Concerning Missions and Visions

Georg Blume-Schulz
May 23, 2017 · 7 min read
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Goals are crucial for a successful product (and team and company). A clear mission and vision can help you convey those goals. Here, I talk a bit about why those two “tools” should be used and how they can be applied. We’ll also make a side trip into the question of what a product manager actually does.

There’s not that much about how to draft a mission or vision statement in this post — frankly, the “how” doesn’t matter.

As soon as you understand “why” you want a mission and vision, you’ll find a “how” which suits your situation better than any article could guide you to.

But first, there’s …

A Far Out Intro

If someone asks you “what’s the difference between a vision and a mission” return the favor and ask: “Oh that’s a tough one! What do you think?”.

Because words only have as much meaning as we grant them. The first quarter of 2017 alone, more than 500 new words and phrases were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s not because our British friends needed to come up with new things to say. They simply observe shifts within the language and write them down.

This is important to keep in mind when talking about topics which are vague by nature. The mission and vision is especially vulnerable to simple misunderstandings because it allows for so many interpretations. Just make sure that what you explain with your statement is the same thing your dialog partner or audience expects.

This will help you define your mission and vision and it will serve as a foundation when talking about …

The Product Manager’s Single Most Important Thing to Do

The most important thing for a product manager is simple: Maximize business value. That’s it. All tasks, communication, roadmaps, escalations, plannings and so on are only means to realize the products business value.

Agile methodologies are important because they help to increase the value created while reducing the cost — and all people involved have more fun — now we’re talking about a win/win.

The issue is: It’s really hard to determine what this “business value” actually is for a specific product. Imagine you have an online offer with a free trial phase. Depending on your goal, you create value by many means:

  • Give users more free stuff (retention)

And the list is endless for every product. And now, finally, we’ve reached the core of this post:

Your job is only possible if you can convey both the “why” and the “what” for your product.

The Mission

Your mission is the core purpose of your product. It answers the question: “Why does this product/company exist?”. Your mission is the fallback for every argument and decision. A good mission removes uncertainty by limiting the potential options to those which are in line with it.

A few examples:

Facebook: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

Mozilla: “Our mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all. An Internet that truly puts people first, where individuals can shape their own experience and are empowered, safe and independent.”

That’s simple. I can look at Facebook.com and say: “Yeah, if I want to connect with someone, this should do.”.

Your mission serves as a reminder of why you’re creating a product. It also helps you prioritize (or cut) features. Most importantly, it allows your team to think along and ahead of you.

If you want to figure out if your mission is shared, simply ask others to describe why the product they work on is being built. Should you now hear something which differs from what your mission is supposed to be, that’s awesome:

You’ve just found potential velocity and quality waiting to be picked up by you!

One more thing to keep in mind: Be honest. Especially to yourself. It’s way easier to make up bullshit reasons than to simply admit that your current mission is dull. Answer the question “why is the product being built” honestly.
Sometimes, your “why” is dissatisfying. “To make department X shut up” can be a mission — just not one which appears on the top ten “best motivational speeches”.

Honesty helps you because it prevents spurious discussions. It helps focus on what is within your limits.

If you’re unhappy with your current mission, you have a few options:

  • Change the mission. Admit to yourself and your team: “So far, we’ve built stuff because of X. We can’t do this anymore, because of Y. That’s why we need a new mission.”

The Vision

Compared to the mission, the vision is something more tangible. A vision describes the goal, it gives inspiration on what it will look like. Its level of detail can vary as long as it allows to visualize what should be created.

Again, an example:

Firefox: “Discover, experience and connect with apps, websites and people on your own terms, everywhere.”

It shows how Mozilla’s mission is transformed by its browser Firefox into a more specific vision. Now, the focus is on apps and websites. The statement is about objects and no longer about people.

A vision is a multipurpose tool. It helps whenever a decision or communication about the product is needed:

  • Priority: Whenever there are two features fighting for priority you have a tool to ask: “which of those two brings me closer to the vision?”.

Depending on which purpose you put on your vision statement its phrasing should change. Sponsors, your team, your target audience — all of them benefit from the vision but are looking for something different in it. The statement should address the needs of its audience accordingly.

You should also know the value you expect the vision statement to create. Challenge the vision statement regularly to validate that it still creates that value. With every major release you make you can ask:

  • Did this milestone move the product closer to the vision?

Even a single “no” should encourage you to have a close look. Either re-validate it or adapt it.

You will spend a lot of time explaining (again) the vision, why it changed and what is different. It is time well spent though.

Why Both are Important

The vision and mission are useful tools to achieve alignment. This is true for your team, your sponsors and yourself as well.

The mission is a high level tool. It is useful before a product even starts. It helps challenge visions. Whenever it is necessary that a group of people fundamentally align, the mission is a strong tool to use. The same is true for new people within the team or organization — the mission will help them get a common ground from the get-go (and filter out incompatible ones).

The vision on the other hand is the tool to use when it comes to the actual product or day-to-day business. Whenever you want to take a step back with a question, the vision provides a good perspective to take (“If my vision would be incarnate, how would it look at this question?”).

Both tools together provide a sneakily simple to-do list on how to create anything new:

  • Figure out what you want the world to be like (“Mission”).

Now that’s a tad intimidating or confusing, perhaps. The good news is: you got this. You’re creating something. You started that creation because somewhere, someone thought: “that’s a good thing to create. And you’re the best one to do it.” — perhaps that person was even you.

Even if you’re sure that you’re the only one to ever look at both statements: I still recommend drafting them. Thinking about the “why” will help you sharpen the “what” — and this will help you with every decision you take along the way.

Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing.
— Warren Bennis, Ph.D. “On Becoming a Leader”

Originally published at Timeboxed.

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