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North star vision template & why you care enough to fill it out

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The North-Star is a symbol of direction and a tool for navigation.  It has been for centuries. It is independent of where the navigator is in their journey but always represents an ambitious direction. 

The North Star vision is a long-term vision, one that is always there, provides direction, inspires, is clear and visible, and attained with incredible difficulty.  It is not dependent on where you are today; it only exists in the future as a guide. 

Here is the challenge: to create something on purpose, you must first envision what you will create

Showing up to work every day, solving problems, and overcoming hurdles will not automatically build to something bigger.  

Worse, doing work today leads to more work tomorrow unless you purposefully create something different.  

Hiring people to do work also creates more work.  

If you cannot express to the people you hire what it is you and they are working toward, then they may do lots of earnest work, but it will never amount to anything more than the sum of their work.  Thanks to the law of diminishing returns, you will find that as you hire people, each additional person you hire will contribute less.  

This means that without a North Star Vision your team’s total work will be less than the sum of their individual contributions. 

Okay, I realize that is a little hard to digest, but hopefully, it will be clearer by the end of this post.  

The cure is to create a North Star Vision so that everyone knows what you are building.  So, read more to understand why you need a vision, how it impacts your business, and how to make one.  Download Template Here

Start here: without a vision, nobody knows where you are going; with a vision, everyone can take action

In the book “Made to Stick,” the authors (Chip Heath and Dan Heath) recount a story in which Herb Kelleher told someone that once you understand that, you can make decisions about the company’s future as well as he can.  

His example was “someone named Tracey from the marketing department” who “comes to your office and tells you that, based on a survey, passengers might enjoy a salad from Houston to Las Vegas.  But we serve only peanuts and would it be nice to serve chicken Ceasar salad.  How would you respond?”

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North star vision template & why you care enough to fill it out 5

I have been in many board rooms where just such a question would tie the executive team up in knots.

I’ve seen analytic committees and consultants hired to answer questions like this. McKinsey & Co created a whole business on making chicken Ceasar salad recommendations and being the scapegoat if those recommendations went the wrong way. 

Without the clarity of vision, employees who would otherwise do productive spend time on chicken salad analysis.  Everybody is busy doing lots of work, but they are not doing the right work; they are not building together to create something larger than themselves because they lack the clarity of vision. 

Once you understand that South West’s vision is to be the low-cost airline, you only have to ask one question: will serving a chicken Ceasar salad help make South West lower cost?  Of course not.  So, in Herb’s words: “if it doesn’t, then we are not serving any damn chicken salad.”

Great companies are built on great visions because they focus people today on achieving that vision tomorrow.  

When in the 1950s, Sony envisioned a world where Japanese products would be seen as quality products and where Japan would be seen as a technological leader.

They did this after a devastating war that killed millions and destroyed cities and used their vision to inspire the Japanese to build stronger and take a technological lead.

When in the 1900s, Ford envisioned a world where all workers could afford an automobile, he inspired his employees to work hard at monotonous jobs: they were doing something more than taping a screw. They were democratizing the car. 

When in the 1970s, Honda envisioned destroying Yamaha, their employees know whom they were after and what they were up to and were riled up to make ithappen.

Start with an inspiring, almost unattainable goal that is far off in the future

Targets and SMART Goals
Targets and SMART Goals

Your vision should be 10-20 years in the future.  We generally settle on 15.  But the actual number of years doesn’t matter.  It should be a period long enough for almost anything to be possible

Then create for that time frame a goal for your company that is inspiring and only attainable with focus, dedication, hard work, and perhaps a bit of luck. In other words, set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG, for that future

In their article “Building Your Company’s Vision,” James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras suggest that a BHAG only has a 50/50 or worse probability of success. Nobody could possibly do it alone, but everyone in the organization believes that together they can reach that goal.  

Collins and Porras identified four types of big hairy audacious goals.  These are:   

  • Targets, which are either quantitative or qualitative. You identify where your company will be in 15 years, a market leader, or $100 million.  
  • A common enemy goal which generally involves David versus Goliath-type thinking, such as displacing the number one company in your industry.  Or, as Honda put it in the 1970s, “destroy Yamaha.”
  • Role model goals, which work well for up-and-coming companies.  As in “we will become the Uber of dry cleaning.” 
  • Internal transformation goals focus on changing the organization – these are best for established companies or teams looking to change.  

Here are some examples from successful companies.  

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Once you have your BHAG, create a vivid description

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Describe vividly the future you want to create – so anyone can relate.

By definition, your objective doesn’t exist.  It is your goal; it is what you intend to achieve.  So it doesn’t exist today.  

Paint a picture and show your stakeholders what the world looks like when you are finished.  

This is the power that Ford brought to his vision of an automobile.  The company wasn’t just building cars; they were building “motorcars for the great multitude… priced so low that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

And that George Merck brought to Merck when he expressed his vision with words like: “We believe that research work carried on with patience and persistence will bring to industry and commerce new life; and we have faith that in this new laboratory, with the tool we have supplied, science will be advanced, knowledge increased and human life win ever greater freedom from suffering and disease.  

Or when Sony declared that as a result of their work, “Made in Japan” would mean something fine, not something shoddy.  

These companies achieved these visions not by completing them and then describing what they achieved but instead defining what they would achieve and then striving for it. 

We have to go back 30-100 years to find big visions and show their success because that is the length of time it takes to realize a BHAG.  

Your vision may not include taking over the world or redefining how the world perceives your nation.  You may not even want to be involved with your company in 15 years.  But for the company to thrive and for you to thrive as an entrepreneur, you must define where the company is going and create a vivid description that inspires everyone working to get there.  

Step-by-step instructions to create your vision

Decide whether you want to start with the BHAG or the vivid description.  

Design your vivid description

Often it is easier to start with a vivid description, here are some questions to get your started:

  • When we are sitting here 15 years from now, what would we have liked to create? 
  • What should this company look like in 15 years? 
  • What should the company have achieved?
  • If someone writes an article about this company in 15 years, what should it say? 
  • What is a 5-star review? What is a 10-star review? 

And then also consider how you want to define your BHAG. Think in terms of: 

  • What targets will you achieve? 
  • What common enemy can you overcome? 
  • What company might you emulate? 
  • What transformation do you want to see in your company? 

Finally, test the vision. For it to be useful, inspiring, and serve as a guide, it must satisfy these criteria:  

  • You personally identify with the vision. (Ask this of all of your leaders). 
  • The future is clear (words, metaphors, analogies, and/or pictures). 
  • It expresses your interests. 
  • You feel encouraged. 
  • It is clear how you make a difference for your stakeholders. 
  • It is a stretch, from where you are today, perhaps impossible. 
  • It is authentic.
  • The journey is worthwhile.
  • It is intellectually and emotionally energizing. 

To sum up

Your vision is yours.  It is a crucial part of the path and one that brings people together.  At the beginning of this post, I mention the law of diminishing returns.  The challenge is that as you add people, you add management complexity that leads to reduced output.  

Vision reduces management complexity.  It isn’t the only tool, but it is an important one.  Once people know where they are going, they can dedicate effort to getting there.  You move from diminishing returns to synergy where you get more productivity than the sum of the individual contributions.  Just tell people where they are going.   

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