Finding Your North Star


A North Star describes an organization’s overarching goal and purpose – one that goes beyond profits. It is meant to illustrate a desirable future and signals how the organization will help to create that future, even though it may not be reached in a lifetime. A North Star should be seen from anywhere in the organization to motivate employees and help them prioritize.

How Does a North Star Differ from Vision, Mission or Purpose?

Numerous terms convey ideas similar to a North Star. Some people say that vision is where you are going, mission is how you are getting there, and metrics evaluate your success.

What’s missing is the ‘why’ – this is the North Star. You might also call it your corporate purpose, or even vision or mission. We use the term North Star because it offered the best visual for the Compass. Whatever term you use, make sure it clearly defines your organization’s overarching goal or purpose.

Here are a few examples of North Stars from organizations Innovation North has partnered with that are short, simple, and aspirational:

Financial security for Canadians and our communities.

To advance how Canadians connect with each other and the world.

GM Logo

A world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.

Financial security for Canadians and our communities.

To provide trusted energy that enhances people’s lives, while caring for each other and the Earth.

Connecting the world to share food and care for one another.

Why Have a North Star?

There are many reasons for having a North Star. This list isn’t complete, but it does give you an idea of why it’s especially important for innovators:

Prevents Short-Sightedness

In the face of uncertainty, people tend to narrow their field of view and often worry about losing what they already have. Innovators search for information that is most readily available, instead of using a North Star to take a long-term view.

If you’ve ever been downhill skiing or driven a car faster than your capabilities, you likely want to look at what’s right in front of you. The risk of a catastrophic accident increases as you focus closer and closer. Looking up and ahead gives a long-term perspective to avoid a catastrophic mistake.

Builds Internal Efficiencies and Consistency

Organizations today are bombarded with exciting or important opportunities – new clients, new projects, and new technologies. Choosing which ones to move forward can be difficult and it is often easier to simply take the ones that can be executed quickly. This can result in organizations working on mixed activities with no clear purpose.

Take a power and utilities business with significant research and development capabilities for example. When a potential client comes to the innovators with significant capital, it’s easy for them to accept the opportunity to generate revenue. Yet, by accepting these contracts, all business activities result in relatively few synergies. It becomes challenging for leaders to describe what the organization does and where they’re headed. A North Star would help the business have internal efficiencies and consistency in the type of contracts they accept.

Attracts, Retains and Engages Employees

People like working for companies that aspire for something greater than profits. Gen Z in particular values meaningful work – they are even willing to take lower pay to work for a company that aspires to something beyond profits. When employees are passionate about the purpose of the organization, they are more likely to be inspired to think outside the box and explore new possibilities. They are often highly motivated and want to work with others to make the world better.

Guided by a North Star, motivated talent will align their work toward the desirable future that the organization wants to create. Ambitions and hopes become realities as every new product, process or service moves the organization one step closer.

How to Find a North Star

North Star Icon

Every innovation should start with the North Star. This will guide the innovation toward a higher, long-term goal that is aligned with the organization’s purpose.

You can find the North Star by asking leaders at the organization what desirable future they see. You might even find it on your organization’s website or in annual reports.

As the innovation is created, it should be scrutinized against the North Star, not just once, but often to ensure that it aligns with the destination. New products, services, or activities advance towards the North Star; they are not ends in themselves. They form a portfolio of aligned activities, as opposed to stand-alone initiatives.

To learn more about the North Star and how it guides systems innovations, visit The Compass.

Recap: A North Star describes the organization’s overarching goal and purpose – the ‘why’ that goes beyond profits. North Stars prevent short-sightedness, build internal efficiencies and consistencies, and attract motivated talent. A North Star should guide new innovations and be visible by everyone in the organization.