Organizational Change Management

North Star Goal Setting

Long exposure night photo of the silhouette of a person on a hill with the stars in the sky tracking as radial lines around the North Star. Symbolizing goal setting.

Goal Setting Options Abound

There are many ways that businesses set goals, choose priorities, and ensure that their teams are rowing in the same direction.

You’ve probably created SMART goals, been asked to use OKRs, watched KPIs, laid out Vision Boards, or updated Kanban Boards. These are all great tools to help keep team alignment. I’ve used these for many years with different teams and with varying success.

I have seen teams that favor top-down goal setting and have contrasted that with those who like bubbling ideas from the bottom up.

Most companies create mission and vision statements. Many will combine those with corporate values to help encourage certain attitudes and build a company culture.

Of all the types I have experienced, North Star Goals are my favorite. It goes hand-in-hand with my love of intentionality because if you want to achieve that thing (whatever it is), you need to do it on purpose.

A team can mix and match these tools as much as they like – they are not mutually exclusive. I’ve seen that a team will try something for a while and ditch it if they don’t like it. Each team is a little different, and some trial-and-error is needed to find what works for them.

What is a North Star Goal?

A North Star Goal is not a company’s mission or vision. It’s not a quarterly or annual business goal, and it’s not the end of an agile sprint. But instead, it is a long-term stretch goal. In most cases, it is not just a single project but will spin off multiple projects.

A North Star Goal should be intimidating. It’s a big leap. It is attainable, yet it will take time and effort to get there. The benefit of reaching this goal should be undeniable. It may make your team pause and say, “Yes, that would be amazing…but how?” The risks associated with this goal are plainly visible.

I like these goals because they are strong, mark a significant milestone for a company, and have the power to rally the troops in a joint effort to achieve something meaningful. The path to the goal may be challenging, but the team will course-correct along the way. If one tactic fails, you’ll move to the next. The company is committed to the goal – relentless and urgent. One way or another, the team will get there.

One of my favorite business books is Built to Last by Jim Collins and his research team. It has a ton of great advice that is backed by diligent research. It applies to North Star Goals because, in the book, he states that companies who successfully weather the market for the long-term use Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). In my view, a BHAG is the same as a North Star Goal.

Setting Your North Star Goal

A proper North Star Goal is hard to dispute. It increases competitive advantage. Anyone should see value in attaining it. There may be disagreement about the overall company direction and how to use its resources against the corporate mission and vision. Still, there should be no disagreement that the North Star Goal is valuable and would improve the business.

Every team will have something different, though. There’s no magic formula for creating it. Instead, look at what will make a meaningful business impact and inspire the team to find unforeseen solutions, and force them to be creative to pull it off.

World-Class Examples:

Goal
Easily Understood
Long Term
Meaningful Impact
Competitive Advantage
Unifies the Team
Netflix changing from DVD rentals to streaming
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Tesla committing to electric vehicles
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The quest toward quantum computing
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Apple’s relentless push toward the iPhone
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1960’s mission to the Moon
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Good Examples:

Goal
Easily Understood
Long Term
Meaningful Impact
Competitive Advantage
Unifies the Team
First in the industry to offer a new type of product
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A distribution company becoming a manufacturer
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Provide hard-to-attain data and make it freely available
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Transform all processes to be done through API calls
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Become the definitive voice of a community
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Bad Examples:

Goal
Easily Understood
Long Term
Meaningful Impact
Competitive Advantage
Unifies the Team
Increase revenue by 20% in the next fiscal year
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Cut costs by 15% year over year
Question MarkX MarkQuestion MarkX MarkX Mark
Close 10 new major bids
Question MarkX MarkCheckmarkCheckmarkX Mark
Implement a new ERP system
CheckmarkQuestion MarkX MarkX MarkX Mark
Replatform the website
CheckmarkX MarkX MarkX MarkX Mark

North Stars Are Everywhere

In the previous section, there were five world-class examples that almost everyone is familiar with. There are many others from Microsoft, Amazon, SpaceX, Meta, Airbnb, Uber, and others.

There are many thousands more, too, though! Smaller, less newsworthy organizations who have embraced North Star Goal setting and are pursuing one.

I was fortunate to be on a team who set an ideal North Star Goal. It checked all the boxes listed above. Excitement unified the group. The initiative was significant because it was something the industry had not embraced, and we would be the first to do it. There were many hurdles along the way with governmentally imposed rules, business partners who did not want to participate, legal considerations, pricing controls, and more. It spun off a dozen sub-projects built over time and puzzle-pieced together. It was exciting when someone brought up a new project that hadn’t been considered, only to find that it fit perfectly with the direction we were headed. In the end, the competition started to try and copy what we were building, but they were already a couple of years behind us.

That’s when you know you’ve set a strong North Star Goal!

Combining Goal Setting & Prioritization Tools

Another main topic from the book Built to Last is the “genius of AND.” It talks about the “tyranny of OR.” Where Collins and his team recommend rejecting the idea that you can only have “this OR that” and instead push for the solutions that allow “this AND that.”

To find the best results in your goal setting and prioritization, you will need the AND. Find the combination of tools that work best for your team. But make sure you reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t force a square peg into a round hole.

If your team is struggling with one tool (maybe that’s the use of OKRs), then perhaps that’s just not a good match for your culture today. Then, try another, like SMART goals or Kanban. Find what works for your unique team.

Finding a North Star Goal is fantastic, but that alone won’t carry you to success. You also need to find the daily tools that help manage the team and their tasks toward that goal. Here’s where the genius of AND comes in. You can have a North Star Goal AND KPIs, for instance.

Conclusion

North Star Goals are, by definition, difficult to achieve. The team may not immediately know exactly how to reach the finish line. It can be intimidating. But from that comes the rush of excitement, the challenge, and the team unity to rally the troops and succeed!

SMART goals, OKRs, and KPIs, are good tools to use, and they can be perfect for many teams. In my experience, teams allow these prioritization tools to quietly bring lofty goals down to achieve short-term wins. Then “good enough” prevents the team from continuing to be “amazing.” You still need smaller milestones…but I like North Star Goal setting because they aim for the stars. They push the team to strive for the (nearly) unattainable. I believe that North Star Goals bring out the best in human creativity and ingenuity. Teams must work within and around constraints to find answers to the seemingly impossible.

If you’d like help on your path to a North Star Goal, reach out to your Perficient account manager, or use our contact page to begin a conversation.

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Brandon Luhring

Brandon is a consumer experience engagement manager at Perficient. His career has included running digital and marketing projects both in-house and as a consultant. He enjoys topics around creativity, innovation, design, technology, and leadership.

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