The North Star: How to Create Measurable Passion in Our Organizations

North Star metric

More than a decade ago, I remember being in a strategic planning session, and we were tasked with crafting mission and vision statements for the organization.  In the midst of this session, a challenge emerged in the form of  a board member who staunchly advocated for longer mission and vision statements. He believed that extended narratives were crucial for capturing the depth of emotion and purpose behind our intentions.

At the time, I was acting in an interim leadership position within the organization, and couldn’t afford to make enemies of a board member.  No amount of coaxing, gentle persuasion or counter points could change this individual’s mind. His stance remained unshaken.

The turning point came, more than an hour into the discussion, when a visibly frustrated staff member finally blurted out, “ What good is a longer mission and vision if no one can remember it”?

This question served as a catalyst for the discussion that finally seemed to get through to the board member, who began to break down the walls he had erected around this issue and gave our discussion some latitude.

 I am glad to report that it clarified for the individual (and myself) how important it was to make these types of  statements less about the perfect combination of wordsmithing, but about forging a connection that could ignite the hearts and imaginations of all stakeholders.

Where It Has Taken Me

This memory has  fueled my work for well over a decade to advocate for simple language that everyone within our organizations can understand, but also to simplify traditional approaches to strategic planning.

 I think this is why I have been very passionate lately about getting organizations to adopt a North Star.  As discussed in  a past blog, developing a North Star and a North Star metric can simplify decision making, metrics tracking and develop a common vision across the entire organization. It makes goal setting easier, regardless of functional area, and gives everyone a common denominator to work from.

The trouble I had (and suspect that most of you will have), is deciphering how a North Star is different from a mission or vision.  At first, the North Star and its accompanying metric felt like more business jargon. As both a practitioner and consultant, I hated business jargon. It never appealed to me.  I prefer to keep language simple and direct.

However, the deeper I dug, and the more I worked with it, the  easier it became to see the value it offered. So today, I would like to offer you some insight into how I use the North Star, and how it differs from a traditional mission and vision and hope you can find some inspiration to adopt your own organizational “North Star”. 

Understanding the difference between a mission, a vision, and a North Star is crucial for strategic planning and guiding an organization toward long-term success. In these situations, I find it helpful to start with what we know and move to what we don’t know.

What We Know:


  • Definition: A mission statement defines the organization’s purpose, core values, and primary objectives. It answers the question of why the organization exists and what it seeks to accomplish in the present. The mission focuses on the organization’s current operations, its intended impact on its customers or beneficiaries, and how it differentiates itself from competitors.
  • Focus: Present activities and core purpose.
  • Example: A nonprofit organization’s mission might be “to provide immediate relief and long-term support to communities affected by natural disasters.”


  • Definition: A vision statement outlines what the organization aspires to become or achieve in the future. It’s a forward-looking declaration that sets a desired long-term goal or state. The vision is intended to inspire and motivate stakeholders by providing a clear picture of the organization’s direction and aspirations.
  • Focus: Future aspirations and desired impact.
  • Example: The same nonprofit’s vision could be “a world where everyone is provided with support and relief from natural disasters.”

What Is New?

North Star

  • Definition: The North Star is a specific, guiding metric or principle that aligns an organization’s efforts toward achieving its long-term goals. It serves as a focal point for decision-making, helping to ensure that daily activities contribute to the overarching objectives. Unlike the broad statements of mission and vision, the North Star is more concrete and measurable.
  • Focus: Guiding metric or principle that aligns short-term actions with long-term objectives. The North Star Metric MUST accompany the North Star to make it work. So if your North Star is maximizing the number of people who receive support following a disaster, the North Star metric might be “the number of individuals who return to stable living conditions within six months after a disaster,” focusing efforts on measurable outcomes that advance toward the vision and mission of the organization.

Key Differences

  • Temporal Focus: The mission is about the present—what the organization does today. The vision is about the future—what the organization aims to achieve over time. The North Star bridges the gap between the two, offering a measurable guidepost that informs current actions to achieve future aspirations.
  • Specificity and Measurability: Missions and visions are qualitative and inspirational, designed to motivate and provide direction. The North Star is quantitative (or at least more specific and actionable), providing a clear, measurable target that directs everyday operations and strategic decisions.
  • Role in Strategy: The mission provides the foundation and reason for being; it’s the core purpose. The vision gives a destination, offering a compelling picture of future success. The North Star acts as a compass, keeping the organization on course toward its vision, ensuring that immediate actions are aligned with long-term goals.

Similarities to SMART Goal Setting

Yes, a North Star is similar to Smart Goal setting–this I will concede. However think about the simplicity. Traditionally, we set a mission and vision. Then we set goals. Then we make them actionable and SMART. That is a lot of work.

Now consider the North Star. We set it. We identify ONE metric that represents our needs as an organization, and that is the SOLE goal we have as an organization. You can add more secondary goals, but ultimately every short and long term decision, has to support the achievement and furthering of this metric.

In essence, while mission and vision set the stage by defining purpose and aspiration, the North Star Metric provides a focused, measurable way to navigate towards these aspirations, ensuring that every step taken is in the right direction.

I know this is pretty heavy for a midweek blog. I get it. However, there has been a lot of discission lately about turnover in the sector. We need to make real change in this sector if we are going to be successful at retaining people, engaging stakeholders becoming more efficient and focused on what we do to achieve lasting results. 

I challenge you today to start discussions on adopting an organizational North Star metric, then drop me a line and let me know how it’s going. I guarantee, if properly implemented, it will change your organization for the better.

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