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Why I’m uneasy with the term ‘True North’ by John Quirke

I came in for a bit of teasing by a work colleague recently over my uneasiness with the term True North.   We were working with a leadership community in a large automotive business, and he used the term True North, which brought about an obvious and over exaggerated wince from me which raised a few giggles in the room!   Following a recent webinar, I was also asked why I was so uneasy with the term.


A senior leader in a different organisation pointed to a one sentence slogan on a wall in a conference and explained to me ‘That’s our True North. We may never get there but that’s what we call Our True North’.


So, here’s my thoughts on the use of True North when we talk about business culture, business transformation, or the pursuit of enterprise wide excellence.


First off, and cards on the table, I am a keen sailor.


I own a sailboat and myself and my family have sailed the South and West coasts of Ireland and the Mediterranean.  I have also sailed East and Southern coasts of the United States.  Understanding and using a boats compass is critical skill on a sailboat especially during long sea passages, during night sailing or in poor visibility.


Choosing a direction to navigate is always based on your relative position to North.  But there are two Norths!  There is a geographical North Pole and there is a Magnetic North.  Magnetic North is the force that influences a compass bearing.  In choosing any course a skipper must take into account this magnetic variation. This is the difference between geographical or True North and Magnetic North. But the extent of magnetic variation is dependent on where you are on the globe.  At each location a skipper must consult with information provided on local charts to define the magnetic variation in the area and account for it in calculations on a given course.


In addition, the sailboat itself may introduce some element of magnetic interference know as deviation into the calculation due to the presence of metals or electric currents within the boat itself. These are generally small deviations.  However, on some occasions a carelessly placed mobile phone can have a dramatic impact on compass readings!


While all these factors relate to the compass and the influences on it, there are also some important environmental factors that influence any course selection. These are the prevailing wind conditions and tidal currents which can either combine or cancel each other to have a profound effect on a sailboat’s course. There are also hazards that may be encountered during the voyage. Rocks, hidden reefs, or areas of busy commercial marine traffic.


What we end up with after taking all these factors into account, is a calculation of a course to steer.  This is the guidance we give to crew as they take the helm for their watch.  It is the information we enter in our log of the voyage.  During a tight entrance to a harbour this course to steer will be closely followed. But during longer sea passages the course to steer may have limits, no higher than and no lower than a few degrees either way. On long passages the variation when managed well, cancel out allowing the vessel to arrive at the chosen destination.  But on these long passages the course to steer must always be reviewed based on the ever changes conditions of the external environment.  If during a watch on deck the crew cannot maintain the course within defined limits, they are given the authority to adjust the sails and allow the vessel to maintain its defined course.  The crew are also given clear directions on what issues must be escalated to the skipper.


Seldom can a skipper plan a direct point to point voyage over extended distances.  More often skippers need to carefully plan the journey.   A skipper will plan a route in stages aiming to arrive at an intermediate port where crew and boat systems can be reviewed and maintained. If all is well, they proceed to the next port. If not, the necessary changes or repairs are made before the voyage can continue.


A shrewd skipper will also plan ports of refuge.  Safe locations to bring the vessel to in the event of bad weather or serious problems with equipment or crew.  There will be points on the voyage where the skipper, unbeknown to the crew, will assess how things are going.  At these points (waypoints) the skipper will make the call.  Do we proceed, or do we need to head for safe port to repair, review or reflect?


So, just like in business choosing a defined course is complicated.


It needs accurate information to improve our chances of achieving the desired outcome.  It will require careful thought and consultation with others especially the crew who may be more familiar with the local waters.  It will also require the skipper to study the local conditions of tide and wind and how they may change over the course of the voyage.


The skipper will also need to be acutely aware of the subtle magnetic deviations arising from the vessel itself and the factors that can exaggerate it.  The skipper will also constantly check to ensure his crew are ‘onboard’ in that they are actively attending to their individual tasks and logging and monitoring progress and noting any corrections or observations made during the voyage.


So, when a leader in an organisation points to a sentence on a wall or power point presentation saying ‘that’s our True North’, I think okay, but tell me about the reasoning behind choosing that course?


What are the clear stages on the journey?

  • At what point do we assess the vessel the crew and our overall progress?
  • What are the equivalent weather and tidal conditions i.e. market conditions you have taken into account?  How are these likely to change over the course of the journey?
  • How have we considered the unique challenges ‘deviations’ with this vessel (business) and what are the situations that can exaggerate them?
  • What are the planned ports of refuge if the voyage is not as smooth as expected?
  • How do you check that your crew are ‘onboard’?


But most importantly:


Why is that destination so important to the business?


Many leaders point to a True North without either understanding the details of the voyage to get there, or engaging the team in the science and reasoning behind the the voyage and the destination.


A good skipper always communicates with the crew. Explaining the background and thinking behind the chosen course to steer.  Hazards will be noted and made clear. Crew will be given authority to make decisions within defined frameworks.  Waypoints and progress will be clear. At these defined points reviews are made, current information considered and where necessary the course is refined.


By simply pointing to a sentence saying that’s the direction we are going ‘Our True North’ a leader can quickly loose the confidence of the crew.


The crew must understand why the destination is so important.  They must be clear on the challenges that must be faced and overcome during the duration of the voyage.  They must also understand their responsibilities to the voyage and how they contribute to the adventure.


A very experienced skipper once told me that good navigation is both a science and a culture.  The science and calculations are useless unless the crew understand their role and the details behind a chosen course to steer.



John Quirke

Senior Partner

Author of Deep Excellence (2023); TPM: A foundation of Operational Excellence (2021)

Shingo Publication Award Recipient

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