North Star Playbook

The guide to discovering your product’s North Star

Table of Contents


                          We (John and Jason) have seen the North Star Framework offer many benefits to teams and businesses: better alignment, clearer prioritization, and less wasted work.

                          What we like most about the North Star Framework, though, is the way it inspires valuable conversations. To identify, design, and implement their North Star, teams step away from screens, Jira tickets, and status updates, and they spend time deeply engaged with one another—sharing ideas and learning.

                          Yes, the framework and workshop are intentionally oversimplified. Yes, unpacking your product strategy is hard. And yes, you will leave the room with nagging disagreements. But through this work you’ll have meaningful conversations: about beliefs and assumptions, strategy and value exchanges, users and customers, Inputs and outputs, leading and lagging, your game and your bets. In these conversations you’ll discover what matters to teammates, customers, and business—and as a result, you’ll build better products.

                          The quality of your conversations is the real secret to the North Star—the North Star of the North Star.

                          Think of all the decisions your team makes weekly. Hundreds? Thousands? Imagine improving those decisions—big and small—even incrementally. You’ll see better results for you, your team, your company, and your customers.

                          American cyclist Greg Lemond, two-time world champion and three-time Tour de France winner, famously remarked that, "Cycling never gets easier, you just go faster." Think about this quote as it relates to product. We shouldn’t expect product work to get *easier*, but we can find ways to make it *better*, to focus on the meaningful, impactful hard work—the "true work."

                          Recently, we spoke with a senior engineer who was frustrated. Her team was in the middle of quarterly planning, and her manager and the VP of Product had just spent their last meeting talking about empowerment, OKRs, and the importance of goal-setting. She described her frustration:

                          "It feels like they equate empowerment to just letting us do what we want, and then getting nervous—or angry even—when what we do isn’t what they would have done. That is not how I view real empowerment. We’re just spinning our wheels at the moment."

                          She went on to describe her view of real empowerment as containing context, a well thought-out strategy, and no sugar-coating. She didn’t want work to be easier; rather, she wanted her work to have more impact. This is the perfect scenario for frameworks like the North Star Framework.

                          We arranged a short session with her, the VP of Product, the product manager on the team, a designer, and a data scientist from a different product within the company (a neutral third party can be a welcome addition). Within 30 minutes they were exploring some foundational company bets—things they all knew about but that they hadn’t really discussed.

                          It turned out that the VP of Product was a natural at this kind of strategy gymnastics, but had never really had the opportunity to share that skill. The data scientist talked them out of getting too theoretical ("As much as I want to dig into this…"). The designer challenged some assumptions about their chosen value exchanges ("We don’t know that, and need to do more research"). In 60 minutes, they had a couple of North Star Metric candidates on the table. We skipped around the workshop format—trying Inputs, tweaking the North Star Metric, arguing about "the game," and tweaking the formula. They were on their way.

                          We checked in with the senior engineer a couple of months later. Things weren’t perfect, but they were better. She didn’t "feel like [the team] was making stuff up anymore." Though some features they shipped didn’t have the intended impact, the team learned important insights about what customers valued, and the senior engineer shared that it "was pretty valuable information, because those were kind of sacred cows." She was starting to feel "real empowerment."

                          To reframe Lemond: Product work never gets easier, you’ll just have more impact—and maybe a bit more sanity, flow, and satisfaction.

                          You can do this.