Why Your Product Vision Might Be More Critical Than Your Company Mission

Knowing The Difference And Making It Work For You

Richard Banfield
Apr 17, 2018 · 5 min read
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The distant horizon isn’t the path you’ll take to get there. You need both to succeed on a journey. Photo by Octavian Rosca

Quick, name a visionary leader.

Maybe it’s the recency bias, but many of us probably think of tech leaders like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos.

Why them? What makes them different from operational leaders like Jeff Immelt and Indra Nooyi, or from financial leaders like Jamie Dimon?

Visionary leaders don’t just paint a picture of the future, they foster that future in the form of tangible product ideas.

On the surface this might not seem like a new perspective, but the reality is most executive leaders are wrapped up in creating mission level strategies, while missing the connection to what the customer experiences.

They have a mission.

They have a strategy.

But, they are missing product vision.

Not having a product vision reveals a lot about a company. It suggests that the company mission is enough to direct the product level work. Let’s get into why a mission alone is necessary but insufficient.

A company mission describes what the company is trying to do in broad, easy to understand terms. These mechanisms have been described as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) in Jim Collins’ book Good To Great.

Companies need a mountain to climb, as Collins put it. This is true, but what mountain you end up climbing, and why you climb it are not the same thing. Furthermore, how you climb it is very important. The distinction’s are subtle and yet entirely game-changing in their application.

If a mission is what you’re trying to accomplish, then the purpose is the why.

To add another layer to this critical thinking, I’d argue that a modern visionary company could easily substitute their mission for a purpose and be better off.

Collins suggests “highly visionary companies often use bold missions”, which is often true but a clear purpose can be substituted for a mission and has proven to be more attractive to employees and customers.

Author Bill Damon, defines purpose in his book Path to Purpose as “a long-term, forward-looking intention to accomplish aims that are both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”

Tesla describes its mission as “Accelerating the worlds transition to sustainable energy.”

Note: The mission was recently updated from “sustainable transport” to “sustainable energy”, which makes sense as the company added new products like solar panels and batteries to it’s portfolio. In the mountain analogy, they have chosen to climb a different mountain.

When done correctly, Company Mission is the outcome the organization sets out to achieve and it’s Purpose aligns that outcome with a reason to exist. However, these things still don’t tell us what the company produces in the real world. Disney’s famous “Make People Happy” mission says nothing about the theme parks, unique content and merchandise they create and distribute.

A company mission might also be a company vision, but it’s not a product vision, and it’s your product vision that delivers value to your customers.

To connect dreams to reality you need a vision for each of the products that a company creates or sells. What’s important to understand is that a mission is not a vision for each product.

Product vision exists separately to allow both the product creators (product team) and the product consumers (customers) to see the manifested reality of their product experience.

Visionary leaders get their hands dirty. They not only describe a future that’s better than the present, but they take the time to manifest that future at the product level. They quite literally mold the future into existence by making the things they can see in their minds.

As Prof. Rob Wolcott said of Walt Disney, “[He] didn’t only imagine futures — he set about creating them. His vision evolved iteratively, through experiments and even bankruptcy.”

Sound familiar? Musk and Jobs have famously been at the forefront of their product creations. Both describing the company level vision and then knuckling down at the product level to design or code that critical element that brings the grand vision to life.

There’s a “let me show you what this vision looks like” approach. This is different from the top-down edicts too common in business today. Visionary leaders have the ability to reach for the stars and then immediately pick up a wrench and start making the rocket ship that’ll get them there.

At this point there is a fine line between a helpful leader and a meddling manager. A product leader can quickly go from useful input to micromanager. knowing where to involve yourself and when to step away is a critical leadership skill.

Product Vision is necessary but not sufficient. You will still need to craft a product strategy, establish sustainability and risks, determine priorities, develop a critical path to getting to that vision.

Great product companies have four things in common: a clear product vision; a bulletproof product strategy; a set of priorities; and a way to measure outcomes. We’ve already discussed the reasons companies struggle with these, and discussed how to create these tools for product success in other articles, but we’ve heard from readers that they’d like more details on Product Strategy and how it fits into existing product environments.

If you only have one product, and your company exists to allow that product to interact with your customers, then you might not need a mission and a product vision (yet). For now your Product Vision is your mission.

As companies grow and add more products to their portfolio, either through acquisition or innovation, they will need to separate the product level visions from the company level vision. For now your company and product are indistinguishable. That’s okay, don’t force a mission on a company that’s not ready for it.

  1. A company with a single product, doesn’t need a mission, just a Product Vision.
  2. Your Company Mission is what you do and is primarily created for your internal alignment.
  3. The terms Company Mission and Company Vision are often used interchangeably.
  4. This mission can evolve over time to account for new product or market changes or expansions.
  5. Your purpose is why you exist.
  6. Product Vision describes the future that the specific product promises.
  7. A company should have a distinct Product Vision for each product.
  8. Product Vision is necessary but not sufficient.

Thank you to Geordie Kaytes for his original thinking on this topic and his continued rigorous conversation.

If you’d like more tactical help on how to create a Product Vision and the strategies to support them, download the free Toolkit from the Radical Product site.

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Adventures in product management and leadership

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