I sat in a presentation once in which the topic of discussion was mission statements and vision statements.  I've got to be honest, I still don't think there's much difference. As a matter of fact, a lot of time seems to be spent talking about what the actual difference is. It's kinda confusing.

Most companies have them though. Do you know yours? Maybe you do, maybe you don't but let me ask you this. Does it have any effect at all, on your day-to-day activities? Do you use it to help focus critical decision making? Not in my experience. Not even once.

Why is that?

The thing with vision and mission statements is that they exist purely in the future tense. They deliberately disregard the present and, after all, the present is the only thing we can act upon. What use is some idealistic, lofty goal when there are real burning issues that require our attention today? So eventually, we disregard them because they're not relevant to how we work today and after a little time, invent new ones. Better ones maybe.

The Missing Link

The idea of 'True North' is wildly different to that. It doesn't ask "Where would we like our organisation to be?", it asks "What makes us, us?", "What do we stand for?" or "What is the one value that we consider indispensable?". Hmmm, interesting!

People have a 'True North'. They are the things in our moral code that we define ourselves by. When we live by them, and act on them, they are the thing others define us by. That, dear reader, is profound.

I have a 'True North'. Mine is "Simple is better than complex. Complex is better than complicated." (yes, I stole that from the zen of python). Having that at the front of my mind has helped me stay focused and make difficult decisions without too much fuss or stress.  It has guided (dominated, actually) the majority of my career and personal life and I genuinely think I'm happier and more productive because of it. The same appears to be true of organisations that know theirs.

What is Your True North?

Deciding on your personal 'True North' is tricky for sure. Deciding on one that fits a whole organisation can be a minefield!

One approach that might work for you uses a couple of cognitive biases to our advantage.  The so called, negativity bias and the false dichotomy. We tend to recall negative events more easily than positive ones, and we like to simplify complex decisions into two options.

Let's look at some crises we've faced, the options we had and the decisions we made.

The outline of the approach is as follows.

  1. Get a reasonably broad selection of people from different areas of the organisation in one room. You'll get better results if you pick at least one trouble-maker.
  2. Think back and list a few things that have happened in your organisation that people don't like to remember. Bad days. No more than 4 or 5. Write them on something so everyone can see.
  3. Go through each one and talk about the black and white decisions you made on that day. Why did you make the choices you did? What if you took the other path? How did you feel? Write the reasons next to each event.
  4. Some of the things might be the same or similar. If you can, rework them into a single statement but don't get too abstract.
  5. Pick the best one.  You're not looking for the broadest agreement here.  That will get you the average which nobody will feel so strongly about. A good approach is giving people 10 votes or so and ask them to distribute them as they see fit.
  6. Communicate. You absolutely cannot under commit on this.  Put up posters, send emails, slack everyone!

Summary

Defining an organisations 'True North' is like describing it's character. It is a statement of which all decision making can be derived. That gives teams the kind of focus they need to genuinely excel and it gives managers all the direction they need to set key strategies and implement supporting tactics. I'll back that statement up when I get on to Hoshin Kanri and the X-Matrix.

The approach I talked about above will take an hour or two at worst. Give it a shot.