Create a Winning Product Vision

By Paul Spencer

When product managers need inspiration, it's common for them to look to the words of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who changed the world with his notion of simplicity and design. Strangely, they can also learn a thing or two from non-traditional business sources, such as the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger.

"To the person who does not know where he wants to go, there is no favorable wind," Seneca is quoted as saying.

In the development of new products, nothing creates more favorable winds than a well-considered and clearly articulated vision. In the same way that an organization's vision statement creates a clear sense of ownership and purpose for an enterprise, a product vision points the way to long-term success for whatever you are trying to sell to your target customer group.

To the person who does not know where he wants to go, there is no favorable wind.


That is, of course, as long as the product vision is smartly created with the right balance of inspiration, big thinking, and practical, sensible direction that can unite product managers, sales representatives, marketers, engineers, the service organization, and many others toward a destination.

Product vision alone, of course, doesn't guarantee success. The product development process that goes with it requires the proper structure so the organization can make quick decisions on tradeoffs that will impact budget and delivery times.

How do you create a product vision? That's a question that many managers ask, and only a portion of them find an answer successful. Our advice: Start with your destination and work backward. Let's consider what that means.

The Big Picture of Vision Statements

An organization operating without a shared vision statement is like a hiker heading into the woods without a map. Vision statements pinpoint a destination that leaders should strive to reach with the ideas they present, the investments they choose, their decisions, and how they carry themselves.

It tells the external world why the organization exists and what it hopes to achieve by being in business. At the same time, visions serve as a compass for employees, providing inspiration and direction, a platform for strategic pursuits to fulfill the company's goals.

Interestingly, vision statements don't require many words. In fact, the best statement emphasizes simplicity to get their point across to the world. For example, the vision of the Swedish furniture retailer IKEA calls on employees to "create better lives for as many people as possible." The statement is a clear call to a workforce responsible for producing practical and easy-to-assemble home and office goods.

There are many notable vision statements, and not surprisingly, they come from some of the world's most successful companies. Ben & Jerry's wants to be "making the world's best ice cream in the nicest way possible." Kellogg envisions "a good and just world where people are not just fed but fulfilled."

In technology, Microsoft aspires to "help people throughout the world realize their full potential," while Google wants to "provide access to the world's information in one click."

Though short and to the point, much work goes into crafting a vision statement everyone can relate to.

Creating a Product Vision Statement

Organization vision statements set the stage for your product vision statement. Any product or service you create has to deliver value toward fulfilling the aspirations of the overall vision statement.

Think of vision statements as a set of steps. The overall vision for the organization is at the top; the product (or service) vision exists as steps toward the larger vision.

Why are they necessary? You can't finish writing a book unless you know how you want it to end ahead of time. The same is valid for products. It would help if you had a clear understanding of what you are driving toward -- what problems the product intends to solve and how success will change the equilibrium for your target audience.

You often hear discussion of a product roadmap, which reflects that customers are not monoliths. They have various needs and wants, and sometimes it takes adjacent products to satisfy them all. In the software world, that roadmap may involve laying out a period over which you will add new features.

Or it may include different products entirely -- ones that appeal to more budget-conscious customers or address other requirements. For instance, Tesla founder Elon Musk met with investors and announced an updated product roadmap that includes plans for a cybertruck, a semi-truck, and the Roadster Supercar. You can draw a line between these announcements and the Tesla vision: "to create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world's transition to electric vehicles."

According to software-maker Atlassian, a product roadmap is "a shared source of truth that outlines the vision, direction, priorities, and progress of a product over time."

How does a vision statement come together? As we've noted, you need to begin with the end destination in mind. It's hard to do, and many organizations have run into trouble from either a lack of a compelling product vision or they have misread the end state.

Unless you have ESP, you can't possibly know what impact awaits. However, the more you know and engage with your customers, the closer you get. And you need to ask yourself and your customers some fundamental questions.

  • What is the unmet need you're trying to fulfill?
  • What is happening in the marketplace and for your customers when you reach the end?
  • What does it look like, and what does it feel like?
  • And perhaps most importantly: what happens next?

The product vision is inspirational and achievable but slightly out of reach. You can never do enough to create an environment where employees continue to strive. The statement should be clear, visual, and slightly audacious even.

Like goal statements, the product vision should provide a time frame. There is not just one destination; there may be several for one, three, and five years in the future. The vision statement also needs to be flexible. Things change. Customers change. You are telling a story, but it's not a retrospective - it is just a snapshot in time.

Why The Vision Thing Matters

A clearly constructed vision statement provides inspiration and direction. Surprisingly, it also contributes to a more profitable and successful operational structure.

Good managers will adopt an iterative approach because no one can know for sure sitting in the office what the perfect end-product is. Create, test, learn, change, and repeat.

The product vision keeps that process nicely bound. Across any significant development, there are numerous phases. They are distinct but also fit with the larger whole. The trick is to inject the vision at each phase and make an honest assessment each time out: Does this meet the vision, or not?

If not, you must decide: Continue as is, even though it might be more costly; downscale your aspirations; or cancel your project.

Those aren't easy decisions. But it's always better to make them early before you build up your sunken costs. Keep your feedback loops tight, and let the vision guide you as it should.

Through the Looking Glass

If Seneca the Younger doesn't provide the inspiration you need for vision, possibly something more modern will, such as a passage from the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland.

Along the way, Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat and asks for directions. The cat responds, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to!"

Alice feigns indifference, saying, "I don't much care where," to which the Cheshire Cat responds, "then it doesn't much matter which way you go."

The product vision tells you where to go. Without it, you will likely be as lost as Alice.