north star

What’s Your North Star?

What’s my plan?  That’s a question I was asked recently.  It occurred to me in that moment that I didn’t have one.  Sure.  I had a vision, I knew the next few steps, and I knew where I wanted my teams to get.  However, the longer term was fuzzy, and it depended on how a few bets panned out. Those bets would tell me if I should amplify or dampen something we were doing.  So if I didn’t have a plan, what did I have?

I realized what I had instead was a north star.  Well, maybe a few of them.  Or maybe they’re better described as a set of heuristics?  Guiding principles?  I don’t know what to call them.  What I do know is I’ve collected them over the last decade as an agilist, and they drive my decisions and how I interact with world around me.  They look something like this:

  • People over everything. Always. In all things.
  • Favor others’ solutions to your own.  It provides them ownership of the problem space and agency to execute in your absence.
  • No good problem stays solved so never assume today’s solutions will solve tomorrow’s problems.
  • A work place is a complex adaptive system.  Treat it accordingly.  Further, recognize the fallacy of best practices as it applies to effective teaming. (Reference: Cynefin)
  • You’re rarely right. They’re rarely wrong.  Or as Kevin Kelly puts it, “Speak confidently as if you are right. Listen carefully as if you are wrong.”
  • Plans need not be comprehensive, complicated, or complex. But they do need to be useful. Favor simplicity.
  • Make it work. Then make it better. Then make it scale.
  • Make decisions at the last responsible moment.
  • Never use ten words when five will do.
  • If you feel you’ve learned all there is to know, you’re obviously wrong.
  • Success is a terrible teacher. Failure is a catalyst for learning. Teach those around you how to recognize failure and use it as opportunities for learning and growth.
  • Favor questions over statements.  Doing so inspires collaboration and thought, it diffuses confrontation, and it creates space for learning.
  • Exercise a bias toward several domains:  innocence, action, silence, and honesty.
  • The tool is not the solution.  After all, no one expects a hammer to swing itself.

It’s funny how, until recently, I had never thought to put to words many of these philosophies that I had internalized.  Thanks goes to a colleague of mine–Hide–for inspiring this post.  Now it’s your turn.  Do you have a north star?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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5 thoughts on “What’s Your North Star?”

  1. Hi Tanner,

    Thank you for sharing those important principles. I agree with Jim that these are gems that will help people work more effectively. I especially liked your point about “If you feel you’ve learned all there is to know, you’re obviously wrong.” The more I learn, I see more things that I don’t know, so the area of unknown territory that I want to explore keeps expanding, which makes me more humble everyday 😉


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