When you think about the world’s most visionary leaders, whose faces do you see? Steve Jobs? Elon Musk? Perhaps Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Henry Ford or Amelia Earhart? In hindsight, what makes these leaders “visionary” is often the enormous degree of impact they enabled. However, leaders like the list above rarely stumble into their success; they enter their field with a resolve for how they will make a difference. They see things no one else does. They have a vision.
Seeing things no one else can see takes practice. It’s not a bolt of lightning, but consistent practice that allows truly visionary leaders to constantly push the boundaries of what products can enable a better world. Subsequently, forming a product vision enables you to set the North Star to guide you and your team toward a goal without leading you astray.
In the context of product management, business strategy, and entrepreneurship, if your company’s mission is to solve problem “X,” your vision is the imagined and idealized world in which your product has solved problem “X” with the greatest conceivable outcome. The best product visions paint a picture of a dramatically better world in which the lives of your users are improved by your product.
Having a clear product vision allows product teams and leaders to:
- Suspend constraints. It’s impossible to develop a vision without dreaming big. Thinking about the ideal end-state, even if only for a moment, will allow you to open yourself up creatively to all the possibilities of how a problem can be solved without being held back by feasibility concerns. When developing a vision, anything is plausible as long as it doesn’t violate the laws of physics.
- Inspire greatness. A well-articulated vision allows your stakeholders (both internal and external) to close their eyes and envision the same thing as you. Your customers who see themselves as part of your vision will be more likely to buy your product. Talented employees who share in your vision will be more likely to join and stay on your team.
- Set strategy. A vision helps you forge a path from where you are to where you ultimately want to be. Your vision will inform short-term roadmaps as well as long-term strategies, where you can plan concrete steps (e.g., minimum viable product, future version releases) toward your end goal, saving you time spent via trial and error iterating in the wrong direction.
- Align teams. Having a shared North Star means anyone on your team can constantly evaluate whether the work at hand gets you a step closer to the end goal, lending a level of built-in focus to your team.
A great company mission and product vision informs clear strategy and roadmaps. To clarify further, here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote about product strategy:
… I want to provide a relevant and concrete example using Tesla. I choose Tesla because a) Elon Musk is rad, b) Musk and Tesla have been unusually public and transparent about their strategy, and c) Tesla is a rare example of a company that has followed through on its strategy with execution that is down to the “T”. This puts it into a godly territory that is almost difficult to believe.
- Mission: “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” (This was recently updated when Tesla merged with SolarCity.)
- Vision: To summarize, Tesla’s vision is to reduce vehicle carbon emissions through the advent of electric vehicles.
- Strategy: This is the famous “Master Plan”: 1) Build a 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, and then finally 5) don’t tell anyone.
Interestingly, despite all of these benefits, many teams don’t (or don’t know to) explicitly define a clear product vision. Often, teams will home in on a short-term solution and begin defining, designing, and developing a product without a long-term vision. Product teams can go on for months and years building features and fixing issues based only on reacting to user or stakeholder requests without a clear end-goal in mind.
In the absence of a vision, product leaders from all backgrounds (product management, engineering, design, marketing, executives) are required to step in and define a vision and ensure that the team gets to a shared understanding.