Let Metrics Be Your Guiding Stars

While gazing up into the night sky after the recent rains ceased to fall and the clouds dispersed, I noticed something that I don’t often see… Stars! (It probably helped that I wasn’t in the heart of a buzzing city at the time). As I looked on, admiring the beauty of the hundreds of twinkling lights decorating the night sky, my attention was caught by the comfortingly familiar Big Dipper and the bright and shining North Star. While I stared on, transfixed by these well-known constellations, I was struck by a very odd thought: Business metrics are remarkably similar to stars! Metrics and stars alike fill the dark unknown with brightness, with stars in the form of light and metrics in the form of quantitative insights. Now, you’re probably thinking I’m crazy and that I shouldn’t contaminate the incredible view I witnessed on my time away from work by thinking about work, but allow me to explain their similarities.

The most obvious similarity that struck me was that both stars and metrics serve as guides by which to navigate. For thousands of years, stars have allowed travellers to navigate the night, just as metrics allow a business to track the course of its progress towards its goals. One star above all others has served as this celestial guide, the North Star. This idea of having a primary guiding metric is valuable to businesses.

When building your “North Star” metric, it is best to identify the result you are seeking and work backwards until you can identify actions, events or data points that accurately identify when your success criteria is met. By defining a metric with the results in mind, you are better able to guarantee the metric’s significance will be well understood (it always points to success, like the North Star always points North). As the North Star is steady, consistent and always visible at night, so too should be your guiding metric. It is important to make sure that your metric’s meaning does not inadvertently change, that it is visible and that its significance is well understood.

The next similarity between stars and metrics is that while it’s fun to see a multitude of them, when trying to navigate, having too many may lead you off course. Just as an overly starry sky can make it hard to find which star is the North Star, an overly enlarged portfolio of metrics can do the same. To avoid getting lost in a plethora of metrics, you must classify all the metrics you have in levels based on the importance of what they describe. Any metric that is not actionable should be clearly identified as such to make sure that no one accidentally follows it. While there is often a need for more than a single metric, you should limit yourself to a few key “constellation” metrics, such as the Big Dipper, that help answer questions and guide you back to your “North Star” metric.

Although it’s not commonly known, the role of the North Star has fallen on several different stars over the ages as the planets have shifted. The position of your business, similar to the position of Earth, may change over time and will require the adoption of a new “North Star.” Do not be afraid to change your guiding star metric when it no longer points in the direction you want to travel. To ensure that you don’t veer off course, your metrics should be analyzed with some frequency to confirm that it still describes something in which you’re interested.