Chapter 4

Getting Started: Running a North Star Workshop

In this chapter, you will learn:

  • Suggestions for conducting your own North Star workshop
  • Who should participate in your initial North Star workshop
  • Several activities you can complete as a team
  • What you should expect to accomplish by the end of the workshop

Running your Own North Star Workshop

In just an hour or two, teams can run their own North Star workshop to identify candidates for their North Star Metric and Inputs.

In a focused, collaborative North Star workshop, colleagues from different parts of the organization come together, participate in generative activities, and produce some pretty incredible results. With just a little preparation, you can run your own North Star workshop to kick off your North Star journey.

A North Star workshop doesn’t need to be overly complex. We’ve run many successful workshops in just 60-120 minutes. At the end of this workshop, your team will develop strong candidates for your own North Star Metric and Inputs.

Some teams then conduct additional workshop sessions to precisely define their North Star metric and Inputs, to strengthen the connection between their North Star and their strategy, or to align the North Star to their existing development processes. Other teams address these deeper topics outside of workshops. Whether you do this deeper work in additional collaborative workshop sessions or in smaller sub-teams, we suggest you start together in a focused workshop session.

A typical agenda for a 120-minute North Star workshop:

  • 15 minutes Opening discussion on the reasons for the North Star
  • 15 minutes Activity: Identify the game you are playing
  • 15 minutes Discussion and activity: What makes a good (and bad) North Star
  • 15 minutes Discussion: The structure of the north star and Inputs
  • 15 minutes Activity: Identify a North Star for another product
  • 30 minutes Drafting your own North Star and converging

Who to Include

North Star workshops are most successful when the team has the following characteristics:

  • A skilled facilitator: Someone on the team will need to serve as an unbiased facilitator for the workshop. The facilitator will set the agenda, organize the meeting, lead discussions, and guide the team through activities.
  • Familiarity with the framework: The team certainly doesn’t need to be an expert on the North Star Framework. We’ve seen successful workshops where none of the participants had ever worked with the framework before. However, at the very least, the facilitator should familiarize himself or herself with the framework’s structure, connections, and implications. We suggest the facilitator read this entire playbook before the workshop and distribute it to workshop participants.
  • Diverse group of experts: Participants should cover the fundamental areas of your product and business: engineering, finances, design, product management, analytics, sales, and marketing. This should also include key decision-makers and organizational influencers.
  • Data and Insights: Colleagues with key insights about customer needs and behavior, market data, and other qualitative and quantitative insights are vital. You should also include people who frequently interact with your users and customers and can represent their point of view.

Qualitative insights are as important as quantitative data

Don’t neglect qualitative research. Remember, your quantitative data is a reflection of what people do with your product now. To create an effective North Star, discover how people want to use your product and describe their needs and priorities. Stories are as important as statistics.

  • Systems thinkers. Recruit colleagues who are comfortable with using conceptual models, understanding dynamic behavior, recognizing interconnections, identifying feedback, and creating simulation models. See Krystyna Stave and Megan Hopper’s What Constitutes Systems Thinking?: A Proposed Taxonomy for more on systems thinking.

Create safety by reiterating the purpose of the North Star Framework

One common trap is confusing the North Star Framework with a cascading goal framework to track employee performance. Remember, the North Star Framework’s purpose is to use metrics and Inputs to guide a product’s ability to satisfy customers and contribute to business success, not to monitor employee performance.

 

Psychological safety is an important part of building a successful team because it allows people to speak their minds, raise objections, or make mistakes without fear of punishment or loss of status. You can foster a psychologically safe environment by openly pointing out your own mistakes, celebrating challenges to decisions, and fostering an environment where team members can safely take risks.

 

Why is this important? Often, the first big hurdle is fear that this new model will be used to measure or even control employees. When viewed that way it can be pretty threatening.

 

A safer approach is to emphasize that the team is accountable for one thing: iterating on the model and ensuring it reflects reality. Often, that language and perspective is enough to quell people’s fear.

How many people should be included in your workshop?

While you want diverse representation, avoid including too many people in your initial North Star workshop. According to Stanford Business professor Robert Sutton, “larger teams place often overwhelming ‘cognitive load’ on individual members.” Sumatton, who studies the composition of effective teams, says people are most effective when working in groups of “seven plus or minus two”.

Our guideline: keep your group as small as possible, provided you include representation from each critical discipline in your company. Eventually, you will end up building a broader network of advocates, but for now, you’re selecting key contributors to help you get the North Star off the ground.

Workshop Opening Discussion

Ground your team in shared understanding about the North Star Framework.

We like to start a North Star workshop with a healthy discussion about the reasons we’re gathering, the problems we’d like to solve, or the changes we’d like to make.

Here are some questions to pose during your opening discussion:

  • What would it look like if we had a greater sense of impact in our work?
  • Do we all clearly understand our product strategy? What prevents us from having clarity?
  • What does it mean to be product-led?
  • How is our investment in product now connected to future business performance? What’s the relationship between product work and our financial results?

Workshop Discussion: Identify the Game You are Playing

Your company is likely playing one of three games. Understanding which one can help you identify your North Star.

Based on our research of products at over 11,000 companies and analysis of three trillion user actions, Amplitude has categorized digital products into one of three possible games.

  • The Attention Game
    How much time are your customers willing to spend in your product?
  • The Transaction Game
    How many transactions does your customers make in your product?
  • The Productivity Game
    How efficiently and effectively can someone get their work done?

At your workshop, you should discuss these games. The question for participants: which game is our business playing?

While you might think you are playing all of these games, we’ve found that encouraging workshop participants to pick a single game is most fruitful.

For example, if you are playing the Productivity game, you must understand that your user chooses your product because she has a job to do. She wants to do it efficiently and without errors. In fact, a measure of success may be that she’s using your product less.

This is very different from the game of Attention, where time spent in the product is more likely to indicate satisfaction. You know you are successful when your user is absorbed in your product and using it more.

If you’re playing a Transaction game, on the other hand, you have a different set of challenges: helping customers find the right product for their needs, enact transactions effortlessly, and track production and delivery.

Stay focused on value exchange

The game should be tied to the event that creates value. For example, I’ve worked with the app team for a major sports league. In their app you can consume free content but also buy different variations of a season pass for premium content, including broadcasts of games. Their initial reaction to a North Star discussion was that they’re playing the transaction game because the user is purchasing a season pass. But a user could buy the pass, never see a single game, and stop their subscription. So that’s not quite right. Instead, their game is attention. That’s the value exchange.

 

If you’re not certain which game you’re playing, ask yourselves which of these sets of statements most closely corresponds to your product, or which of these products is most similar to yours.


You are playing the Attention Game…

If you find yourself saying this:

  • Our business benefits directly if customers spend more time with our product.
  • We want customers’ mindshare.
  • Customers use our product to read, watch, listen, and play.

Or your product is similar to this:

  • Facebook (social networking)
  • Netflix (online video)
  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution (newspaper)

Example of an Attention oriented North Star Metric:

  • Company: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (newspaper)
  • North Star Metric: Regular readers
  • Definition: Number of subscribers consuming more than 7 articles per month

You are playing the Transaction Game…

If you find yourself saying this:

  • Our business benefits directly if customers participate in the economy using our product.
  • We want customers’ wallets.
  • Payments and commerce are important to us.
  • Customers use our product to purchase, order, measure, transact, and track.

Or your product is similar to this:

  • Amazon (retail and logistics)
  • Walmart (discount retail)
  • Progressive Insurance (personal insurance)

Example of a Transaction oriented North Star Metric:

  • Company: Walmart (discount retailer)
  • North Star Metric: Full Carts
  • Definition: Number of monthly purchases that contain over a certain number of items.

You are playing the Productivity Game…

If you find yourself saying this:

  • Our business benefits directly if customers efficiently accomplish tasks using our product.
  • Efficiency and achievement are important to us.
  • Customers use our product to make, work, complete, configure, and build.

Or your product is similar to this:

  • Salesforce (business & customer management software)
  • Adobe (design and publishing software)
  • LexisNexis (legal research)

Example of a Productivity oriented North Star Metric:

  • Company: LexisNexis (legal research)
  • North Star Metric: Actionable Searches
  • Definition: Percentage of searches that return results selected by users within the first five results.

Workshop Activity: What Makes a Good (and Bad) North Star

Review the characteristics of a good North Star—and try to identify a bad one.

During your workshop, spend some time reviewing the North Star checklist. Ask yourselves how this checklist applies to your own product. For example, discuss what it means for a metric to be aligned to your product vision, or what a common vanity metric might be at your organization or in your industry.

One activity we’ve found fruitful is to spend a few minutes brainstorming what would be a terrible North Star for your company. These anti-examples free participants’ thinking, and they can set boundaries that will be helpful when you are actually defining your metric and Inputs later on.

Workshop Discussion: The Structure of the North Star and the Product Formula

You can think of the North Star Metric and its Inputs as a kind of formula or equation.

It’s important that workshop participants understand the basic structure of the North Star Framework, including the metric and Inputs. Initially, participants might focus on determining a metric only, when in fact the relationship between the metric and the Inputs is critical. It’s the Inputs that are the actionable factors that, in combination, contribute to the North Star Metric. We like to think of the Inputs as the causes that are likely to produce an effect.

Think About Your North Star as a Formula

To determine your metric and Inputs, think conceptually about your North Star as a formula or equation (though few North Stars and Inputs act as true, mathematical functions). As you do, consider the things that you, the product team, can truly influence. The North Star Metric is a function of a handful of factors. How would you define those factors?

To determine your metric and Inputs, think conceptually about your North Star as a formula or equation.

While this formula approach oversimplifies all the stuff that makes a business succeed, it’s a helpful metaphor for isolating the most important and actionable factors.

A Common Input Pattern: Breadth, Depth, Frequency, and Efficiency

One heuristic that we have found helpful when teams are coming up with Inputs is considering Breadth, Depth, Frequency, and Efficiency. The Inputs to a North Star Metric often follow this pattern, which can easily be adapted to different contexts.

For example, a somewhat straightforward North Star Metric for a high volume e-commerce business like Instacart is “total monthly items received on time by customers.” Using the breadth, depth, frequency, and efficiency heuristic, the Inputs for this North Star Metric could be:

  • Breadth: number of customers placing orders each month
  • Depth: number of items within an order
  • Frequency: number of orders completed per customer each month
  • Efficiency: Percentage of orders delivered on time

No matter the industry you’re in or the game you’re playing, you can often adapt Breadth, Depth, Frequency, and Efficiency to fit your product.

Workshop Activity: Build a North Star for Another Product

To free your thinking from constraints, warm up by coming up with your own, hypothetical examples of North Star Metrics for products you are familiar with.

For example, pose this challenge to your workshop participants: “Many of us have used OpenTable to book reservations at a restaurant. Let’s think of a good North Star for OpenTable.” Then break into small groups, imagining you are on the OpenTable product team.


OpenTable Product

  • OpenTable allows people to discover restaurants, read reviews, and make online reservations.

OpenTable Business Model

  • Free for diners
  • Restaurants pay a base platform subscription fee, and a per-reservation flat fee

Each group should:

  • Identify the game you are playing.
  • Determine your Product North Star Metric.
  • Break down the North Star into key Inputs that you can use as building blocks for a product growth model.

This worksheet can help teams work through this challenge.

You can download and print the North Star Worksheet

You also can show teams a completed worksheet for another product, like this worksheet for Spotify.

Keep the following cheat sheet handy if teams have any trouble.

At the end of the exercise, everyone should share their worksheets and discuss why they chose the metric and Inputs for this other product.

Workshop Activity: Collect Candidates for Your Own North Star

Everyone on the team should define their own candidate for your North Star Metric and Inputs.

All the initial discussions and warm-up activities should help you with the most significant activity of the workshop: working on your own North Star. Start by getting candidates from your participants.

Rather than everyone collaborating aloud, we like to use a silent brainstorming technique for this. Ask everyone on the North Star team to spend 5-10 minutes in a silent brainstorm with the blank worksheet used in the OpenTable activity above.

To help the participants, you might share the checklist of criteria on a screen, so everyone can think about what makes a good North Star Metric.

Why Silent Brainstorming?

Typical brainstorming sessions tend to be dominated by a handful of vocal quick thinkers—the introverts and deliberators are stifled. Secondly, teams quickly start building on the first few ideas suggested and don’t give enough consideration to entirely different approaches.

 

We prefer silent brainstorming, where teammates are given time to quietly consider a problem on their own, and then they each share their ideas in pairs or small subgroups and build on them, before sharing with a larger group. Silent brainstorming works especially well with fill-in-the-blank templates or other simple constraints.

Pair and Share

After spending time in silent reflection, it’s great to pair up with a partner. Partners can share their ideas with each other, refining each other’s concepts.

Finally, share candidates with the group. Evaluate them against the checklist and look for differences and commonalities. Some teams prefer a more formal process with voting, ranking, and sorting (e.g. Bubble Sort), or scoring each candidate metric against each item in the Criteria for a Good North Star checklist. That’s fine, but keep in mind that it is the conversations that really count.

Rachel Bethany, Amplitude’s manager of APAC Customer Success and workshop veteran, remarks, “Teams always seem surprised or concerned when there is debate and disagreement generated by the North Star presentation, but I usually think those are the best moments. It makes it so clear—so quickly—where teams are not well aligned and what the impact of that is.”

Just Get Some Candidates on the Table

If you and your team are stuck, get a handful of candidates on the table. Don’t worry about being “right.” Throw in some terrible North Star Metrics for fun and contrast. You’ll find that some candidates make more sense than others, and that talking through options can help surface implicit beliefs.

 

You also can develop options quickly with the help of a fill-in-the-blank template.

 

Here’s one we like:

 

“I would be more confident that our current product strategy was working to set us up for sustainable long-term growth, if I observed an increase in *insert customer characteristic behavior or characteristic*, which we could measure by *insert formula and tactics for measuring*. “For example, here is a completed template for a hypothetical company: “I would be more confident that our current product strategy was working to set us up for sustainable long-term growth, if I observed an increase in *customers thoughtfully reflecting on our content*, which we could measure by *the number of posts made in ‘reflections’ discussion board after viewing a film.*

 

A trap to watch out for is getting bogged down in the specifics of the definition (for example, ‘should it be users with 5 or more actions in 3 days, or 7 or more actions in 4 days?’) before coming up with a metric concept that is powerful and engaging.

Conclude the Workshop by Converging

During your workshop you’ve had generative discussions and likely developed a wealth of ideas. Conclude by converging: coming to agreement and confirming and documenting your decisions. What game are you playing? What are your strongest candidates for a North Star Metric and inputs? If you don’t have one or two leading candidates, what can you eliminate? And, what additional information will you need to finalize your decisions?

Some teams are able to dive right into defining the metric at the end of just one workshop. Often, though, this happens through follow-up discussions (see Chapter 4: Defining Your North Star for helpful facilitation tips). Whether you do it now or later, the next step will be precisely defining your North Star Metric and its Inputs.

Chapter in Review

  • You can conduct your own North Star Workshop in 1-2 hours.
  • A small, cross-functional group is a good structure for a North Star team.
  • To align a team and uncover assumptions, identify which of three games you are playing: Transaction, Attention, or Productivity.
  • Before working on your own North Star Metric and Inputs, discuss another product as a warm-up.
  • At the end of the workshop, collect candidates for your own metric and Inputs, pair and share, and then converge on the decisions you’ve made.

Download this playbook as a PDF