How to Develop your Team's North Star


“People don’t buy what we do, they buy WHY we do it.” - Simon Sinek


When people first join a team, one of their first questions is: “Why am I here?”  What they are really asking is, “What is this team’s purpose, and does it have meaning for me?”

When I was at HP and the company acquired Compaq, many teams were restructured. As part of team launch activities, I facilitated conversations regarding Team Purpose. This helped them:

  • Have a North Star. These teams knew what they stood for and had a sense of identity
  • Make decisions. They were able to say “yes” to goals and activities that supported the Purpose and “no” to those that didn’t
  • Feel inspired by being part of something meaningful
  • Feel a sense of belonging by being part of something larger than themselves

A team’s purpose stays the same over time. How it will achieve it (goals and plans) will vary as the team makes progress and adjusts. Here are some example Purposes from large companies:

Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete

Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

REI: We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of adventure and stewardship.

How to develop a Team Purpose

  1. Develop a shared context. The team leader shares with the “bigger picture” with the team: the company’s and the larger department’s history and purpose, customer needs, and company goals. This helps the team know where they fit in.
  2. Reflect individually. Have each team member spend 5 minutes or so individually writing down why they believe the team exists. Have them reflect on the following questions:
    - Who are we?

    - Why does our team exist? What do we do?  

    - What do we create/provide (products and services), and for whom? What’s the umbrella theme/value we provide? Give them the following guidelines:
       o   Keep it short and simple: 25 words or less.
       o   Focus on what value the team brings, to whom
       o   Make it inspiring! It should speak to the heart of the team as well as the hearts of customers.
  3. Discuss in trios. Have team members divide up into trios and share their thoughts with one another. Have them note what they have in common and generate a draft Team Purpose that reflects their themes.
  4. Discuss as a team. Bring the group together to discuss what everyone came up with. Look for common themes. Start developing a statement that best embodies what the team believes is the reason they exist.
  5. Let it percolate. Set the Team Purpose aside for a few hours or days, and come back to it as a group. What does the group think of it? Does it meet the criteria? Does it make their hearts sing? Adjust the wording as needed.

Keep it front and center. Discuss as a team how you will keep the Purpose in mind as your work together.  Some people make it into a poster; some make it into a screen saver; others refer to it during team meetings. The important thing is that it stays on their mind and doesn't gather dust on a shelf.