The Product Strategy-Metrics Sandwich: How to Align North Star Metrics and Key Results
OKRs are an effective way for product teams to prioritize their work and evaluate success. But when a Key Result reads like a great Outcome, teams can optimize for it even if it measures progress toward the wrong destination.
Reading Time: 15 minutes
Last Updated: Jun. 13, 2023
In this article, you’ll learn how to move from long-term, value-driven strategy metrics to actionable quarterly Key Results, with Product Strategy bridging the two. While different, these terms have very dynamic relationships with each other, and we will explore that dynamism as a way to solve metric misalignments.
Where to Begin?
For Product Managers, the relationship between Metrics and Product Strategy often falls into one of three buckets:
- Your Product Strategy feels uninspired or misguided because it lacks a quantifiable Product Vision.
- Your Product Strategy is hard to implement because your OKRs represent generic priorities.
- Your OKRs feel random because they are not connected to clear Product Strategy Choices.
How you address these problems depends on the relationship between North Star Metrics, Product Strategy, and OKRs. I like to call these connections the Product Strategy-Metrics Sandwich.
The Product Strategy-Metrics Sandwich concept connects quantified, persistent value with quarterly OKRs to implement your Product Strategy
A Product Strategy-Metrics Sandwich can come in a variety of “flavors”:
- Without enough focus on your North Star Metric, you won’t have an inspiring narrative “on top.”
- Without enough attention to Product Strategy, you won’t have clear boundaries to keep you focused on what matters.
- Without enough structure from OKRs, you will struggle with implementation when connecting Strategy to tactics.
In order to solve any of these problems, product teams need to develop a more sensitive understanding of each layer in the Product Strategy-Metrics sandwich. Clarifying these relationships will tell you where you stand in your process and what you should improve: Should you redefine your North Star Metrics or Product Vision? Clarify your Product Strategy? Reconnect your OKRs to your Strategy? We’ll look at the differences between these layers closely as a way to improve how you use them in your overall strategy.
The Difference between North Star Metrics (NSMs) and OKRs
In brief, North Star Metrics are persistent goals that influence Product Strategy, whereas OKRs are point-in-time goals that implement that Strategy.
North Star Metrics are persistent goals that influence Product Strategy, whereas OKRs are point-in-time goals that implement that Strategy.
Use these questions to understand if you're looking at a North Star Metric or an OKR:
- Is there a specific timeline attached to a given figure of this metric? Then it's probably an OKR.
- Does it require more than one cross-functional product team to significantly influence and move this metric? Then it's probably a North Star Metric.
- Is it “only” directly linked to your long-term Product Vision or to a more specific strategy choice? If Vision, then it’s a North Star Metric. If initiative and strategy choice, then it’s an OKR.
Let’s walk through each of these elements and look more closely at how they relate to each other.
The Anatomy of a North Star Metric
Without enough focus on the North Star Metric, you won’t have an inspiring narrative “on top.”
North Star Metrics are widely discussed, but how do you identify them for your specific product? Your North Star Metrics shouldn’t be set backwards from a KPI dashboard but develop forwards from your Product Vision. If you have a genuinely user-centered Product Vision, your North Star Metric should almost "automagically" flow from it.
Let’s use LinkedIn as an example for how a company’s vision and North Star Metric connect:
How the LinkedIn's Vision connects to a quantification of experienced value
While the above is a good example, keep in mind that North Star Metrics are supposed to represent the value your users get from your product, not just the company’s goals. For example, LinkedIn might want to increase revenue through driving sign ups to LinkedIn premium. This is not a North Star Metric because it focuses only on what the company wants, and not the actual utility of premium for users.
Both product vision and North Star Metrics can feel fairly fluffy. And, by design, both rely on multiple driving metrics, which represent the value experienced by users or customers through individual product functions. That is why there are also different levels of North Star Metrics, and a company North Star Metric can guide the product-level North Star Metrics. This example shows how, at the highest level, a North Star Metric should tie in with the value this company’s users experience to help the company quantify their success executing their product vision.
The Levels of North Star Metrics
The major split in North Star Metric levels is the company level vs. the product level. Because you want to differentiate your Company and Product Visions, it makes sense to develop different North Star Metrics for the company level, and then each product area or team.
Here’s how this could cascade for LinkedIn:
How Company-level Vision and NSM can connect to Product area-level Vision and NSMs
While these may be split for clarity, remember that product-level North Star Metrics are true drivers of the company North Star Metric. Independent of their level, Product Vision and North Star Metrics serve an inspirational purpose in describing the future: not the future of how your product might look (qualitative vision) but the value created for and experienced by your audience (quantitative vision). The North Star Metric is the Quantified Sibling of the Product Vision, which both sit within the Strategic Narrative Pattern as inputs for defining your Product Strategy.
In order to see how product-level North Star Metrics feed into your company’s North Star Metrics, you need actual quantitative insights through Product Discovery into which actions lead to which changed behaviors. This, combined with tools like KPI trees, which can be useful visual aids, will help you avoid slapping a generic business-first metric like “No. of messages sent” or “number of submitted applications” onto each of the product areas. Rather, you should focus on more granular goals around the specific product or feature, like number of knowledge exchange conversations, as above.
The North Star Metric is the Quantified Sibling of the Product Vision.
The Timelines of NSMs, Strategy, and OKRs
Without enough attention to Product Strategy, you won’t have clear boundaries to keep you focused on what matters.
Vision and North Star Metric are about the (potentially) infinite product development journey, whereas Strategy has a smaller time horizon. In a recent conversation, Stephanie Leue, Chief Product Officer at Doodle, told me that “finding that balance [between Vision and North Star Metrics] in your Product Strategy is challenging. I think you need to clearly articulate what's the risk of that bet, what's the evidence behind it, and how big are the risky bets over the next 12 to 18 months.” In contrast, OKRs typically have a quarterly (sometimes even annual) horizon, to implement Strategy.
Approximate timelines influencing the elements of a NSM, Product Strategy and OKRs
So to shape Product Strategy you want to rely on the North Star Metric as a key influence. Or, as Daniel Schmidt has summarized:
“By modeling a strategy that’s independent of time-based goals, you get a lot of the same benefits as OKRs. You clearly articulate the “why?” behind your work.”
And though the word “sequence” can have a bad ring to it in Product Management, first defining your North Star Metric, then articulating a Strategy and finally establishing OKRs ensures each gets the attention it deserves. By purposefully separating how and when these elements are decided, product teams can then make real progress towards meaningful stepping stones in the never-ending journey to reach their Product Vision.
How to Move from Product Strategy to Quarterly OKRs
Without enough structure from OKRs, you will struggle with implementation when connecting Strategy to tactics.
Your Product Strategy should not just emerge from a 2-hour workshop; it needs messy, deep-dive work. Still, there comes a time where you have to synthesize it for easier communication, whether that’s through the framework of your choice or concise statements. Depending on the company-/product-/feature-level, you need to consider different degrees of granularity. Make sure this synthesis results in clear choices that actually drive strategic outcomes, not broad statements that mimic your general business vision.
To inform company-level or annual team-level OKRs, you can turn the specific product strategy choices you make into proxy metrics. These aim to answer the question of how you would know that you have “won” (or that your choices were successful).
By design, these proxy metrics are lagging indicators: they move rather slowly, their results can only be detected in hindsight, and they can’t be influenced by one cross-functional product team alone. While your proxy metrics are good for company-level OKRs, they are the opposite of what you want in a useful Key Result for your teams' short-term tracking.
Turning Lagging Proxies into Leading Indicators
To identify leading indicators rather than lagging ones, you need to reverse-engineer customer journeys from the segments your Product Strategy prioritizes. Ultimately, you’re looking for the common denominators among „successful“ users: What patterns do they have in common?
Since leading indicators are about trading certainty for responsiveness, consider two criteria in particular. First, how autonomously can you influence these metrics? And second, at what pace will you be able to detect changes?
The lagging proxy metric representing success for the Direct Messaging Product at LinkedIn example might be useful for an annual OKR Set. But it won’t be of use for week-over-week prioritization throughout a quarter. Instead, reverse-engineering of leading indicators based on the qualitative and quantitative insights available to that team might look like this:
Reverse-engineering leading indicators responding to a team's actions from lagging proxy metrics
The connection between a quarterly OKR and a North Star Metric might not always come in the form of straight lines and clear KPI trees– and that’s ok. As long as the team owning the Product Strategy did the work to ensure their strategy choices are influenced by a North Star Metric and can loosely connect to it, they are headed in the right direction.
Bringing the LinkedIn example full circle, here’s what a Product Strategy-Metrics sandwich could look like for the Direct Messaging product:
An exemplary Product Strategy-Metrics Sandwich for LinkedIn's DM product
Product Strategy is the Substance of the Sandwich, but requires North Star Metrics and OKRs to have the right Impact.
I hope this article inspires you to think more deeply about how North Star Metrics, Product Strategy, and Product OKRs all work together, are interdependent and influence each other. North Star Metrics don’t matter without Strategy. Strategy won’t work without OKRs. OKRs don’t move the needle without Strategy and vision. Understanding these relationships helps you clarify what you’re doing with your product team, why you’re doing it on the company and product level, and what strategy helps you progress towards your Big Picture Metrics.