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Finding your “North Star” is a concept co-opted from agile methodology. The North Star in this context is a vision or goal that provides guidance to fast-moving, self-directed, agile teams. As agile has expanded its influence from teams to enterprises, the concept of a guiding North Star becomes crucial in maintaining the alignment of a large number of people to a common vision. And as enterprise business models evolve to ecosystem business models, finding a North Star becomes even more crucial.

The Unifying Power Of A Common Vision

Ecosystems, after all, are not managed by command and control. Partners choose to work with you. They are held together through self-alignment to a vision that suits their self-interest. The North Star becomes the unifying vision that all partners within an ecosystem recognize and align to voluntarily.

There are many recent examples of collaborative ecosystems that have sprung up around Covid-19. Addressing the public health issues created by this crisis has become the North Star vision of public and private entities banding together to solve one of the most urgent challenges of our time. COVAX, a vaccine alliance of more than 75 countries, is an example. Its goal is to ensure global access to Covid-19 vaccines once developed. Rarely is there such a compelling, unifying vision. It is not always possible to find a vision that inspires so deeply, but when you can find it, it is galvanizing.

Whether you are the ecosystem orchestrator or a member, you need to clearly articulate the value you anticipate from adopting an ecosystem business model. Your ecosystem strategy needs to align with your company strategy and interests, just as the Pointer Stars of the Big Dipper align to the North Star.

Avoid the ego-system trap.

Most well-intentioned amateurs will build their ecosystem around their company, their product and their needs. This is an ego-system approach that might look great in a board room presentation — and, indeed, the ecosystem must be aligned to your corporate strategy — but this approach neglects the fact that no ecosystem will succeed if it does not serve the customer first.

Ionity is one example of an ecosystem that innovated around a customer-centric vision. The customers in this case were people who wanted to buy electric vehicles but were anxious about driving long distances or across Europe and getting stuck when a charging station was not convenient. This anxiety led to slow growth in the rate of electronic vehicle adoption.

So, Ionity — a joint venture of BMW Group, Ford Motor Company, Mercedes Benz AG and Volkswagen Group — helped address this impediment by building high-power charging networks for electric vehicles in Europe. It developed a standardized plug and charging station, as well as eliminated the need for each EV manufacturer to create its own charging network by partnering with various brands, including Circle K and Shell. This created a distribution ecosystem based on solving customers’ needs.

Think big.

How you define your customers’ problems defines your North Star. Defining the problem very narrowly means you might be able to solve it expediently, but that approach doesn’t always allow for expansive growth. Taking a wider approach can help you address a larger market, but it might take longer.

Going back to our example of Ionity, the organization took a wider approach and addressed a mainstream market in Europe, which allowed it to solve challenges for customers who bought electric cars from a variety of brands. (In fact, Ionity is also an example of how even competitors can collaborate around a central vision to expand and accelerate a new market.)

In summary, ecosystems are galvanized by the unifying power of a common North Star. Put the customer experience at the center of your universe. Solving for the customer problem becomes a compelling North Star. It will guide you in building the ecosystem, how you innovate and how you go-to-market. Ask yourself:

• What are you trying to achieve?

• How are you creating value for your customers?

• When you encounter conflicts in your partner relationships (and you will), how can these be resolved in a way that is true to your vision?

I encourage alliance managers and ecosystem orchestrators to think expansively in finding their North Star. If it is easy to achieve, your vision is too small. Remember that how you define your vision will guide your journey and inspire your partners to be your fellow travelers.