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The Elegant Paradox of Long-Term Visions, Near-Term Roadmaps & Taking Daily Action

Why product creators must hold seemingly contradictory concepts in their heads at all times to manifest their dreams.

When I speak with product teams and their leaders, it’s the topic of prioritization comes up most frequently.

Prioritization is hard because there is a constant tension between doing what is immediately urgent versus what’s good for the long-term outcomes of the business. Understanding this tension, and learning to be comfortable in it, is the key to effective prioritization.

Contraditions and Paradoxes

I’ve written about the counterintuitive choices that product teams face every day. Superficially, these choices can seem absurd or self-contradictory, but when interrogated or explained prove to be essential to good management.

The same is true of the vision and the roadmap. Superficially they may seem to be at odds with each other.

Establishing a clear vision is essential to any business or product but when there’s a fire that needs putting out we need some indication of what to do right now.

Here’s the way I think about these things…

  • A vision suggests the shared future state*.
  • A roadmap suggests the path to getting to the future state.

*I say shared because without the ability to share and communicate that vision to others, it isn’t really a vision, it’s just an organizational hallucination.

The value of a vision is that it changes the way we think about the future. The value of the roadmap is that it guides our behavior towards that future.

Longer timelines force you to think differently. Thinking about a distant future means you have to think about the consequences of today’s actions. If my vision is to cross the finish line of a marathon, I’m forced to start thinking about how my behavior needs to change right now.

Adding Action To Planning

On the wall in my basement gym my son has written: “Mood follows action.” Borrowed from Brad Stulberg, an expert on human performance and sustainable success, this beautiful insight reminds me that even when I’m not in the mood to workout, the act of working out will change my mood.

It’s a paradox that I’ve grown to love.

Flipping the idea that we need to be in the right mood to take action is life-changing. Too often our inner dialog says, “we’ll do XYZ when we feel better about this” or “let’s wait another few days before we have that hard conversation.”

Action is evidence.

While the vision and roadmap galvanize people around an idea and provide the confidence we can get there respectively, the action we take every day is the evidence we need to know if the plan is working.

“But how will I know if I’m doing the right thing?”

You won’t. Most of the time you’ll be guessing. By taking action you’ll find out if those guesses are correct. Actions are time experiments that test your assumptions and provide information to make better choices.

“But what if my actions/experiments mean we have to rewrite the roadmap? We just spent 3 weeks getting this thing in shape.”

Then rewriting is what you do. The vision does, and should, remain resolute, but how we get there can change based on the feedback we receive from our actions. A roadmap should be fluid and evidence-based.

“We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.” — Jeff Bezos

Product teams get a little too attached to their roadmaps. But maps are not the territory. Only hard-won evidence will confirm that the map is reflecting reality, and if reality is always changing, then maps only offer a small amount of guidance.

The Purpose of Vision, Roadmaps, and Action

Understanding the role of the three elements is how you stay focused and fluid. Does it feel paradoxical? Yes, but here’s why you must do it anyway:

  • A vision galvanizes people around an idea.
  • A roadmap provides people with the confidence they can get there.
  • Action provides evidence that the vision and roadmap are working.

Train yourself to easily switch modes from long-term to short-term. Ask yourself, “how does this choice today align with our future state?” Use the vision to inform your actions, and your actions to inform your path to the vision.

Final Word

Having a clear picture of what the future looks like is motivating. Knowing what you’re working towards gives you power over FOMO and the inevitable distractions that come your way. Like the marathon runner who uses their vision of crossing the line to decide to go to bed early instead of staying up all night drinking, your long-term vision makes short-term decisions easier to make.

The beautiful irony of thinking about a distant future is that it clarifies what you need to do right now.

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Richard Banfield

Richard Banfield

Dad, artist, cyclist, entrepreneur, advisor, product and design leader. Mostly in that order.

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