right.

  1. Write down the hypothesis for the north star down and review it with advisors. Ensure you have the essence encapsulated in no more than three sentences. Forget whether it’s right for now. See if your advisors can read it and clearly understand the direction the product must follow to achieve the objectives.
  2. Conduct a limited test. If your advisors understand it, review it with the product team, potential buyers, and users. Do they get it? What questions are they asking? What’s missing from their perspective?
  3. Capture feedback, revise and repeat your test. When it reaches the point where it is clear, self-explanatory, and inspiring, share it with the entire team. How does it make them feel? Is it motivating? Do they believe it will help them navigate forward on the five-year journey?
  4. If not, continue to test, revise and repeat until your team, your buyers, and users can see a path to the five-year goal with the north star as motivation and a waypoint to reset when they wander.
  5. Finalize it and make it the centerpiece of your product strategy.

While setting a product north star isn’t a life or death choice faced by explorers like Columbus, it will lead to proverbial resources and riches for you, your team, and your company.

So the next time you are tempted to skip setting the north star or shave time off the process, imagine Columbus wandering the ocean with no clear reason or destination. This image of Columbus and his crew are a great reminder of the importance of the north star.

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