North Star Questions and Principles

I think it is easy to lose focus, especially in a startup. There is always too much to do, so much to learn and explore, changing pressures, limited resources…and the list goes on. For me, I gain comfort and clarity from North Star Questions and Principles.

These are a few key questions or ideas that either

  • remind me of my project’s priorities, or
  • help me make sense of whatever current overload I have to deal with.

I like to have 2 sets of questions/principles:

  • a general set (could be applied to most contexts)
  • a specific set (for my project)

Examples of a general set might include:

  • What do I hope to learn today? What am I testing?
  • Am I (we) in learning mode or production mode? If both, which is the higher priority?
  • Don’t try to solve too many problems. At best you’ll solve some partially and may solve none.
  • What are are the existential problems, i.e if don’t solve we are done?
  • What is the user on-ramp, i.e. way to ease a user’s transition/adoption of our idea?
  • Amazon/Jeff Bezos 2 Pizza Rule
  • Live Within Your Means
  • you have limited time/resources, so do what can be done in current context
  • (my obnoxious judgement is that even though this is a key idea in Lean Thinking/Startups, I’ve observed lots of behavior that ignores this principle)

Examples of specific questions/ideas might include:

  • If you were building an API
  • Power of 2: make sure to have two clients to draw out differences and commonalities
  • Economic models
  • we need to manage the cost of ____ (it poses an existential crisis for us)
  • (in SnapPost, this is the cost to produce a listing)

There are others and some of these might need more explanation, but I hope you get the idea.

The daily questions in a Strategy Bridge or Agile Standup are examples of North Star Questions.

These north stars can be useful when building a Strategy Bridge, during (or planning for) an IPM, or simply when you need to take a moment and collect your thoughts. You don’t always need to go through all of them; sometimes a single question can lead to an insight.

As with most ideas, I suggest you iterate. Periodically (every few weeks to a month) cull and prioritize the sets. I think 3–5 questions/ideas in each set are a good place to start, but more, or less, are fine.

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