Product Vision, In Action

Vision is one of the most elusive and debated items in the product management toolkit. Everyone has heard stories about the power of vision to “move mountains”, but not everyone has the confidence of Steve Jobs or the persistence of Elon Musk. Today we invite product coach Sergey Soloviov to share his view on how vision can be turned into practical tactics usable by anyone.

Backstory

My views on product vision come from a place of experience and daily practice. Not long ago, I led product development at a fast-growing tech company in London. The company started with an idea, built and launched an MVP, found traction and soon had a healthy amount of customers.

For a while we were enjoying a period of pacey evolution until we hit the realisation that we actually operated not one but three products, each with its own value proposition, target market and business model. So, we decided to form three independent R&D teams, each driving their own stream of work and iterating on market feedback.

This meant scaling the team across functions: product management, design and engineering. All of a sudden, consistent and clear communication became a big challenge. We found ourselves in need of new tools that would reduce friction and mistakes.

Over time, we formed a certain way of thinking about product strategy, planning and prioritisation. Having started out with popular product management frameworks, we modified them to suit the company and team at that stage.

One of the most influential tools was product vision. We relied on it to help us cut through a lot of noise and drive maximum impact at every step of the way. So, let's see what that meant.

There are three key questions that help to understand the product vision as a tool:

  • Where does the vision sit?
  • What does the vision look like?
  • What do you do with the vision?

Where vision sits

If the product vision is disconnected from how your R&D team works every day it will be of no help. Instead it needs to be the core of your product strategy. Other elements of the strategy include goals, problems and solutions. But it is the vision that will have the most defining role.

What vision looks like

True North

The metaphor of the North Star is helpful here. It's always there, never moves and is so far away that the journey will take longer than you could ever travel in a lifetime. That’s a good thing because it means you'll always have further to go and the motivation of new things to discover.

Vision Statement

The vision needs to be expressed in a statement. Since it's a product vision the statement should describe the product you're building in a succinct yet rich way. Strong vision statements have the following characteristics.

Specific

Uses the language of your industry that may not be so common outside of it. This allows fewer words to carry more precise meaning.

Not a catch phrase

The vision statement is intended for the inner circle, not for marketing campaigns. Its purpose is less about striking a chord or teasing people with wordplay and more about keeping a team on the same page through unclouded clarity.

Stance

Along with clarity of purpose, it is equally important to get across your way of serving customers. Your unique solution to the problem will help you find your perfect customers. That, however, requires choices around what you will and will not do.

Framework

Using a framework when crafting your vision statement helps in a number of ways. When you bring new people onboard you'll explain the vision the same way every time. Everyone will get the same starting point. Or as you plough through work, settling debates will be easier as you can always refer to the rationale behind your vision.

By framework I mean a formula that your vision statement is built on.

Here is the formula we used:

Descriptor
- Adjective(s)
- Brings our strengths
- Supports the differentiator (explains how the outcome will be achieved)

+

Definition
- A noun
- What people are looking for
- How people label the solution
- Sets an expectation on what will and won’t be available

+

Differentiator
- An outcome
- Emotional (desired state)
- Gives it an angle (what we are betting on unlike alternatives)
- Rich (shows in every feature)
- Must stay relevant

Definition

Typically a common name that says what your product is. You want people to quickly place it in their worldview and form correct expectations of what it does and doesn't do. A tool is different from a platform and both are different from a solution.

Differentiator

A hint on what can be achieved with the product. It helps to make it emotional by describing a desired state after the problem is solved. It's also an opportunity to call out your unique solution to the problem - the thing you're betting on for success.

Descriptor

Often an adjective that highlights a particular strength of your product. Use it to either augment or support your differentiator.

To illustrate how one might use the above framework to construct a product vision statement let's look at an example.

There are two well-known challenger banks that operate in the UK currently. They both leverage very similar technology to solve the same problem but judging by the customer experience I would venture to guess that their visions differ from one another. I’ve tried to reverse-engineer their product vision statements:

c6853200 mozno vs revolut

Monzo

Revolut

A modern mobile
current account
that makes money work for everyone

A progressive
current account
with no hidden fees and no rubbish exchange rates

I've picked the same definition but reflected differences in the differentiator as well as subtle flavours of the descriptors. We'll use these examples to show how a vision statement affects product decisions as products are being developed.

What you do with vision

Every problem has multiple solutions. Part of product management is to pick a solution that will complement and not contradict the previous ones. And to do it consistently, every step of the way. If you're able to do that you're creating a coherent and consistent experience, which helps get customers and keep them for longer.

The answer: Go to your product vision statement to filter ideas.

Let's see how Monzo and Revolut may have done that.

Monzo

Revolut

A modern mobile 
current account 
that makes money work for everyone

A progressive 
current account 
with no hidden fees and no rubbish exchange rates

Overall direction:
These guys would have paid more attention to what it means to ‘make money work’. They'd want to be very confident they've answered this fully on a smaller customer set before expanding. This would have made their offering more solid and more appealing to other customers.

Overall direction:
Geographical growth would be much more important for this company as they aim to attract frequent travellers all around the world. When zooming onto domestic banking needs they'd be content with hygiene features, like instant notifications. In fact, we've seen them following Monzo in implementing features like bill splitting as opposed to pioneering them.

Different solutions for the same problem:
Having been an early adopter, I've seen how carefully Monzo introduced any direct charges to customers. It almost seemed like they've been using every excuse not to do that. Instead they were looking to generate revenues and recover costs through other sources, like reduced overheads or revenue-share schemes with partners.

Different solutions for the same problem:
Revolut isn't concerned with customer's relationship with money as much as Monzo, so recovering costs through charging customers directly seemed a much easier decision there. So, we saw price tags for card delivery and fees for premium accounts from the early days.

This comparison is not to say that one company is making better decisions than the other. The point is to show how the underlying vision informs decisions along the way. We don’t know for sure if the above companies had a formalised vision statement. But being in the same market and at a similar stage they make for a vivid illustration of the idea.

Closing note

Before wrapping up it pays to make another point.

Product vision is just words... unless it's reinforced by your working practices.

Many teams will claim they have a vision and yet fail to show evidence of that in their work. If the vision is too detached from the decision making process it won't make a difference.

Below is a comparison of poor and effective ways to reinforce the vision.

👎 Poor
- Monthly/quarterly all-hands meetings
- Website
- Employee social events

👍 Effective
- Hang it on the wall, next to your roadmap
- Say it out loud when ideating in a group
- Refer to it when promoting/declining ideas

To sum up, this is what I encourage product managers to do:

  • Have a vision statement that is clearly articulated
  • Ensure it reflects your unique stance on the overall solution
  • Come back to your vision statement often to make product decisions

If those ingredients are in place your product has a much better chance at winning customers.

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