Navigating Complex Projects with a North Star
As a social purpose brand, your mission is bold and your path is often difficult to navigate. The North Star is one of many useful tools in your strategic toolbox; a helpful guide as you spread your impact and move humanity forward.
If you’ve ever embarked on a complex strategic or creative project, you know how quickly things can get muddy, noisy, and convoluted. Although there’s usually a clear strategy or reason every project’s genesis, somewhere along the way the path begins to thin and meander, with unplanned challenges blocking your progress and exciting new opportunities pulling you in different directions like a powerful, invisible magnet.
As we embark on more complex, mission-critical projects with our clients, we’ve been thinking a lot about how to make sure we don’t let the minutiae distract us from the bigger picture. What are we actually trying to accomplish here? How can we be sure that we’re affecting fundamental positive change and impact for our clients? And how do we know the path we’re on will lead us to a destination and outcome that makes the journey worthwhile in the end?
These questions, and our dedication to creating lasting value through our client partnerships, have inspired us to improve and formalize our strategic phase at the onset of projects. Through research, meetings, and interviews we begin to wrap our arms around the scope of the problem. From here, clear goals, success metrics, and guiding principles are distilled into a comprehensive project strategy.
But project objectives can be nuanced—often containing different priorities and needs for different audiences and stakeholders—and are hard to track through the course of a larger project. It’s also common for project scope creep to occur as new insights, opinions, and requirements begin to manifest. It’s here The North Star shines most brightly.
The North Star is a unified distillation of our strategy; a wayfinding tool that leads both teams down the right path like a bright headlight illuminating a dark, unexplored cave.
What The North Star Is (And Isn’t)
The North Star is not a mission or vision statement, or any other part of your Brand Strategy for that matter. These larger fundamental strategic pillars fall outside of the scope of The North Star. The North Star’s purpose is contained by the boundaries of a specific project, campaign, or initiative. Of course it should also reinforce your larger brand purpose, mission, or vision and align with your target audience strategy. But these big-picture concepts can feel too broad and esoteric to help guide a particular project through completion.
The North Star is not meant to be used publicly, or (even internally) outside the scope of a particular project. The North Star frames complex strategies and goals into a memorable, digestible statement that creates a clarity of purpose and direction for the project. Sometimes, a North Star can double as a campaign theme or headline, but this isn’t a requirement.
It should lead you to the change you wish to create, the desired future state that sparked the inception of the project at hand. The North Star, simply put, is a statement of creative intent.
The North Star In Action
When we partnered with The Romero Institute to rethink their marketing website, we determined a key theme for their story was their rich and consistent legacy of fighting social injustice over the last 40+ years. Their organization spearheaded landmark cases such as Karen Silkwood and the Iran Contra Affair. This insight led to a clear North Star to guide our creative strategy: “Then and Now”—“Then” representing their legacy, and “Now” representing their continued commitment to fighting for social justice.
This simple phrase guided our strategic and creative decisions throughout the course of the project. Our content strategy included storytelling around their early years and landmark cases, coupled with their current initiatives and a compelling vision for a more just future. The site’s homepage opens with a photo from The Karen Silkwood case in 1977 juxtaposed by a photo of activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock from 2016.
“Then, and Now.”
Without this simple phrase, we may have lost site of this key guiding principle and found ourselves lost along the way. These are just two specific examples from this project, and many more decisions (large and small) were shaped and guided by our North Star.
Creating Your North Star
There’s not always a clear linear path for creating The North Star for a project. It’s a little messy, and it should be—this is creative work after all. Although our process differs slightly for each project, we often start by capturing key phrases, concepts, and ideas through our early conversations and research. Don’t worry about wordsmithing too soon, or focusing on creating catchy phrases just yet. Get the core ideas on paper and start to look for patterns.
Once we have a comprehensive list of these concepts, we try to group them into 3-4 main themes or directions that could shape our angle or approach for the project. We schedule a North Star review meeting to discuss the different directions at hand, and test each North Star direction with the following questions:
Can it help us make practical, creative, and strategic decisions throughout the project? Does it unify most of the other key strategies, concepts, and ideas on our list? Will the path it illuminates lead to the outcomes we’ve set out to reach?
In many ways, the true value of The North Star are the conversations that this meeting inspires. If there is misalignment across the team, it will come out here. And it’s much better to realize these underlying issues now rather than later in the project when the direction has been set, work has been completed, and key decisions have been made.
It can be hard to make a final decision on The North Star. It may take stepping away, digesting, and coming back fresh to asses the best choice. Don’t fret over getting this absolutely perfect. There’s often more than one right answer, and sometimes this is an exercise in prioritization. An imperfect North Star still creates more clarity than cloudy skies. Doing the hard work of establishing your North Star early on in the project will undoubtedly pay off in the long run.
As a social purpose brand, your mission is bold and your path is often difficult to navigate. The North Star is one useful tool in your broader arsenal, a helpful guide as you spread your impact and move humanity forward.
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