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Where is your True North Star?

Sharing the vision

2 April, 2020

Nicolas Bonnet, former Head of Product and Data Science at Branch, suggests establishing OKRs and goals for your team that are aligned with the value of the product as perceived by the user.


As a head of product for software companies, I have long struggled to figure out personal product manager accountability vs. team accountability. I wanted to build team incentives where those two things worked alongside one another as opposed to based on individual incentives.

I hate to generalize, but PMs are often competitive, have a type A personality, and want to work on the product with the biggest “name a vanity metric here.” But the truth is that product management is a team sport with dependencies. Product managers depend on each other, on components, and on horizontal capabilities.

All of these need the same level of attention and care as does the work that is, to speak of, strictly their own. This is all necessary to ensure that everybody is successful. So how do you get everyone aligned and excited to work together while also giving them objectives that drive individuals and the team towards success?

Actions taken

My product team and I took it upon ourselves to initiate a product analytics project. We decided to step back from vanity metrics and instead wanted to quantify and measure the value of the product as perceived by the customer. We determined that our vanity metrics, the metrics we were looking at before, gave us a biased view of the world.

If, for example, we received a high usage number, we couldn’t directly correlate that to generating an abundance of value for the user. Perhaps they were exceedingly engaged because the product didn’t allow them to do what they wanted. The idea was to develop a metric that was completely aligned with the value of the product as perceived by the customer. We wanted to measure the true value of our products according to our users. Once this was established, we could then incrementally measure our product development work in regards to our North Star metric, prioritizing work accordingly during planning.

This was a very complex effort and might be so for others depending on the business. The details of how we actually did this are specific to our company and will therefore vary greatly across the industry. The biggest impact, though, was on the product team’s sense of collective accountability.

Our product team had multiple components, one was a freemium product and the other was a paid product. Everybody wanted to work on the paid product even though the freemium was critically important to the success of the paid product. Previously, we didn’t have the framework to say how much the freemium contributed to the overall value perceived by the customer. This prohibited us from resourcing more engineers to work in this area. However, through this framework we managed to raise awareness and visibility on the freemium components of our product suite which were underserved until then. It completely turned around how we thought about resourcing engineers and product managers for each of the different aspects of the product.

Lessons learned

  • This is a long-term initiative that requires executive support because what you find might shift the performance metrics of your own or other groups.
  • You might get pushback from your PMs because they will want to continue working on the shiny objects. The framing of this OKR will require cultural adjustments that should be taken into discretion.
  • I recommend getting the support of both the head of product and the head of engineering so that you have a foundation for work prioritization. By doing so, everyone will understand why certain work needs to be done in relation to how it increases the customer perceived value. For work that is not aligned with value as perceived by customers, have a forum to discuss if it should even be undertaken.
  • Do not boil the ocean by attempting to measure all the intangibles. However, I strongly believe that this type of initiative is well worth the effort.
  • This is a transformational process. It can take a while to shift from a task-oriented strategy to the North Star strategy. Despite this, once PMs and individuals are aligned they will begin to prioritize the way they think. It’s the development of a habit, so it won’t happen overnight.

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