A Boring But Colourful Guide to Product Vision
There is almost no product or service on the market that you can’t buy from someone else for almost the same price or even cheaper. It will be at the same quality, have similar features, design and overall user experience. If you have a first-mover advantage it will, most probably, be lost in a matter of a couple of months. If you offer a novelty as “innovation”, at any moment someone else will come with a better version.
Nowadays, in the ocean of useless products that become out of date in weeks or a couple of months, we need more inspiring and compelling product visions. Visions that inspire loyalty, action and creativity. Otherwise we risk to make our product a commodity.
The primary goal of a product vision is to inspire teams to want to make it a reality. When done well, the product vision may be one of the best recruitment tools a company may have.
A product vision describes the future a company is trying to create. And it usually lays a map for the next five years. For hardware companies, it is up to 10 years. And I would like to add up here that the product vision is not the same as your mission statement.
For a team to be empowered and act with any meaningful degree of autonomy, they must have a deep understanding of a broader context. A vision will make them want to change the world to a better place. It will inspire them to come to work everyday and do the small steps for a greater result. And all of this starts with a clear product vision and strategy.
The difference between good product vision and strategy is the same as the difference between good leadership and management. Leadership inspires, and management helps us get there. The product vision must be inspiring, and product strategy must be focused.
After analysing companies such as Amazon, Tesla, Apple and Google and bunch of other successful startups I came up with ten fundamental product vision principles you can steal from them. These principles will allow you to come up with a compelling product vision. Here is the much promised colourful guide:
People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe — Simon Sinek
1. Start with why
Could not begin the list without Simon Sinek’s talk Start With Why. The most important point, of course, is to articulate your purpose. Everything else comes from it. Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief — WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?
In the ocean of peer pressure, constantly lowering prices, matching all competitor’s features, give as much stuff for free as possible — your why is what will bring the customer loyalty to you. Something that will never be exchanged for a better feature or lower price that your competitors can offer.
Where there is no vision the people perish — Proverbs 29:18
2. Fall in love with the problem…
…and not with the solution. This may sound like something repeating and cliche, but still, too many companies are not following this step. You should focus all your energy on the outcome and not the output. The outcome is your focus. And usually, it comes as an inspiration from your customer. Trying to make their lives better on a daily basis is an outcome. But trying to give them a faster Internet speed is just another output that can easily be matched by your competitors.
If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise — Robert Fritz
3. Don’t be afraid to have a big vision
Too often we can see products that are not ambitious enough. Their goals or visions limit themselves to six months or one year max. And this is not enough to inspire anyone. Your vision and dream should scare you. It should be ambitious enough for people to join you on this journey. Accept yourself as you are, because a lot of people will identify themselves with it. Step out of the grey middle and take a bold side.
Create your future from your future, not your past — Werner Erhard
4. Put yourself out of the business
Don’t be afraid to disrupt yourself, because if you don’t someone else will do it for you. So many companies are focused on protecting what they have created that they stop innovating.
For example, look at Kodak, and you will have a lifetime of lessons for your business. The unwillingness of the company to innovate a brought them a disaster. They forgot that times change fast and no technology is here to remain.
Society as we know it is rapidly evolving thanks to a deluge of innovation. We live in a world where drones could soon drop the delivery to our doors 30 minutes after we place our orders. Innovations are impacting us at a substantial rate, and businesses need to move swiftly to keep pace as the market evolves.
It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does — Peter Senge
5. Product vision has to inspire
To create a great product we need a team of missionaries and not mercenaries. An organisation that is inspired and dedicated to work for the outcome. Your vision must inspire a missionary-like passion in your company. Create something that you can get excited about that will make you love coming to work every day. It does not have to be something extraordinary. If you focus on how to genuinely help your customers have a better life than you already are on the right path.
In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield— Warren Buffett
6. Determine and embrace new and meaningful trends
Too many companies ignore the trends far too long until it’s late. But the problem lies not in identifying them but applying them to your organisation. You have to understand how they can impact your company and solve customer problems in new and better ways.
If you are in a large company, it’s never easy to drive substantial change. There is always a long roadmap, process or office politics that will not allow these trends to be applied or even taken into account. You will to take responsibility, take small steps towards your goal that will not disturb anyone. So once you are there and the end benefit is evident to everybody, it will be more comfortable to onboard people with your vision.
The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious— John Scully
7. Don’t follow the herd
An essential element of product vision is identifying the things that are changing, as well as things that won’t. Some ideas are too optimistic and unrealistic at how fast things will change, and others are too conservative. This is usually the most challenging aspect of a good product vision. So make sure that others do not influence your opinion, and you take time to think about the details and see all the possible outcomes. Once you are sure about your road, follow it with confidence.
You have to know what you want. And if it seems to take you off the track, don’t hold back, because perhaps that is instinctively where you want to be. And if you hold back and try to be always where you have been before, you will go dry — Gertrude Stein
8. Be stubborn on vision but flexible on details.
Jeff Bezos is right that so many companies give up on their product vision far too soon. This is called vision pivot. But mostly it is a sign of weak organisation. It is never too easy along the way, but you also have to be careful not to get tangled into the details. It is possible that you will have to adjust to a new course during the journey before you reach your desired destination. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So if changing your direction means a better future, you must do it.
In order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles— David Ben-Gurion
9. Any product vision is a leap of faith
If you could genuinely validate your vision, probably it isn’t ambitious enough. It will, most likely, take several years before you will find out. So make sure that you recruit people that can support you along the journey, as it will be hard. So having a vision that is meaningful for you and your organisation will smoothen the road. Like a bottle of water for a traveler in the desert.
As I already mentioned in a previous article, you can write a bestselling book in one year or a classic in five. But those five years will come with pain, agony and tears because you will see how everyone else does it and you are still not finished. So are you ready to work and wait for your vision to come to life or you will be like everyone else?
If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
10. Evangelise continuously and relentlessly
Guy Kawasaki once said that product evangelism is selling the dream. It’s helping people imagine and inspire to create the future. And when inspiring them, you should be sincere and genuinely excited about what you want to create. Enthusiasm is contagious. So there are no such things as over-communicating when it comes to explaining and selling your vision.
If you are a company founder, CEO or the head of product, it is a significant and essential skill for you to acquire and have. Why? Because you will have hard times assembling a team or inspiring people to action and risks towards your product vision.
In case there is no product vision…
In the absence of one, a decision is harder to make. And when in doubt we start looking at science, data, to guide us. Some companies will tell you that the reason why they do that is because it’s what their customers asked for. Quality, service, price, new features. Customers requested and output and you instantly forgot what the outcome should be.
Further reading on the topic: