tl;dr — simplify the jargon to focus on what you’re trying to achieve, why it matters, and why/how it’ll be successful.
Today’s goal is to share how I’ve framed product concepts to xfn teams and partners.
Everyone knows what a product vision is, right?
Do they? Go ask one of your engineers about the product vision. If their answer aligns with yours, that’s a great sign — unfortunately, most people would just say something like, “oh it’s that deck you presented some time ago with those ideas of what we might build next right?” Now it’s your turn: is that a product vision? How is that different from a roadmap?
OK so there’s some ambiguity in these terms, why does that matter? This matters when your team or leadership are not aligned with you on the plan. If you see or hear folks questioning if we’re building the right thing and headed in the right direction, that might be something you want to address sooner rather than let it fester and become a problem. An org that has lost faith in their PM is a dangerous situation to be in.
These are some common signs that there’s some seeds of misalignment:
- Team or leadership asking for more clarity on the vision or roadmap.
- Team confused about the strategy and feeling that it doesn’t make sense.
- Team or leadership asking the same questions about the product vision/strategy even after you’ve answered them a few times.
- Team or leadership not being able to remember the gist of the team mission or product vision.
Unfortunately, these situations are actually quite common, because the reality is that it’s really freakin’ hard to get more than 2 people aligned on complex and nuanced topics. If you’ve ever debated with a roommate or partner about how to design your living room, that’s a microcosm of what we PMs have to do at work. There’s sometimes a slight tension, an uncomfortable dance you end up doing to avoid hurting feelings, stepping on toes, while exerting what you think makes sense and trying to avoid what you think are bad ideas. If your roommate was lax/trusting enough to let you make all the decisions, you’re lucky. Imagine trying to do that with 10+ people and millions of dollars at stake. 😬 The good news is that you’ll build trust with the people you work with, so this gets easier over time.
So what’s the best way to frame these product concepts for others?
First, let’s bring it back to basics so we ourselves understand the goal, which helps us determine how to use these concepts.
The ultimate goal is to get our team/leadership/investors to understand and be bought into the direction we’re headed. For people to be convinced about the product direction, they fundamentally need to know where are we going, why are we going there, and how are we going to get there?
In fact, I’ve found it way easier to talk about the product direction like that: use plain English and answer those basic questions, rather than throwing around abstract terms. You might not be able to always avoid using terms like vision/strategy though. Here’s how I break it down for my teams:
Mission == the purpose of the product/team
Vision == desired future state for the company/product
Strategy == the logic we’ll apply to accelerate reaching the vision
Roadmap/tactics/plan == the actions and steps we’ll take next to execute
Yes, there are a lot of other frameworks that use these terms differently. This is my take on what made the most sense to me and was easiest to explain to my teams. Here’s a quick visualization:
Let’s cover a few of these one by one:
- Mission (i.e. why does this matter)
This is the “why” and the purpose behind the product/company you’re building. A good mission statement is evergreen and often something that will persist over time. Maybe your mission is organizing the world’s information, or connecting people, or solving world hunger, or protecting the planet, or fighting crime. A great mission is one that people resonate with, and an ideal team truly believes in the mission.
- Vision (i.e. what are we trying to achieve)
My recommendation is that product/company visions be as concrete as possible on the future state and set to a particular timeframe. This allows your team to effectively gauge whether the destination is nonsensical or something that could actually work. This is why statements like “Uber for _____” worked so well, because people can often easily visualize what the product might look like (hence, “product vision”, get it?). Also, telling an investor/stakeholder that the vision is to build “Airbnb for car rentals in 6 months” is very different from “Airbnb for car rentals in 6 years”.
- Roadmap (i.e. what will we do next)
This should be a set of concrete ordered actions/next steps that help you execute towards the vision. In my experience, the roadmap is best phrased in terms of problems you’re solving or new functionality you’re adding — depending on how well defined your user requirements are — but you’ve got to take into account what level of stakeholder you’re talking to when communicating the roadmap. If you’re in big tech, a VP’s eyes may glaze over at too much detail, and on the other side, your team may feel like there isn’t enough concrete work to implement if the roadmap is too abstract. There’s a whole art to how you then break down the work even further so that the entire team is executing on the right pieces so you deliver that roadmap. That’s a post for another time.
What’s up with the “strategy” concept?
If you noticed, all you really need is the vision, mission, and roadmap to answer the questions of where, why, and how our team gets to the desired future state. So what’s the purpose of the “strategy” concept and why is it defined so weirdly — as “logic” to reach the vision? Isn’t that what the roadmap does?
Here’s the problem: sometimes the vision is clear, there’s a concrete roadmap, but your team or leadership are still not convinced. Why? Some common reasons:
- The vision is too big, the roadmap too long, the team is afraid it won’t be possible to achieve in the desired timeframe.
- The roadmap isn’t fully connecting the dots to the vision, and it feels like there’s some major risks that are unaddressed around whether people want the product or technical feasibility.
- The vision seems too similar to a competitor’s, and the competitor has 10x more resources/staffing than you do. Leadership/investors are unconvinced you can compete.
This is where strategy comes in — it’s the logic we’ll apply to accelerate reaching the vision. It’s how you convince people that the path we’re taking makes sense, because this path improves the chances of success. This is the logic behind sending archers to counter infantry (Age of Empires anyone?), or King Leonidas using the terrain to hold back an army at least 10x larger. How are you taking advantage of partnerships to speed up execution? How might you prioritize derisking dealbreakers sooner? Having a sound strategy helps build confidence in the plan. You’re using your smarts to plan an approach that gives you the upper hand or at least gets you there faster.
Developing a sound strategy requires an understanding of the forces at play, our strengths and weaknesses, and which levers we can pull and invest in (or not). I highly recommend at least a basic SWOT analysis for any strategy to make sense, but time-box it so you don’t get into analysis paralysis. That’s also a post for another day. :)
Analogies and examples
So we’ve talked about the theory behind these product concepts, let’s make this more concrete with some examples. One of my favorite analogies comes from rock climbing:
- Vision/end-state: reach top of the wall/cliff.
- Strategy/logic: I have long reach but weak grip strength, so I’ll avoid overhangs and move faster up the wall/cliff before I get too tired.
a) take big handhold there
b) then next smaller handhold there
c) then hop over to far foothold
Here’s another example from the real-world: Tesla.
- Mission: Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
- Strategy (master plan):
— Create an affordable, but desirable electric car: enter at the high end of the market, drive down market to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.
— Shift households to sustainable energy: offer modestly-priced zero emission electric power generation options that cover transportation/household energy costs.
- Roadmap: the Roadster, Model S, Model X, Model 3…
To be fair, the strategy and plan make sense in hindsight and there is survivorship bias here — there are plenty of startups with great strategies that still failed — but in terms of the goal of aligning a team with a compelling mission and convincing them of the path forward, I thought Elon’s writeup of Tesla’s strategy did the job.
Mission vs vision
Some companies are known for their mission statements, others for their visions, and some combine the two:
Tesla’s mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Tesla’s early vision: to create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.
Google’s mission: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Google’s early vision: to provide access to the world’s information in one click.
Amazon’s mission+vision: to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.
Microsoft’s early mission+vision: a computer on every desk and in every home.
I believe that people naturally tend towards either being purpose-driven or vision-driven, and uncommonly both. Think of the difference in how you might answer:
— “what gets you up in the morning / what drives you?”
— vs “where do you see yourself in 2 years?”
Most people’s careers and actions are primarily driven by one of the two answers. Most people early in their career are driven by vision (become a director, start a company); most people late in their career are driven by purpose. The lucky ones are able to find jobs that satisfy both.
Companies also tend towards just one “mission/vision” statement that they can focus on. For what it’s worth, I prefer purpose-driven products and companies — they often provide more stability for the team — but either can work. The most important thing is having a goal that can bring the team together for the adventure.