Troubleshooting: Fixing Issues and Avoiding Traps
In this chapter, you will learn:
- The two categories of problems you might experience as you build your North Star
- How to improve shared understanding by mapping beliefs, aligning your North Star to your product vision, and identifying your key value exchanges
- How to identify and avoid common traps
Some teams are able to converge on a North Star Metric and its Inputs after a short workshop session and a bit of follow-up. Other teams require more facilitation, collaboration, and troubleshooting. And that is OK. You want your North Star to reflect the heart of your product strategy and your value to customers, so it’s worth taking time to resolve misunderstandings and ensure alignment.
The difficulties teams experience often fall into two categories: struggling with shared understanding, or falling into common traps.
Category 1: The team needs shared understanding
If you’re experiencing this, try:
- Surfacing beliefs
- Connecting the North Star to your product vision
- Understanding key value exchanges
Category 2: The team needs help avoiding common traps
If you’re experiencing this, watch out for:
- Jumping immediately to “Can we measure that?”
- Focusing on the North Star Metric only, not the Inputs
- Insisting you need more than one North Star Metric
- Letting current dysfunction overwhelm your ability to improve
If you are facilitating a North Star workshop, we recommend that you read this chapter so you can be prepared for misunderstandings or challenges that might bubble up. With these actionable tips in your back pocket, you’ll be able to cut through conflict and align your team.
Creating Shared Understanding
Often, if a team seems to struggle to converge on its North Star, it’s because teammates lack a common understanding of their product’s purpose or what customers value. If your team is struggling with shared understanding, we suggest you dig into beliefs, your product vision, and key value exchanges.
Every person in an organization approaches a business problem or product opportunity with beliefs and biases. These often describe:
- Assumptions about what your customers value
- Assumptions about causation or results of actions
- Theories about where the market is going
- Predictions about technology trends
- Conjecture about competitors’ strategy or position
- Opinions about the value you provide to your market
We’ve found that identifying these beliefs can help you define and implement an effective North Star. If you fail to uncover the beliefs of your colleagues, you may leave unresolved tensions within a team, miss opportunities to align, and overlook unique perspectives about your product.
The following are examples of statements that contain beliefs.
- “I am sure that customers aren’t able to use the product successfully without the advice of our implementation services. We need to increase our investment in implementation services to stay ahead of our competitors.”
- “Machine learning is the next big thing in this industry. We need to have a chatbot driven by machine learning to keep up.”
- “This kind of technology will become a commodity in 3-5 years, rendering our efforts to build this in-house obsolete.”
- “Customers leave us because we can’t easily integrate with their third-party systems.”
- “If we don’t improve the mobile app to the level of our competition, we’ll never take market share from them.”
- “After the next election, the regulatory environment affecting our product will change.”
How to Identify Beliefs that Inform a North Star
One simple way to identify beliefs: Ask your North Star team to spend a few minutes independently filling in one or more of these templates. The goal at this point is to cast a wide net that catches biases and assumptions, so be sure to remind your team that there are no wrong answers.
- Our direct competition is [……………]. We are disrupting legacy options like [……………]. In turn, [……………] may disrupt us.
- One technology change that will affect us is [……………]. This change will impact us because [……………]. As a response, we will [……………].
- I think the real reason we win new customers is because [……………].
- I believe [*some behavior in our market*] is due to [*reason*].
- If we focus on meeting [*a specific customer need*], and do that extremely well, we will have some leeway when it comes to [*less important challenges*].
Designers and Developers Should Embrace Belief Elicitation
Many product designers are concerned that decision makers don’t understand the ROI of user experience (UX). Similarly, developers often struggle to explain the value of non-feature or non-customer-facing work, like tooling, refactoring, and technical debt reduction.
Belief mapping is a great opportunity to get these concerns on the table. Developers should explain what they believe will happen if technical debt continues to mount. Designers should outline how they believe that under-investment in UX will result in customer pain.
Connecting the North Star to Your Product Vision
Your business may have already done the important work of crafting a product vision statement. These existing statements of product vision can be great catalysts to teasing out a good North Star.
As your team defines your North Star, review your product vision statement. Ask yourself: *What does this statement say that is distinct or foundational? What can we learn about our product’s value from this statement?*
Examples of Product Vision Statements that Can Inform a North Star
Here are a couple hypothetical vision statements of fictional products. Note how these statements contain insights about the product’s value that might help a product team design a good North Star.
Hypothetical Vision Statement 1:
“For the film aficionado, our documentary streaming service is the world’s most authoritative source of expertly curated short films, expert commentary, and informed community.”
What we learn from this statement:
- The product isn’t for everyone; it’s for aficionados.
- The product doesn’t endeavor to be comprehensive. A relatively small selection of films is a feature, not a bug.
- The films in the service’s library are short.
- “Authoritative” is a key characteristic of the service.
- The service is differentiated from competitors through quality of curation, commentary, and a community of like-minded people.
Questions this statement raises:
- Does the company differentiate through deep technical expertise in video streaming?
- Communities are hard. How will the company build a community?
Hypothetical Vision Statement 2:
“For the boutique maker of bottled goods, our label-design app is the most reliable way to produce high-quality but affordable label designs that fit your manufacturing workflow while distinguishing your product on the shelf and your brand in the marketplace.”
What we learn from this statement:
- This product isn’t for huge brands; small, boutique customers are the target.
- Reliability is critical.
- Affordability is a distinguishing characteristic.
- The labels need to fit into a manufacturing workflow.
- The customer’s real value is how a label distinguishes its product and brand.
Questions this statement raises:
- Does the app need to integrate with third-party applications?
- How is the label-design app distinct from more generic and widely available layout and graphics production tools?
Some teams find that their vision is too broad to inform their North Star—or maybe the vision doesn’t exist at all. Such teams should consider revisiting their beliefs and collaboratively defining their product vision.
There are many models for writing a vision statement. One simple template was popularized by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm
For [target customer] who [need or opportunity], the [product] is a [product category] that [key benefit]. Unlike [competitive alternative], our product [statement of primary differentiation].
Don’t Manufacture Certainty when Formulating Your Strategy
We’ve seen it happen repeatedly: when a team is expected to finalize a strategy, they may manufacture certainty. The team equates their uncertainty with a lack of confidence or skill. So they manufacture a strong point of view, even when—below the surface—there are a lot of questions lurking. Your North Star and Inputs should represent your current thinking, wants, questions, and all.
For example, a team we worked with was under a great deal of pressure to come up with a personalization strategy. Their presentations were impressive, and they incorporated this element into their North Star Framework, but the team glossed over key assumptions about the limits of personalization.
The North Star and Key Value Exchanges
Even with complex products, you can typically isolate a handful (3-6) of essential actions or events where customers derive value from the product. These key value exchanges demonstrate the true essence and intent of the product. If possible, they should be reflected in your North Star.
To identify key value exchanges, visualize the customer journey. As you do, note those important moments where your product solves a problem for the customer or enhances a customer’s ability to accomplish a goal. These moments—where the customer’s investment in time, attention, energy, money, are rewarded with meeting their needs—are the key value exchanges.
Tristan Harward, a UX Manager at Rapid7, recommends starting with a short collaborative activity to make a high level map of all the activities your users go through in your product. “Try to brainstorm or capture every major thing users do or accomplish on post-its, then identify what’s most valuable afterward by voting or rating,” suggests Tristan. “That way, you’ll get a more complete view of the journey to value.”
By organizing the key activities in your product, you’ll start to see patterns in value you might not have picked up on otherwise, and that’s a good start.
Tristan Harward, UX Manager at Rapid7
To jump-start your North Star process, it’s useful to capture your existing shared understanding of your customer experience. It’s even better to include existing research that you may have already done, or to follow up with additional research to understand what your users really value. As Tristan says, “By organizing the key activities in your product, you’ll start to see patterns in value you might not have picked up on otherwise, and that’s a good start.”
For many products, some key value exchanges happen outside the actual product—for example, the concert-goer arriving at their chosen seat is a key value exchange for a ticketing app. Don’t exclude these important stories just because they don’t occur within the product itself. You may also find yourself guessing about the customer journey, or using an idealized version of the journey. This is a good signal to either do a bit more research, or to make those assumptions explicit (e.g. “We’re not exactly sure if this is what our customers are doing, but this is our best guess at the moment”).
Examples of Key Value Exchanges:
- The delivery arrives intact outside your apartment in under 30 minutes
- Monthly account reconciliation was successful
- A collaborator makes their first comment on your design
- “Wow. This music recommendation is actually pretty decent.”
- Based on the logging, it looks like the SDK is working
- Your significant other says, “Yes!”
- Your medication arrives before you need to call for a refill
- Your student was pre-registered for the next courses in their degree plan at days and times that fit their preferences
Avoiding Common Traps and Resolving
Avoid these common problems as you design your North Star
Has your team struggled to converge on a North Star? First of all, that’s normal (and valuable). If you’re struggling, spend some time digging into potential causes of this disagreement and divergence.
We’ve noticed several challenges that teams might experience.
1. Jumping Immediately to “Can we measure that?”
Yes, “measurable” is a characteristic of a good North Star on our checklist, but watch out for getting too concerned too soon with determining exactly how you’ll calculate the metric or its Inputs. This is especially common for companies with a long history of struggling to predict customer success. They disregard promising concepts because they aren’t yet sure how to measure them.
It’s important to focus on important decisions and on reducing uncertainty, as Douglas W. Hubbard’s book How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business reminds us.
Myth: When you have a lot of uncertainty, you need a lot of data to tell you something useful.
Fact: If you have a lot of uncertainty now, you don’t need much data to reduce uncertainty significantly. When you have a lot of certainty already, then you need a lot of data to reduce uncertainty significantly. In other words—if you know almost nothing, almost anything will tell you something.
For example, say you’re converging on the idea of Project Health as a North Star Metric. You agree that Project Health is a hallmark of your product strategy, and your sales team already pitches Project Health to the market. However, you aren’t yet measuring Project Health—you don’t even know how you would measure it. Don’t disregard the metric. Instead, identify how you might measure it, even if it’s imperfect. After all, you need to start somewhere. If you could simply reduce uncertainty regarding your claims and focus, imagine what that might be worth.
2. Focusing on the North Star Metric Only, Not the Inputs
Even after teams review the product formula and examples of the combined effect of a North Star Metric and Inputs, it can be difficult to shift focus from driving the metric to driving the Inputs.
By design, the North Star Metric is not immediately actionable—the Inputs are where you apply actions.
If you find yourself thinking only about the metric, revisit Inputs. Do some brainstorming or group mind-mapping about the formula of Inputs that produces the metric, and vice versa. It is perfectly normal to jump back and forth between the two. Try the depth, breadth, frequency, and efficiency heuristic, asking the team how it translates to your product and business.
3. Insisting You Need More Than One North Star Metric
Workshop participants are often sure that their company needs more than one North Star. Certainly, in some cases, when a company has distinct lines of business with different customer bases, this might be true. However, the number of times one metric will suffice outnumbers situations that require multiple North Stars by a large margin.
Here’s an example. A large bank has dozens of consumer banking “products” (savings accounts, checking accounts, investment accounts, etc.). From a balance sheet and organizational chart perspective, it makes sense to call each of these things “products.” But do customers view these as distinct products? Or do they view the bank as a single product: a trustworthy partner in their quest for financial independence? In this case, a single North Star for all consumer banking products is usually appropriate.
4. Letting Current Dysfunction Overwhelm Your Ability to Improve
In workshops, we often observe a moment when the real world catches up to a team. They start with enthusiasm, but then realize that their company has so many problems that they fear they can’t ever actually change. It’s the classic “it’ll never work here” syndrome, exacerbated by the lack of a common framework.
Your company may currently do many things imperfectly. You focus on vanity metrics, chase short-term revenue, run a feature factory, crank out features to close deals, organize around the tech stack (not value streams), or routinely abuse metrics and KPIs. That’s natural, and shouldn’t prevent you from making progress towards the North Star Framework. There are two strategies here that can be especially effective:
- Start where you are. Get it all on the table. What is the current strategy, imperfections and all? How does all that prescriptive work map to that strategy? How does that A/B testing really map into customer satisfaction? Acknowledge imperfections in what you’re doing now, but don’t let them stop you from making progress. Just start using the language of the framework, socialize assumptions, and slowly chip away.
- Start small. Don’t try to do too much. Pick a product scope you have an ability to impact, even if it just represents a small percentage of your company’s business. Then build and test a North Star—the metric, the Inputs, the results they impact—for just that portion of your company or product portfolio.
Chapter in Review
- Everyone approaches a business problem with preconceived beliefs. Identify these beliefs to become more aligned and to converge on a North Star.
- A good North Star reflects your product vision.
- Key value exchanges, the moments where your customer experiences the value of your product, can help you identify your North Star.
- Watch out for a handful of common traps and issues.