In the 1950s, strategic planning was around budgetary planning and control, then we jumped to 1970s which focused on corporate planning; 1980s focussed on strategic positioning, 1990s strategic competitive advantage; 2000s strategic and organisational innovation; 2010 complexity and rapid change.
Now, we are talking about North Star Metrics (NSM). The term has been in around since the 2000s and was used primarily in Silicon Valley. It has taken a while to reach Perth.
Here is our view of what the North Star means for SMEs.
If you are not familiar with North Star, it is another form of goal setting. Remember SMART goals (specific; measurable; achievable; realistic; and time-based)? And what about vision boards, or stepping stone goals or even a more recent fad of bullet journaling?
A North Star goal, in its basic form, has also been referred to as the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It is a goal so big, so far out there and it is not about the destination but more about the journey.
One article recommends to think of them “the way sailors view the North Star: A way to stay on course, no matter where you are. And if you don’t know where to go or what to do, all it takes is a quick glance to get back on track”.
If that is the basic form, let’s have a look at the metric in more detail.
Key steps for creating a North Star Metric
1. Start by Understanding How Customers Get Value
And not just any customers, but instead the “must have” customers who say they would be “very disappointed” if they could no longer use the product. Your goal is to expand this “must have value” across your existing and new customers. Your North Star Metric is how you quantify expansion of this value.
2. Should be Possible to Grow NSM “Up and to the Right” Over Time
A good rule of thumb is to choose a metric that can be “up and to the right” over a long period of time. This is why “Daily Active Users” is an example of a good NSM for consumer products like Facebook or online games.
3. Consider the Downsides of a Metric
Think through some scenarios where growing the metric could lead the team to behave in ways that are against the long-term interest of the business. For example, if you made your NSM “average monthly revenue per customer,” then the fastest way to grow this number would be to eliminate all customers that have a relatively low value — even if they are profitable customers. This would likely reduce your overall customer and revenue growth rate.
4. Keep it Simple
Remember that the point of the NSM is to align everyone on your team to work together to grow it. So, it’s important that it is simple enough for everyone to understand it and recall it.
5. Why Not Just Focus on Revenue Growth?
Revenue growth is very important, so this is a natural question that many people, especially business owners, ask. The challenge is that if revenue growth outpaces growth in the aggregate value that your product delivers to customers, it will not be sustainable. Revenue growth will eventually stall and start to decline. But if we can continue to grow aggregate value delivered to customers over time, then it becomes possible to sustainably grow revenue.
For example, let’s take the CFO Centre (CFOC).
How customers get value: CFOC provides highly experienced CFOs to SMEs on a part-time basis.
Grow NSM: the number of active clients
Downsides: CFOC needs to be able to service active clients and this is directly related to number of CFOs
Keep it simple: CFOC wants every SME to have access to a part-time CFO.
This is a big hairy audacious goal. We understand that the number of clients is limited by the number of CFOs but a North Star Metric isn’t necessarily pragmatic or utilitarian. It does, however, provide a direction for the SME and the business owner.
What is the North Star Framework?
In addition to the metric, the North Star Framework includes a set of key inputs that collectively act as factors that produce the metric. Product teams can directly influence these inputs with their day-to-day work.
This combination of metric and inputs serves three critical purposes in any company:
- It helps prioritise and accelerate informed, but decentralised, decision-making.
- It helps teams align and communicate.
- It enables teams to focus on impact and sustainable, product-led growth.
Personally, I would add to this:
Imagine you have your North Star Metric, next you define sub-metrics (break down big goal to smaller goals), define the outputs (key elements of success) of those goals, define how you will achieve those outputs (needs to be measurable) and finally, what are the inputs to reach the outputs.
The CFOC question
At the CFO Centre, we ask our clients: what do you want your business to do for you?
This is an important question as our goal is to build a relationship with a business owner and the questions starts our journey to better understand what is important to them.
The answer to this question can also be the basis of your North Star.
Is the North Star relevant to SMEs?
Overall, I like the concept of setting a North Star for a business but I much prefer the more basic approach: Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
I was in conversation with one business owner who had his North Star, or rather his Big Hairy Audacious Goal. He wants his business to be valued at $1bn by 2029. I thought this was brilliant and I think this is what North Stars are about.
Set your big goal but remember, it is more about the journey than the destination!
To qualify as a “North Star,” a metric must do three things: lead to revenue, reflect customer value, and measure progress.
Make it bold, tap into your dream and start the journey.
Types of Goal Setting – From North Star Goals to SMART to Bullet Journals – Leanne Calderwood; The North Star Approach to Goal Setting | by Patrick Ewers | Better Humans; What is a North Star metric? | Mixpanel; About the North Star Framework – Amplitude; North Star Metric: What Is It and How To Find It For Your Company – Kissmetrics; How To Find Your Company’s North Star Metric (forbes.com); Finding the Right North Star Metric | by Sean Ellis | Growth Hackers; What is the North Star Metric? Theory, benefits and examples | toolshero; What is the North Star for your Strategic Planning? | Insigniam Quarterly; Strategic guardrails for digital transformation | Deloitte Insights
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