On Monday, I outlined what I think are the three pillars of building great products: a clear vision, sound decision making, and developing the right team.
Today, I want to take a closer look at what I mean by a clear vision.
It’s easy for us to go about our days thinking that our team is on the same page, assuming that our customers know who we are (and more importantly who we aren’t), and that our advocates (whether they be investors, key influencers, or fans) know who we want to reach, when, and why.
But this is so rarely the case. Most product teams struggle to maintain alignment with their sales team let alone any external stakeholders.
I struggled with what to call this pillar, as “vision” is a vague term. But it really does capture what I think is necessary.
Good products need to put a stake in the ground. They need to say this is who we are, this is what we stand for, and this is what makes us unique from our competitors.
The more clear a product team is about this, the more likely they will deliver on the promises their products make.
I’ve worked with countless teams helping them clarify their vision. These are some of the elements that help to foster communication and keep everyone on the same page.
1. An Inspiring Vision Statement
Your vision statement is your view of the future that you want to create. It explains why you exist. It clarifies where you are going. And why.
It should be inspirational. It should motivate.
It should have energy. Be emotional. Be meaningful.
A vision statement communicates the impact you want to have on the world.
2. A Strong Mission Statement
Mission statements on the other hand, clarify what you do, who you do it for, and how you do it.
A vision statement clarifies the where and why, a mission statement clarifies the who, what, and how. – Tweet This
Don’t go looking to the Fortune 500 for mission statement inspiration. Far too many are loaded with business jargon and tout shareholder value.
If you want your mission to guide you to a great product, skip the jargon.
Make it accessible, relatable, inspiring.
Unlike your vision, your mission is much more likely to evolve over time.
For early stage companies, your mission might change month to month or even week to week as you sort out the who, the what, and the how.
But if your vision (the where and the why) is changing as often, you’ll have a hard time keeping a team engaged.
In these early days, don’t fall in love with your mission. You’ll miss critical feedback that you are on the wrong track.
Do fall in love with your vision. You’ll need that commitment to keep going when you encounter hard times.
As you mature, your mission might change as you accomplish what you set out to do. It might grow in scope. You might reach more people.
These are all good things as they indicate you are doing what you set out to do.
3. Core Values That Differentiate
It’s easy to give lip service to corporate values. Particularly when they consist of things like trust, respect, honesty. Who doesn’t value those things?
That’s not what I’m talking about here.
When a product team (or company) defines core values by which they will build their product, good things happen.
SnapChat values privacy and as a result doesn’t store your photos. Facebook values openness and not only stores everything, but encourages you to share them with the public.
Is one right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that each company took the time to define their core values and are building their products as an expression of those values.
For too many companies, core values live on a web page, in a corporate handbook, maybe on an office wall. They get lip service, but they don’t influence day-to-day decisions.
Great companies and great products are expressions of their core values.
4. Know Your Audience Better Than Anyone Else
I love that Customer Development is gaining momentum. But like most things, doing it well, is actually really challenging.
If you want to build a great product, you need to understand your customer needs better than they do themselves.
This is broader than just talking to your customers. You need to talk to them. You need to observe them. You need to study them.
You need to know what they like and dislike about your products. You need to know what they like and dislike about your competitors’s products.
You need to know how and when and why they decide to buy a product in your space.
You need to know about the context in which they use your product.
Getting this step right, is one of the most powerful things you can do to a lay a foundation for a strong product.
It’s not about what you want to build. It’s about how you can best serve your customer.
5. Define Explicit Guiding Principles
Guiding principles help to capture what you learn along the way. They codify what everyone in the company needs to know about how you’ll build your product.
They help to ensure that everyone colors within the same lines.
So what are they?
Guiding principles are the beliefs that the company holds to be true. They are the assumptions that everyone makes to keep moving the product forward.
For example, a guiding principle at Apple might be “closed systems lead to better user experiences”, whereas a guiding principle at Google might be, “open systems lead to more eye balls.” Both are likely true. And both guide product decisions at each company.
The more explicit you are about your guiding principles, the more likely you will validate whether or not they are actually true.
They will also also help keep everyone moving along the same path together.
6. Be Clear About Your User Experience Metaphors
Pinterest is based on a pin board. Twitter and Facebook rely on the stream. Pulse and Flipboard look like magazines.
More and more products are relying on strong metaphors to guide their user experience decisions.
Even if your product’s metaphor isn’t as clear cut, it’s important to know what aspects of the metaphor matter and which ones can be ignored.
Twitter won’t introduce paging, streams aren’t paged. Sites based on serendipity may have no need for a search box. Facebook had a hard time extending beyond friends.
Metaphors matter. They bring cohesion to what otherwise might feel like ad-hoc decisions. If your user experience decisions feel ad-hoc to you, imagine how they feel to your users.
7. Define What You Would Never Do
As you define each of these components, you should start to get some clarity around who you are. And what comes with that is a stronger sense of who you aren’t.
Take the time to document it. What would you never do?
It could be as simple as you’ll never add a search box or as complex as you’ll never show display ads.
Be explicit about how your vision constrains you. And then ask yourself, can you live with those constraints?
8. Outline a Business Model
Products need to make money. Otherwise they won’t survive.
Do you know how your product might make money? Do you at least have a theory?
Outline it. I recommend using the Business Model Canvas.
Are you able to outline a business model that is consistent with the other components of your vision? What needs to change?
Too many product teams ignore this step. They think it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s shortsighted.
All of the components of our vision have to work together. Treat it like a puzzle. Keep working at it until it all comes together.
9. Know What Success Looks Like and How You’ll Measure It
How will you know when you’ve achieved your vision? What does success look like?
Don’t define success in terms of revenue or registered users or even shareholder value.
Define what success looks like for your customers.
Did they get a question answered? Did they connect with a friend? Did they get a job interview? Did they find the perfect little black dress?
Your company will be successful when your customer is successful. Over and over again.
It can be hard to find a true measure of success. it’s easy to fall back to page views, new registrations, dollars spent. Don’t.
This is one of the most important components of your vision. Figure out how to measure it and focus on it relentlessly.
It’s the only thing that matters.
Wrapping It Up
And finally for those of you who aren’t founders or CEOs, all of this might sound like somebody else’s job. Shouldn’t the founders be defining the vision, the mission, the core values?
However, if they aren’t, you will struggle to create a great product.
As a product leader, it is your job to influence and to guide. If it’s not happening, you can always start by defining these components within the scope of your product. Even front-line product managers can do this.
From there, share what you are doing with others. Get feedback. Ask other product managers (if you are a PM), other executives (if you are an executive), or your other founders (if you are a founder), if this is how they also see the vision.
And remember, your vision can and should evolve. Think of it as a living document. Let it guide you, but you can also shape it, as you learn more about your market, your customer, and your unique solution.
Have you taken the time to clarify and communicate your vision? Do you include a component that I didn’t list here? Please take a minute to share in the comments.
On Monday, we’ll take a look at an example of a clear vision. Don’t miss out, subscribe to the Product Talk mailing list.
John Peltier says
I like this alot, Teresa.
Beyond the startup phase, some of these are founder/CEO driven (vision statement, core values) and some are product team driven (knowing the audience, UX metaphors). They all have to be understood to be successful.
In your wrap-up, you suggest that front line PMs should share with other PMs, execs with other execs, and founders with other founders. I’d suggest that front line PMs should ensure they get higher level input as well (department head, or preferably executive, and where possible 1:1) to ensure they aren’t swimming upstream. The product leader’s work to define the vision at the product level is too important to omit input from above.
Teresa Torres says
I do agree that many of these elements are founder / CEO driven. However, it is often on the product team (regardless of size of the company) to make them explicit and especially to connect them to day-to-day decisions. Product teams, so often, spend their time responding to requests that fall outside of the vision. Even if the product team isn’t driving the vision, they benefit tremendously from documenting it, so they can reference it when these requests come up.
And I absolutely agree with the comment that front-line product managers should get higher level input. I was merely trying to communicate that even individual PMs can get involved in clarifying the vision.
Thanks for the great comment!
Daniel Elizalde says
Great post Teresa, thanks.
I like part of being clear on what you do but also on what you won’t do. That is as important.
I’ve also found that it’s important to share the whole company vision with the Product team and not only focus on the specific product vision. Everybody needs to know the overall vision and how each department is helping to get there.
For example, during this year, in order to support the company vision Sales is doing X, Marketing is doing Y, and therefore that’s why in Product we are doing these specific features/releases, etc. I agree that as Product Leaders we own the vision of our product, but that’s a just a part of the overall picture of success. For a product to be really successful, we not only need to align with the overall company vision, we need to communicate that vision to our teams so we can all understand of why we are doing things.
What do you think?
Teresa Torres says
Daniel, Absolutely! It doesn’t do anybody any good for the product vision to be misaligned with the company vision.
In fact, the product vision should be a vision for how the product team is going to deliver on the company vision. I should have made that more clear in my post. Thanks for the great comment!
AbilityMatrix (@abilitymatrix) says
Most innovators/product teams exist in their zero subspace. Where the only input is that what they allow inside. Nothing beats the old saying: “nothing happens until a sale is made”. Only few business analysis/prod dev methods support integration of sales feedback and sorry, lean is not one of them. It won’t help you understand which feedback is valuable and which you should ignore.
You made the point in this post but I still feel that you could have been a bit more direct. They won’t get it, believe me. Just when their precious startup collapses because of no customers.
thanks for all your posts super valuable for me and resonates a lot especially when leading a team of Product managers and trying to make sure that we are focusing on the right thing and the right outcome. Do you have examples of good vision/mission statements as well as outcomes linked to this kind of a case study that you can share?