Vision Debt: The Hidden Factor

Vision Debt: The hidden factor that can kill your product

Your VP of Engineering has just given you a choice. With the big industry conference coming up in two weeks, she says we could accelerate our timeline to ship that big new feature our customers have been demanding. It’ll make a big splash on the exhibition floor, and maybe even win us a few customers. But, she says, there’s a catch: our engineers will have to hard-code some variables and take a few shortcuts that will probably introduce major bugs down the line if they aren’t eventually cleaned up.

What do you tell her?

Technical Debt, meet Vision Debt

Product leaders frequently face this dilemma: invest the time upfront to build a bulletproof solution, or ship something now that may introduce bugs down the line. This idea of “borrowing” against future development is a widely recognized concept called “technical debt”. Technical debt can be a useful tool in balancing engineering constraints with marketing realities. Smart organizations incur technical debt only when necessary to meet important business goals, and always plan to “pay it down” by going back and replacing the original code with something more robust.

There’s another equally-important kind of “debt” that product leaders have to manage: Vision debt.

Vision debt means building your product in a way that sacrifices your core vision for short-term financial sustainability.

Vision debt is incurred when your product strategy takes a detour, putting progress toward your product vision on hold in order to satisfy more immediate financial constraints. (If you don’t yet have a clear vision, start here to learn how to create one). Accumulating an excess of vision debt doesn’t lead to bugs or brittle code — it leads to confused customers, demotivated teams, and a directionless product.

You’re probably taking on Vision Debt whenever you:

  • Build completely unique, custom solutions for each customer
  • Add one-off features and integrations to your product just to close a sale
  • Run a co-branded marketing event in a vertical that you don’t focus on
  • Use a competitor’s technology, content, or data in the core of your product

Each of these activities above represent opportunities to get to market faster and close deals, but they move you further from achieving your vision. If you need the cash, however, you may not have a choice. Just be sure to keep track of activities that incur vision debt, and make a plan with your team to pay it down later in your strategic roadmap.

But, be careful. Like any debt, vision debt comes with compounding interest. The longer your product has diverged from your core vision, the more difficult it will be to get executive and team buy-in to return to the central vision of your product. Junior product leaders should be especially conservative about incurring vision debt, since it’s likely they won’t have the political influence to later drag the product back in line with the original vision.

Once you have chosen to incur vision debt, communicating this choice to your team is critical. Your team will quickly recognize that the product is moving away from the vision they’ve all been asked to buy into. Publicly recognize this fact, and describe the long-term strategic thinking behind it. By acknowledging vision debt, and explaining the plan to pay it back, you can mitigate any short-term damage to your team’s alignment and commitment.

How to identify and track vision debt

The path to using vision debt strategically (and cautiously) starts with identifying it.

Start by evaluating each element of your product strategy against two factors:

  • VISION FIT: Does this move us closer to our vision?
  • SUSTAINABILITY: Does this help us continue to exist as a company?

In an ideal world, of course, all the elements in your RDCL product strategy would be Home Runs — that is, a good vision fit and highly sustainable. Realistically, however, many aspects of your strategy will represent trade-offs between vision fit and sustainability. Some might be a good vision fit, but not sustainable; you’re “investing in the vision”. This may require you to draw on your cash reserves, or to raise money to continue operating. Other opportunities might represent a poor vision fit, but will help your sustainability; this is where “vision debt” comes into play.

Case Study: QwikLABS

In its early days, Nidhi’s company QwikLABS was able to successfully leverage vision debt to build up a sustainable customer base. Their product enabled students to easily access hands-on training labs to learn cloud computing configuration management. Two years after launch, Nidhi received a call from their biggest customer. They wanted QwikLABS to develop specific labs just for this customer’s own use (more of a consulting arrangement than a product purchase). Becoming a professional services company was not aligned with the QwikLABS vision, but would help short-term sustainability and growth. After much debate, the QwikLABS leadership decided to take on the vision debt, directing several developers to focus exclusively on creating content and features for this single client. Normally, this would be an example of Obsessive Sales Disorder, but Nidhi and her executives were explicit in acknowledging to the team that this represented a short-term step away from the vision. Most importantly, they committed to a timeline for getting back on track, ensuring that the team saw this as a temporary but necessary detour, not as a top-down loss of confidence in the vision.

Now go use it!

Remember that this rubric is designed to help you start conversations with your team, not end them. Although we have simplified the vision vs. sustainability trade-off into a 2x2 matrix, your team’s discussions about incurring vision debt will be anything but simple. Sometimes these conversations strike at the heart of why everyone is in the building in the first place, and can be very emotional. Use the vision/sustainability test to help focus, clarify, and structure your internal discussions, collaboratively identify vision debt, and create a plan to pay it back.

Share your stories on the types of Vision Debt you’ve encountered or identified. How did your team react to using this approach to discussing priorities? You can download the toolkit for free from Radical Product. We look forward to hearing your comments and questions.