by Sean Knierim
How can organizations maintain focus on purpose and mission over time when faced with changing conditions? The difference between magnetic north and geographic north offers a useful framework.
This interview came about from a discussion I had with a friend about the difference between true north and magnetic north.
Many good and smart people speak compellingly of true north. In fact, most maps orient themselves towards this true, or geographic, north — but good maps also point towards another key location: magnetic north.
I was asked to describe how we help SidePorch clients define purpose in their organizations and shared that magnetic north always struck me as a useful metaphor (described at 6:50 in the interview). Not only for building a statement of mission, but also for establishing a dynamic system capable of adjusting when that mission changes over time.
SidePorch only works with clients trying to make a significant, positive impact in our world, so achieving these missions carries great importance for the organization and those they serve.
Geographic north is a constant point anchored at the North Pole and around which the earth rotates. Magnetic north, however, is always moving due to a variety of factors — it currently resides over 300 miles from geographic north and is headed northwest towards Siberia!
The typical compass I have used points generally towards magnetic north. From my home in Santa Monica, there is only a small difference in direction between where that compass points and true north. But if geographic north was my ultimate destination, and if I followed that compass all the way up into Canada, I would end up a long, cold — even dangerous — distance from my goal.
So much changes over the life of an organization: markets, competition, policy and regulatory environments, staff, board members, investors. Both success and triumph occur, as do setbacks and failure. For many reasons, an organization may look very different 5 years into its journey than it did when launched!
Missions need to change over time as well. As with magnetic north’s constant movement, this change can be both anticipated and managed.
In working with a wide variety of organizations, from large corporations and NGOs through small foundations and start-ups, we see many wonderful examples of thoughtfully developed mission statements — true north in this example. We see fewer organizations maintain a consistent focus on how this mission, and the journey towards it, changes over time — magnetic north.
At SidePorch we argue for a dynamic focus on organizational mission, set to an appropriate and predictable schedule that provides time and space for review. Importantly, different organizations will call for different approaches.
Pilots need to stay constantly aware of their aircraft’s position and bearing relative to an up-to-date magnetic north; me teaching my daughter how to use a compass and map outside of LA may not need to update our information for years.
In a similar way, board and executive leaders should start with a guiding vision for their companies, and then decide how to keep an eye on that vision as the journey continues.
While there may remain a constant point, a geographic north, that inspires an organization over the course of its run, good strategies will also include a second, guiding orientation that helps when operating in complex, changing environments.