The Importance of Product Vision to Product Leaders

This post includes excerpts from the upcoming book Product Leadership: How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams.

Most companies don’t have a vision. Subsequently most products don’t have a vision. Sure they have goals and some even have BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), but they don’t have a vision. This might seem surprising considering how much has been written about the importance of having a clear company or product vision. So why is this happening?

The most obvious reason is because it’s hard. Creating a simple and clear vision is one of the most challenging things your company can do. It requires lots of thinking, something we seem to have become allergic to recently, and courage, something else we seem to have little of these days. Designing a vision has to come from the raison d’etre. The most important reason for the product’s existence. Put another way what problem does your product solve and why is that so valuable?

For anyone that’s tried to answer those questions, you’ll know it’s not easy to come up with a brief and succinct answer. Going beyond a mere description of the ‘how’ of a product’s workings to the why it exists requires thoughtful consideration. You can’t just write down the features and benefits to get your vision. You can’t even get there by listing your goals. It’s way more than that.

What’s the difference between vision and goals? There are a lot of definitions of what a vision is but most of those are filled with jargon and fluff. Let’s make it simple:

A great vision is the short, clear description of what value the company will deliver to its customers both now and in the future.

Reading it should have an immediate impact. A good example of this was Disney’s original vision to “Make People Happy”. This vision is amazingly short, easy to understand, timeless, and not connected to any one technology or trend. The beauty of this vision is that it’s so easy to grasp. Just reading it makes me happy.

Unfortunately Disney has also become a victim of corporate jargon mongering and their updated mission statement is an unintelligible paragraph of businessy crap that makes you wonder how many over-paid consultants got rich conjuring it up. This latest garbage has no emotion and no purpose. Just what we do and how we do it. Boring.

A vision conveys purpose. It tells the story of the company. It makes you think. It excites or delights. It’s a flashlight peering into the dark, ambiguous future. The product vision reveals what your customer’s problems are and what your solution might be.

Product vision isn’t just for your customers. Without a vision the people at the company may struggle to explain why the company exists. All teams need a purpose or they will lack the motivation to do the hard work that is necessary to achieve their goals.

A great example of this purpose driven approach comes from the company Life is Good. Their vision is “Life is not perfect. Life is not easy. Life is good.” Acknowledging that life is difficult and imperfect but still good makes them immediately more authentic. Anyone can relate to this statement. We can all reflect on these facts. It creates immediate empathy.

Making money isn’t enough of a purpose either. If a company has a vision that is financially motivated or defined then it’s one sided. It only benefits the company and says nothing of the value to the customer or end-user.

Directly related to vision is values. Values are the behavioral and psychological guardrails that help people make decisions. These guardrails ensure that day-to-day activities are consistent and congruent with the overall vision.

The vision is the clear motivation for the actions and steps required to deliver on that promise. The strategy will be the daily guardrails to align the team’s activities. The strategy must be deeply connected to the values of the company. By connecting the strategy to the values you will be able to reinforce the activities and their meaning.

What do Product Managers need to do about setting vision?

Why does a Product Manager need this breadth of skills? Primarily because the role itself is incredibly broad and varied. As Nilan Peiris, VP Product & Growth at TransferWise, puts it, product managers need to “do whatever needs to be done”. This starts with setting a vision for the product, which requires the Product Manager to extensively research their market, their customer and the problem the customers have that they’re trying to solve. They have to assimilate huge amounts of information . This includes qualitative feedback from customers, quantitative data from analytics tools and statistics, research reports, and market trends, to name but a few.

They need to know everything that can be known and then mix all that information with a healthy dose of creativity to define a vision for their product.

Once the vision is in place, they have to spread the word in their business. They have to get dogmatic, evangelical even, about the utopia that the product vision represents. If they can’t get passionate about it then they’re in the wrong job or they didn’t come up with a very good vision in the first place. This is the first area that management and leadership overlap. Driving the vision forward is both a leadership job and a management job. It’s leadership in the sense of ownership and guidance. It’s management in the sense that it requires a system to communicate and reinforce the path on a daily basis. The team must both witness the leader’s vision and understand the manager’s implementation. A product manager’s success, and that of their product, relies on every team member , from sales to developer , understanding that vision and being at least a little bit passionate about it as well.

And then they switch gears again and start building an actionable strategy and plan to reach that vision. A roadmap of incremental improvements and iterative development that takes the product step by faltering step closer to that final vision. This is when all the hard work preaching the product vision pays off and the whole team throws themselves into coming up with better designs, better code and better solutions to the customer’s problem alongside the product manager.

Then things get really detail oriented, as the product manager works day in, day out with the development team as a product owner. The manager is constantly defining and iterating the product as it evolves, solving problems as they pop up and closely managing scope so the product goes to market on time and on budget.

Did it solve the right problem? Do the customers understand the product’s value? Is it solving their problem? Will they pay for the product?

Finally, the product is out there and suddenly the Product Manager is spending their time poring over data again . They’re looking at how customers use the product, going out and talking to customers about the product and generally eating, sleeping and breathing the product. Did it solve the right problem? Do the customers understand the product’s value? Is it solving their problem? Will they pay for the product? Then they do it all over again. When done optimally, this is not a waterfall process . There is too much to be gained from iterating in short cycles. In larger product organizations with mature product lines, the product managers and leaders are probably not doing these things step by step for just one product or feature. They’re doing this for a dozen products or features at any one time, all at different stages in their life cycle, switching from strategy to tactics in the blink of an eye.

Mina Radhakrishnan, the first Head of Product at Uber, says “a lot of people say the product manager is like the CEO, or the captain of the ship. I don’t really think of it that way, because when you describe things like that it makes it seem as though you’re making the decisions, or you’re driving how everything works together. To me the product manager is really the person who works with everybody else to define and say, “This is how this thing should work, and this is why it should work in that way.”

The job is not just about the hard skills outlined above, but almost more so about the soft skills of persuasion, storytelling, vision setting, and communication.

“Product management is the glue that holds together all the various functions and roles across a company that speak different languages” adds Ken Norton, Product Partner at GV (previously called Google Ventures), “it’s like the universal communicator in Star Trek. A hub of communication between all these different groups. A product isn’t going to be successful without that glue holding those teams together.” This underlines the greatest challenge for product managers — that the job is not just about the hard skills outlined above, but almost more so about the soft skills of persuasion, storytelling, vision setting, and communication. Great product leaders need to present and communicate their ideas to others in clear, concise ways. These often overlooked soft skills are critical to any leader but even more so in the life of a Product Leader.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Well there’s lot more. Over the last few months, nine to be exact, I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on a book about product leadership. On the back of our own experience and interviews with almost one hundred product leaders we’re hoping to take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership. The book will be published by O’Reilly and on shelves in May 2017. You can pre-order the book on Amazon or directly from O’Reilly.