May 24, 2019
From Vision to Product (Part 1)
by Patrick Tsao
To thoroughly understand the idea of a product vision, it is important to also understand two other concepts: strategy and tactics.
“Define the vision, own the strategy, ship great products” — these are perhaps some of the most commonly uttered phrases in any product management (PM) job description. While they capture much of the essence of what PM entails, those of us who are less familiar with PM as a discipline may find words such as “vision” or “strategy” a bit abstract.
So what is a product vision?
When one Googles around for “product vision,” definitions pop up in various sizes and flavors. To thoroughly understand the idea of a vision, it is important to also understand two other concepts: strategy and tactics.
Here is how I would explain these concepts to a product newcomer:
- Vision: the goal you’re trying to achieve
- Strategy: doing the right things toward achieving this goal
- Tactics: doing these things right
Illustrating via an Analogy
Let’s use an analogy. Suppose I would like to plan an exciting Christmas getaway with my girlfriend this year. I’ve often heard from friends about how Strasbourg turns into a magical place with its elaborate Christmas market. So I begin planning a trip from Heidelberg to Strasbourg by pulling up Google Maps. After a quick dance with the loading spinner, Google Maps presents many options for how to get from Heidelberg to Strasbourg, including going via car, transit or even bicycle. Each transportation mode comes with several routes that I could take.
This user interface captures the essence of “vision” and “strategy” very well. In this case, I have the vision of “an exciting Christmas getaway in Strasbourg,” and Google Maps helps me understand the various strategies I could employ to get there (i.e., mode of transport and route). Just like in the realm of products, there are often several different routes that one could take to arrive at a single destination.
We can continue expanding on this analogy by choosing a transportation mode, then selecting one of the routes. At this point, the user interface outlines detailed turn-by-turn
directions for the route that I have selected. These steps represent the tactical features or milestones that I must achieve to stay on course with the selected strategy: to follow a route that Google Maps recommends for driving from Heidelberg to Strasbourg, I need to carefully follow each turn that it prescribes. Another way tactics play into this analogy could be ways to prepare for the trip so as to minimize the need to stop along the way, such as filling up the gas tank before leaving or bringing lunch. The message here is simple: to properly execute against a product strategy, we need to use the right tactics and make sure they add up to something bigger.
Six Reasons for Having a Product Vision
Now that we have discussed what product visions are at a high level, I hope you understand why they are so important. For those who are still skeptical, there are many practical reasons why you should have a product vision. I will highlight six of my favorite reasons below:
1. Visions Are a Prerequisite for Change
In 1997, the late Steve Jobs narrated a famous TV commercial for Apple called “The Crazy Ones.” The spot ends with him saying: “…the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world… are the ones who do.”
This quote has always stuck with me because it captures the idea that innovation always starts with someone who believes he or she can create something and change the world. For me to have an amazing Christmas getaway in Strasbourg, I need to first have the idea of going on such a trip, and then believe enough in it to act on it. Similarly, to create a product that moves humanity forward, someone must first come up with an idea of how to do so and then act on it with conviction.
See also: How to Speed Up Product Development
2. Visions Simplify Ideas
One of the school games that left the deepest impression on me was “Telephone,” where the teacher lined up all of the students in a single row and then whispered something into the ear of the first student. The teacher instructed this student to pass on the message by whispering into the ear of the next student. This process repeated until the last student in line received the message. It was always surprising how different the initial message was from what the last student reported.
This game taught me a simple yet important lesson at a young age: Communication is hard. It is especially difficult at scale, where complex ideas must be conveyed across many different teams and organizations. Within the context of a tech startup, how can we make sure that the vision our founders have in their heads is clearly understood by the entire company so that we can collectively execute toward this common end goal?
This is where the product vision comes in — as a team, it is crucial for us to develop a clear and concise vision that conveys the essence of our shared end goal. We should then regularly use this vision in our communication to maximize the chances of everyone understanding the same version of the vision. Each word in the vision statement should serve a specific function toward guiding the team, rather than needlessly adding complexity or further diluting the message. If we do this well, any single team member should be able to articulate an understanding of the vision that matches what the founders had in mind when they founded the company.
3. Visions Align Groups
As companies grow, the responsibilities of team members tend to become increasingly specialized. On a day-to-day basis, this means that people will spend most of their time working on a specific part of the vision and become an expert in that area. While this phenomenon is an important part of organizational evolution, it is important that all team members retain an understanding of how their part fits into the overall collective goal. A well-crafted and clearly communicated product vision can serve as an important tool for aligning groups and empowering team members to make better decisions independently.
4. Visions Unlock Collective Imagination
Different people can have varying perspectives of the same reality. Because of this, a product vision is often the single most empowering tool you can give your team. Given the same goal, team members may have a slightly different view on it, enabling them to use their own imagination to work toward it in a slightly different way. Thus, a well-articulated product vision can be the key that unlocks the maximum potential of your team. When this is done effectively, the collective intelligence of the group will always outperform any individual person regardless of how smart that person may be.
5. Visions Help Distinguish “Motion” From “Progress”
The product vision is the goal of our journey, so it is naturally the single most valuable reference point for differentiating motion from progress. If we ride a horse with our eyes closed, it would be difficult to tell whether we are getting closer to our final destination or not. Conversely, if we know where we want to go and do a pretty good job of keeping our eyes on the prize throughout the trip, we will have a much better idea of whether we’re getting closer with each milestone that we achieve.
6. Visions Support Effective Prioritization
Similar to #5 above, a product vision provides a quick and simple way to articulate tradeoffs between ideas and make sure we are focusing on the things with the most impact for our customers. The vision helps articulate the amount of “user value” that any given project delivers because everything we do should slightly improve the status quo and move the world closer to the new reality that we’re trying to create.
I hope you’re now convinced and eager to start creating a product vision of your own. The next section discusses some tips for how to go about doing so.
How do I create a product vision?
Vision is about telling a story. When I lived in Seattle, I used to attend this wonderful meetup called “Fresh Ground Stories” hosted by a man named Paul Currington. It occurs monthly
and operates like an open mic specifically for storytelling. Thirty minutes before the event begins, anyone can put his or her name into a box and sign up to tell a story as long as the stories are real and about the individual themselves. I once signed up to tell a story; I was very nervous, so I asked Paul for some advice. He smiled, then calmly said: “Always know your last line before you begin.”
As I continued working in product over the years, I’ve found this advice very helpful for articulating product visions. Within the context of storytelling, your last line is your goal. It is how you want to leave the world when you are done. For product, your vision is what you ultimately want to achieve. It is the summary of how you envision the world looking when you have finished what you’re creating.
At this point, we get into some territory that can be tricky to explain because there isn’t really a “right answer” for how to go about coming up with great product visions. There isn’t a checklist of specific tasks to complete that will ensure you have a 100% success rate. Similar to telling a story or writing a novel, product visions can require lots of imagination and creativity, and inspiration for doing so can come from anywhere.
See also: A Vision for 2028, Powered by Telematics
Sources of Inspiration
There are two primary buckets: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic inspiration comes from within: ideas and feelings that I notice within myself, which I then try to tie into the product that I am working on. Here are some examples:
- “Imagine a world where…”: A vision can be as simple as seeing what comes out when you try to finish the sentence.
- Dissatisfaction with the current world: When was the last time you felt like something about the world just could be better? What didn’t feel right about it? How would you make it better if you had a magic wand?
- Intuition and gut feeling: Sometimes we just have a feeling that something is off and could be improved. Explore these feelings, and try to get to the bottom of them.
Extrinsic inspiration comes from surroundings: observations about the world that could inform the next step in an ever-evolving society. Some examples are:
- People around you: When was the last time someone you know said something smart? How might you expand on those ideas and integrate them into your product?
- Gaps in existing products: What does the competition look like? Are there any customer segments that are underserved?
- Trends from other industries: Are there other industries that are going through similar changes? For instance, how might we compare and contrast insurtech with fintech and e-commerce?
- History of the world: Are there past events that vaguely resemble what’s happening in your product area? For example, what parallels can you draw between the rise of manufacturing and the rise of automation?
- Random person on the street: Basically, extrinsic inspiration can come from anywhere. Perhaps the most important thing is that we pay attention and take time to reflect a bit when we find something interesting.
Giving It a Shot
Armed with the tips from above, perhaps you are ready to create your own product vision now. If you feel comfortable, please share your visions in the comments section; I would love to see what kind of great ideas you have, let’s have a discussion.