How to Create a Product Vision
I ran a poll recently on LinkedIn asking people to select a topic for a blog post, and surprisingly (at least to me), the dominant choice was “Creating a Product Vision”.
So here it is, as promised.
TL;DR — A Product Vision is a statement of purpose. It is a narrative telling the reader WHY your product exists and HOW it will benefit your customers, the market, the world etc.
A Product Vision helps create focus and alignment, provides context and flexibility and helps avoid distraction for the team and company.
Creating a vision is an iterative and collaborative exercise that should include a broad range of participants both inside and outside your company.
Visions are living documents that are referenced regularly and are used to maintain direction and alignment as teams, objectives and market conditions change.
Table of Contents
- What is a Vision?
- What is a Product Vision?
- Why a Vision is Important?
- Vision vs. Mission
- Vision vs. Vision Statement
- Who should Create a Product Vision
- How to Create a Product Vision
- Components of a Product Vision
— Current (Market) Situation
— A Problem that Exists
— Relevant Trends
— The Opportunity at Hand
— Challenges to Overcome (optional)
— Stepping Stones to your Vision (optional)
- Using the Vision
- Updating the Vision
- Final Notes
And if you make it to the bottom 😃, I’d love some feedback. There a link to a feedback form.
The terms “Product Vision” or “Company Vision” are often used in product or business discussions, and one can find and read lots of (often contradictory) blog posts and articles about them.
And certainly looking at examples of Company Visions (there aren’t a lot of published Product Visions) it’s clear why there might be confusion.
Ironically, for a term called Vision, there’s not a lot of clarity on exactly what they are, how to create them, and most critically, why they are important. Often they are ignored, seen as “fluff” or defined and then forgotten.
This post will:
- explain what a Vision is
- provide a structured approach on how to define a Vision
- AND explain how to use it in ongoing Product work.
What is a Vision?
Let me start with this diagram. I call it the Vision Stack.
This diagram shows the inter-relationships between several entities such as Vision, Strategy, Roadmap etc. We won’t dig too much into the Vision Stack here, but notice how you can see both Business Vision and Product Vision listed. They sit prominently in the stack and serve as the first (and top) layers. Every successive layer supports them, but those constrained by the layers above them.
While I’ll focus on Product Vision, the same information I share can be (and should be) applied to create a Business Vision. In fact, IMHO, for a multi-product company, the Business Vision becomes VERY important because the individual Product Visions can be defined to support and align with the Business Vision. e.g for a company with 3 products, the stacks would look like:
Note that for a very early stage startup, you’ll likely have a Product Vision BEFORE you’ve defined a Company Vision. And that’s not a problem. The visions are defined over time and in a startup, the product and company are almost one and the same. But over time, it’s important to have both a clear set of business and product visions.
The dictionary defines vision as:
- the act or power of sensing with the eyes; sight.
- the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be: prophetic vision; the vision of an entrepreneur.
- an experience in which a personage, thing, or event appears vividly or credibly to the mind, although not actually present, often under the influence of a divine or other agency: a heavenly messenger appearing in a vision.
- something seen or otherwise perceived during such an experience: The vision revealed its message.
- a vivid, imaginative conception or anticipation: visions of wealth and glory.
Of these 5 definitions, only #2 is close to what we need, but it’s not really appropriate.
What is a Product Vision?
So let’s define what a Product Vision is.
A Product Vision is a description (or a narrative) of the positive, long-term (possibly timeless) aspirational goals or impact you want your product to provide to customers and/or the market.
Let’s break that down:
- Aspirational — Something ambitious you want to acheive, possibly even inspirational
- Goals or Impact — An outcome or advantage your product or company provides
- Customers/Market — The vision is focused on them, not your company or your product
It’s about the impact provided TO your customers/market and not specifically ABOUT what your product does.
Why a Vision is Important
A Vision provides a number of benefits that prove incredibly helpful and valuable:
- Clear Context and Direction: The vision defines the context of the problems the product will address, and a stated direction for the product. It also provides clarity on WHY the product exists and WHY the product is important.
- Team and Company Alignment: A clearly defined product vision will align product teams and the company on the WHY of the product and HOW the product supports the company’s vision as a whole. It can also help in recruiting/hiring as it defines a clear purpose for the product that people can attach themselves to.
- Avoid Distraction: As new ideas or customer opportunities emerge, a product vision helps the team and company stay focused on what is important and not get sidetracked by “shiny objects” that appear. i.e. it becomes easy to evaluate if a new initiative or opportunity supports the vision or not, and whether it fits into the current direction and priorities of the product.
- Flexibility: A product vision defines the purpose of the product. This means there may be different ways to achieve that purpose and so the company and product teams have flexibility in HOW to fulfill that purpose; especially as new technologies or trends appear, or changes happen in the market.
Vision vs. Mission
Let’s discuss the difference between a Vision and Mission. We often hear Vision/Mission used together, and sometimes interchangeably, but they are different, and understanding the difference is important and should help better clarify what a Vision is.
A Mission is the long term thing (for lack of a better term) you want (your product or company) to do.
Okay, that’s not the most technical definition, but let’s dig into it. Probably the most famous Mission of all time comes from Star Trek. What is the mission of the Star Ship Enterprise? I know you know it.
A 5-year Mission: To seek out new life, new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.
Notice it’s clearly a statement of action; what they will do.
It doesn’t say anything about WHY they’re seeking out new life or WHY they’re going where no one has gone before. Nor does it talk about what impact they want to make when they find those new civilizations.
For all we know, their VISION could be to bring order to the galaxy by conquering and enslaving civilizations they meet*. i.e. the goal or impact.
Now we all know that wasn’t the vision of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise, but it could have been, if all we know about is the Mission.
NOTE: In the original Star Trek series, in an episode called Mirror Mirror, the crew of the Enterprise actually encountered duplicate evil versions of themselves who lived to conquer other planets. Same mission, but VERY different vision.
So we can summarize as follows:
Your Mission is your aspiration of what you will do. (The WHAT)
Your Vision is your aspiration of the goal(s) you want to achieve or the impact you want to make. (The WHY)
Clearly a Mission statement is easier to articulate than a Vision, because the Mission is more tangible. It’s also how we naturally think when we want to do something.
But as seen with the Star Trek example, a Mission on it’s own is incomplete, because it doesn’t describe the WHY, and the WHY is the most important thing we need to articulate when we’re planning something ambitious.
NOTE: Mission and Vision are not used consistently by companies, and often you’ll read a Mission Statement that sounds more like the Vision definition I’ve given above.
I’m noting it here because if you do search you will find VISION statements like this one from Disney.
“To be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.”
This, IMHO is actually an objective. It starts with “To be” and then describes what Disney wants to do. That is not a Vision IMHO.
Vision vs. Vision Statement
There’s one more comparison I want to make and that is the difference between a Vision, which I defined earlier as a “description or a narrative” and a Vision Statement.
You’ve probably read a lot of Vision Statements. These are the short, pithy single line statements you encounter on websites or in marketing literature. Here are some you may have heard of:
Netflix — “…we want to entertain the world.”
Ikea — “To create a better everyday life for the many people.”
Nike— “Bring inspiration to every athlete in the world and to make sport a daily habit.”
These 3 short statements above are Vision Statements. They encapsulate a lot of information into a few words and summarize what the company wants to acheive.
But in order to create these types of pithy statements, you should first create the Vision, the narrative, and THEN distill it down to that pithy summary.
Who Should Create the Product Vision?
This will depend on the size and maturity of the company, but, in general, the Product Vision should be the responsibility of the Product organization — Product Manager, Director, VP etc. — with cross-functional input and participation from key groups such as Sales, Marketing, Engineering and others.
If there isn’t a Product organization — perhaps in a very small startup, then the Founder(s) should take charge and create a vision, and include other executives in the process.
In a scale up or small company where there is a Product organization (albeit tiny) , the Founders or senior management — CEO, VPs of Sales, Marketing, Engineering etc. should all participate — give input and feedback throughout the process. This is important because you want both their input, but also their buy-in to both the Vision process as well as the Vision itself, once it is created.
In a larger company with multiple products, the cross-functional participation requirement still stands, but the titles may be very different. Perhaps it’s not the VP of Engineering or CTO, but a division Engineering leader. The same may be true for the other groups like Sales, Marketing etc., but the responsibility for creating the Vision and driving the process still lies with the Product org.
How to Create a Product Vision
Here is a high level process for creating a Vision. Note that this is an interactive process; you won’t “get it right” the first time, AND it is also a collaborative process.
It should include a diversity of people from across the company and also include input from trusted people outside the company. In short, here’s a process to follow:
- Share the process laid out in this article with internal parties. This includes necessary executives, and members of product, engineering, service, marketing, finance and other appropriate groups you want to include.
- Create the first version of the vision with input from the internal parties.
- Socialize the vision internally, getting feedback and refining it as needed.
- Once you’re reasonably satisfied with the internal version, share it with trusted parties externally and get their input.
- Look for any gaps or assumptions that need to be addressed.
- Update the Vision and then publish and share and evangelize internally with your team, org or company.
Components of a Product Vision
So what exactly is in a Product Vision — that narrative that I described earlier?
To me, the Vision has the following components:
- Current (Market) Situation
- A Problem that Exists
- Relevant Trends
- The Opportunity at Hand
- Challenges to be Overcome (optional)
- Stepping Stones to your Vision (optional)
Let’s dig into each of these.
NOTE: In each of the following sections I’ll use the example of an enterprise data testing product and build out a vision for it. This is actually a product I worked on about 10 years ago, from VERY early stages (<5 customers) until it had over 400 enterprise customers after a several years.
Also note that this example is just an example. I’m creating it for this article. It’s not what we used back then. We had a vision, but it was not articulated as clearly as it is here. Also, this vision is not perfect, but is here for illustrative purposes to help clarify the concepts. I’d love to hear your questions on it.
A document containing the full vision defined below can be found here.
1. Current (Market) Situation
It’s important to ground the vision in the present. The reader or audience has to start somewhere, and helping them see what you see in the world today — even if it seems obvious to you— is important.
The Vision will take people on a journey from the present to the future so make sure they start that journey with you with clarity. Here’s an example:
Data management is growing in importance with many new tools for data integration, metadata management, data profiling and data quality being released and maturing. But testing (i.e. QA) of data, to ensure it is complete and accurate as it is processed by these systems, remains immature and in most cases is performed manually via SQL or, even worse, spreadsheets and visual inspection.
Some companies have adapted other tools (e.g. data profiling/cleansing) to perform testing and verification. But those tools are not intended for this purpose.
We have identified a couple of products in the market that provide data verification but they are very narrowly focused in specific domains. Overall it’s a very early market with few, if any, direct competitors.
This lays out the market as we saw it back then. It’s a brief but honest assessment of the market that we were looking at.
2. Problem That Exists
The Problem (or problems) are tied to the Market Situation described above. i.e. The market looks like X and there is a problem Y (that you see) that exists at this time.
Note that a problem is always tied to some group of people or companies or other entities (the WHO).
Given this is a Vision, you don’t need to be overly specific about the WHO, but there should be a clear target in mind as you define the Problem and the Vision. Some mention of the scale or impact of the problem is also very helpful so readers see that this is meaningful problem to focus on.
Here is how I would frame the problem at that time:
Data is the lifeblood of most enterprises, and companies spend billions of dollars every year to process it. But the systems and processes are error-prone. We only hear about the most egregious problems in the news, such as this incident where Paypal credited a customer 92 quadrillion (yes quadrillion) dollars, or this incident where people were billed huge erroneous amounts — in one case $44 million dollars — for medical services.
And if these egregious errors can happen, how many smaller ones that impact companies and people happen that we don’t hear about? In the US alone, bad data costs companies billions, if not trillions of dollars in lost productivity, opportunity and time. Data can be incorrect, inconsistent, incomplete, duplicated, conflicting and more.
And this data affects everyone from sales and marketing teams to customer service departments, finance departments and executives who need to trust the data they use to make key decisions.
Additionally, customers who are impacted by these data problems, not just the big ones listed earlier, but also the untold smaller ones that occur, have to spend time and effort to get them fixed. Bad contact information, credit scores, transaction data, financial data and much more all impact us in ways we often don’t realize UNTIL it’s too late.
This problem is significant and needs to be addressed.
Here we’ve clearly laid out the problem, provided a couple of significant examples and a quick reference to the scope of the problem. Note that this is not a market research paper, so it doesn’t have to be deep and authoritative, but it should be directionally correct and believable. i.e. the problem is real, you provide enough context to show that and make your case.
3. Relevant Trends
The Relevant Trends are the technology, industry, business, environmental, societal or other major trends that will impact the market and the problem you are addressing. Given the Vision is meant to be long term (5+ years), the trends should be significant trends that can aid you and your product over a number of years.
Societal trends such as a focus on fitness/health, environmental consciousness, reducing consumption, distributed workplaces etc. — or technological trends such as the Cloud, AI, Big Data, Wearable computing etc. or Business/Industry trends such as Industry 4.0, Cybersecurity are all examples of longer term trends that would be a good fit, depending on the kind of product you have.
In the case of the data testing market, there were two major trends we leveraged:
- The increase in enterprise data volumes
- The increase in the formats (and thus complexity) of enterprise data
Here’s how I would have framed the trends for the Vision:
While a lot of data is stored in relational databases, and SQL is a common tool to use for testing data, there are limitations to SQL that make using it problematic. e.g. related data in 2 different SQL databases (e.g. Oracle and Teradata) must be first brought together before being tested.
Along with the extra work, that data movement introduces the potential for adding errors into the data. There is also increasing use of flat file data, XML, JSON and various Big Data formats.
Beyond that, we are seeing data stored in the cloud in MANY systems for MANY purposes, including sales and marketing automation, finance, HR, analytics and more.
The reality is that the spread (or disintegration) of data across countless systems and formats, as well as the massive increases in volumes of enterprise data mean a new approach for data testing is needed that supports this new complex data landscape faced by enterprises.
We’ve articulated the trends and combined with the problem previously described, set up the reader to see the opportunity.
4. The Opportunity at Hand
Here is where you lay out the opportunity and (in effect) the vision in a concise way. This is not a pitch to a VC, but a consolidation of your thinking that is the inevitable conclusion of the 3 previous sections that came before.
You’re painting a picture (a forward looking one) of a better world, market, society etc. that you see. Here’s the opportunity for that data testing product (and possibly other solutions to address the problem) to have an impact.
Here’s how I would have framed the Opportunity:
There are many companies providing tools to help develop data applications for scenarios like data warehousing, data consolidation, application integration etc. But there are few, if any, products to help test those applications and ensure the data they process is error-free. This is why SQL and manual testing are in such predominant use.
We see a market gap and an opportunity to create automation tools specifically designed for QA Teams (and even developers) to perform large-scale, flexible data testing WITHOUT the requirement to know SQL and without the need for deep technical skills.
These tools will enable teams and enterprises to have high levels of confidence in their data, make better decisions, take bolder actions based on the data, and reduce the time, effort and need to fix data problems that were missed in the data management process.
The Opportunity is defined and the impact (the WHY) is described — high confidence in data to make better decisions and take bolder actions, while also reducing the time/effort/need to fix problematic data.
Notice that we’ve haven’t specified HOW this will be done. That’s part of the company strategy, roadmap, plans etc.
At this point the combination of the four sections can be viewed as the Vision, and the section about confidence, better decisions, taking actions etc. can be wordsmithed into a Vision Statement. Perhaps something like:
“No executive should fear that errors in corporate data will put them on the front page of the papers or make them the butt of jokes in their industry. We want to help enterprises confidently make better and bolder decisions without the fear that their data is incorrect or compromised.”
This could be shortened to just the last sentence (or even a fragment of it:
“…to help enterprises confidently make better and bolder decisions without the fear that their data is incorrect or compromised.”
Optional Sections of the Vision
The following two sections are optional when creating a Vision. Keep in mind that as you learn more about your markets and better understand the path you’ll follow, you can add more information to the Vision.
Two areas that can be added to the Vision are related to challenges to overcome and some major stepping stones to help achieve your vision. Both of these sections overlap a bit with high-level strategy, but having them in the Vision, if needed, can be helpful at keeping the Vision ‘real’ and not simply a fantasy or a dream.
5. Challenges to Address
Every product (or company) faces challenges, especially if you’re doing something very new and different. It’s important to understand these challenges and articulate them if you can.
A Vision that doesn’t acknowledge major known challenges is simply wishful thinking.
For example, Tesla, as a leader in creating electric vehicles, didn’t just have the challenge of building electric vehicles, but had to think through EVERYTHING related to building, selling and supporting those vehicles.
- How to build high-quality EVs AT SCALE and economically?
- How would people charge their vehicles, both at home and out on the road?
- Who would install those chargers? Where would external chargers be installed? Who would maintain them?
- How could Tesla vehicles get service? Or be repaired in case of accidents?
- Who would service/repair them?
- How would those service/repair organizations be trained?
- What about spare parts? How would they be managed, shipped, priced?
There were (and still are) a lot of challenges for Tesla, and it’s important to understand them, document them and think about how to address them.
If there are significant challenges to achieving your Product Vision, whether logistic, technological, social etc. that could impact your company or product over the long term, then you may want to put them into the Vision. This will help readers understand that there are obstacles to overcome and those should be part of your company or product objectives and strategy over time.
In the case of the Data Testing product, we could list some of the challenges as follows:
Given there are few, if any, automated data testing products on the market, this represents a new category of product that we have to evangelize. Within companies there are no explicit budgets for this kind of product so we’ll have to educate the market, influencers (such as industry analysts) and our buyers on the value and benefit of these products.
There may also be challenges in getting acceptance of new products by the QA Teams themselves. Change and automation can be seen as a threat by people and so we may need to develop and position these products so they are seen as complementary and not as replacement for the QA Teams.
6. Stepping Stones to your Vision
A Vision is a LONG-TERM view of the change we want to make. We can rarely move from today to the future in one step. In our case, these data testing tools are promising to deliver a LOT — high confidence decision making based on trustworthy data. And as data complexity and volumes grow, the products will have a lot of ground to cover.
So how can we get from today’s manual testing to the future (nirvana state) of broad, automated testing of large volumes of complex, distributed data?
One way to think through this part of the vision is to think of stepping stones. i.e. a progression of (major) deliverables or stages to move towards the vision.
Referencing Tesla again, back in 2006, they published their “Secret Master Plan”. It lays out a roughly 10-year mission for the company. It’s worth a read. At the bottom, the mission is summarized as:
1. Build sports car
2. Use that money to build an affordable car
3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
Now, the above is VERY simplified, and yes, I said “10-year mission” above, not vision. These are the (high-level) stepping stones Tesla was looking at over the 10 years of that document. The vision for Tesla was to help the world transition away from carbon-based fuels. The stepping stones — think of them as stages or milestones — are a high level view of HOW they will move towards that vision.
So in the case of automated data testing tools, we could phase it as follows:
1. Start by focusing on relational databases and flat flat files which are the most common types of data used in enterprise applications (e.g. warehouses etc.)
2. We’ll then move to more complex formats like XML, JSON and other complex Big Data formats (used in application exchange and data lakes)
3. We’ll then include Cloud based systems including popular ones like Salesforce, Workday, ServiceNow, NetSuite etc.
The goal is broad coverage across on-premise and Cloud data systems, building coverage based on market demand and data trends as they emerge.
The stepping stones help articulate the order of focus. This doesn’t mean it cannot be changed, but that simply at the time of writing of the Vision, this is a logical progression to consider for the future.
NOTE: A document containing the full vision defined above can be found here.
Using the Vision
Once the Vision and Vision Statement are defined, they should be kept front and center when working on Product.
For example, publish the Vision in a prominent place on an internal website.
Evagelize the vision and vision statement to internal teams, especially marketing and sales, so they understand the WHY for the product.
Refer to the Vision or Vision Statement every time a roadmap presentation is given.
When any new initiatve or major product capability is considered, always reference the Vision and see how well it aligns with the vision (or not).
In short, the Vision should be seen as an active reference document to maintain alignment and focus, and not just an academic exercise that is forgotten after it is completed.
Updating the Vision
As much as the Vision is meant to be “long term” or “timeless”, the reality is that the Vision is a hypothesis about the future, and we cannot predict the future.
As the market situation changes, or the company direction changes, AND if it materially impacts the Vision in a positive or negative way, it’s important to update the Vision to keep it current.
My recommendation is to revisit the Vision once per year and review if it’s still aligned with the market and company direction. If it is, great. If it’s not then update it accordingly and share it within the company to ensure everyone is aware of the changes and remains aligned with it.
A Vision can be a powerful tool if used well. Many companies don’t have a clear company vision, and few if any companies will have Product Visions for the products. And yet, doing the work to define, publish and socialize a vision within a product team or within a company is an investment in alignment and focus that will pay dividends down the line.
We never take on major efforts in our lives — education, weddings, large purchases like a home etc — without a vision of what we want and why. And yet in business, companies will embark on significant initiatives like new products without a clearly defined vision.
It’s time to change that and reap the benefits that will provide.
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