True North Exercise

by Michael Kelly, MA


I remember walking in the bush as a young lad with my father, brother and uncle. At one point my uncle decided to explore in a different direction and I enthusiastically went with him. It wasn't long before we were in a small panic because we'd lost sight of my father and brother, along with all significant landmarks and roadways. We were lost.

Collectively Finding Our Way

How did we find our way back? As I reflect on that day it occurs to me that my uncle and I could have discussed the matter, first by deciding which direction was north (the cardinal or true direction), then from this choosing the direction that would lead us to safety (the right direction). As it turns out we lucked into a solution by accidentally crossing a familiar roadway, guessing on a direction, and eventually reconnecting with my confused and worried father and brother.

The same two directions are significant to the practical performance of individuals and teams. We are reminded of our cardinal or true direction, for example, through the overall goal of our organization, department or team. We are then able to keep our eye in the right direction by being aware of the importance and contributions of our roles and by being mindful of the same attributes in the roles of others. 

Leaders can facilitate an exercise designed to help define the true and right directions for their organizations, departments or teams. It is called the True North exercise. It can be done in as little five to ten minutes for short duration teams, or more formally in about four hours. Here's how to facilitate a formal True North exercise.


  1. Set the context (cardinal direction) by reviewing the goal or mission of the organization, department or team. (This is a short presentation by the leader - allow 10 minutes max.)
  2. Establish the purpose of the day by explaining how a true north exercise works. (This is a short presentation by the facilitator - allow 20 minutes max.)
  3. Post and verbalize the following question:  "If we are going to succeed in reaching our (organization's, department's or team's) objectives, what supporting behaviours do we need to routinely exhibit?" Provide an example if necessary. (Asked by the facilitator - allow 5 minutes max.)
  4. Ask team members to write a list of supporting behaviours on sticky notes; one behaviour per note. This ensures anonymity and allows the most introverted of people to get their thoughts heard. (Limit the notes to two or three per person if the group is large - allow 20 minutes max.)
  5. When finished post the notes on an empty board or open and clear wall space - no order is required. All notes should stand alone and not be attached to other notes. (Allow 5 minutes max.)
  6. Organize the group in buffet fashion, having them walk to the wall of notes and silently organize them according to affinities. (Allow 15 minutes max.)
  7. When done assign a column (or columns) to a smaller team and ask them to integrate the theme of the column into the following sentence. (Allow 30 minutes max.)

To accomplish our goals we will (insert sticky note theme here).

  1. Post the sentences to the board and review, asking if the sentence could generate behaviours that might ethically be considered illegal, immoral, or life threatening. Also, do these behaviours support operational or project logistics? (This can be an intense discussion so allow plenty of time, perhaps allow 1 hour.)
  2. Integrate the statements into a simple list, and then name it. Avoid calling the list a code of conduct. Simply call it True North. (Allow 1 hour.)
  3. Wrap up the exercise by restating the True North, connecting it to the context of the organization, department or team, and thanking the participants. Make assurances that the True North will become a visible and workable standard for the people involved. (Allow 30 minutes.)


OK, so we have a True North statement. What now?

Here's the beauty of the document. It becomes a potent preventative and refocusing tool designed to keep a group on track (the cardinal direction) and especially toward supporting positive behaviours (the right direction). Negative behaviours, like the kind that could immerse us in drama triangles or rumour mongering, would be the wrong direction leading ourselves and others away from the overall goals and our intended roles. 

1. Preventative Power

True North statements have preventative power. I remember being a part of a small team working on a sixteen-week project. It was in an environment known for its use of colourful language. Many of us, including me, felt most people were numb to the words. It turned out someone wasn't.  

At the beginning of the project we got together and started with a True North exercise. One of the participants anonymously wrote that they would like the group to avoid profanity when working on the project. It was a point we respected and integrated into our True North. Never once following the exercise did I, or others, hear any profanity. Imagine what the team could have been like without our True North. The potential use of profanity could have created an uncomfortable environment for someone. These feelings could have escalated into strained relationships, perhaps even endangering the project itself. As it turns out we avoided these related possibilities completely.

2. Refocusing Power

But let's say someone did start to swear. Rather than single them out to correct the behaviour (thus embarrassing them and potentially escalating further negative behaviours), we could simply look at the group and say, "I don't think we're going north anymore. Can we focus and get back to the matter at hand?" This helps diffuse the situation and allows the group to refocus on its north. 

Does it always work?

Nothing is perfect but this little tool works far more often than it fails. Sometimes it even helps spawn inspired teams. With negative behaviours nipped in the bud, people can (and have) concentrate on what adds meaning to their lives and value to the lives of their organizations. 

The True North Exercise at a glance.

© 2011  Michael C Kelly