Treasure map
Treasure map (source: Steven Johnson on Flickr)

A product vision should be about having an impact on the lives of the people your product serves, as well as on your organization.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the various concepts and terminology surrounding product development, and even more when you start to consider the terminology involved with strategy.

There are mission statements, company visions, values, goals, strategy, problem statements, purpose statements, and success criteria. Further, there are acronyms like KPI and OKR, which also seem potentially useful in guiding your efforts. How do you know which ideas apply to your situation, and where to start?

Whether your organization is mission-, vision-, or values-driven (or a combination thereof), these are all considered guiding principles to draw from and offer your team direction. For the purposes of this book, we’ll establish definitions for mission, vision, and values, so we have a common language. Bear with us if you have different definitions of them yourself.

Mission defines your intent

A mission is not what you value, nor is it a vision for the future; it’s the intent you hold right now and the purpose driving you to realize your vision. A well-written mission statement will clarify your business’s intentions. Most often we find mission statements contain a mix of realism and optimism, which are sometimes at odds with each other.

There are four key elements to a well-crafted mission statement:

Value

What value does your mission bring to the world?

Inspiration

How does your mission inspire your team to make the vision a reality?

Plausibility

Is your mission realistic and achievable? If not, it’s disheartening, and people won’t be willing to work at it. If it seems achievable, however, people will work their tails off to make it happen.

Specificity

Is your mission specific to your business, industry, and/or sector? Make sure it’s relevant and resonates with the organization.

Here are two example missions. Can you guess the company for either?

Company A

To refresh the world...

To inspire moments of optimism and happiness...

To create value and make a difference.

Company B

To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.

Company A is Coca-Cola, and Company B is Starbucks. While these missions may also be considered marketing slogans due to the size and popularity of each company, it’s important to note their aspirational context.

Another aspect of mission that’s often overlooked is that it has to reflect what you do for someone else.That someone else is typically not your shareholders, but your customers.

Vision statements are very often conflated with mission. We’ve seen many company vision statements that are actually mission statements. Vision statements are a challenge to not be self-centered to “be the best ___.”

Vision is the outcome you seek

A company vision should be about a longer-term outcome that has an impact on the lives of the people your product serves, as well as on your organization. Vision is why your organization exists, and it can be decomposed into the benefits you hope to create through your efforts—for both the world and your organization. It can be a literal vision of the future, such as “create a world where you can belong anywhere” (Airbnb) or “become a multi-planet species” (SpaceX), or “A just world without poverty” (Oxfam).

In its simplest form, a company vision is a statement that paints a future reality or world. A solid vision statement will address, at minimum, these two aspects:

  • The target customer—the who?

  • The benefit or need(s) addressed—the why?

Some might include a third:

  • What makes it unique—how is it different?

Let’s take the earlier example from Airbnb:

Create a world where you can belong anywhere.

  • Who? You, the customer!

  • What? A sense of belonging.

  • How it’s different? Anywhere in the world, even if you don’t feel like you belong there.

Values are beliefs and ideals

Values are also intended to guide behaviors. Values shape that ambiguous word thrown around company HR departments: culture—how people behave when no one is watching. Your organization’s values may inform your vision or mission, and how you go about achieving it.

Values are often referred to as your compass. A compass tells you which direction is north or south, but not which direction to travel; you must make that decision yourself. Likewise, your values will help you determine what’s right or wrong for your business, but not which direction to take—that’s where your vision and mission come in.

Your vision is your ultimate destination, and your mission tells you which direction to follow in order to reach that destination. Take InVision App’s values as an example: “Question Assumptions. Think Deeply. Iterate as a Lifestyle. Details, Details. Design is Everywhere. Integrity.” They give employees a guide for how to make decisions during their work.

Here’s a simple example: if you were a buyer at Whole Foods Market, a large organic grocery store primarily in the United States (and recently acquired by Amazon), and you followed the value “We Sell the Highest Quality Natural and Organic Products Available,” would you select foods that contain artificial ingredients to stock in the stores? We would hope not, as that value ought to tell you that’s the wrong direction for the company.

Most roadmaps provide a lot of detail about what you intend to deliver without the context of a vision, mission, or values. When you first establish that foundation by outlining your vision and your strategy for pursuing it, the details you provide—within the themes, features, functions, deliverables, services, activities, and so on—will paint a clearer picture to all the stakeholders of your roadmap. They will support and contribute to that foundation, rather than carrying the burden themselves in hopes that stakeholders will piece everything together on their own.

With these concepts defined, let’s talk more in depth about how they inform your product roadmap.

Product vision: Why your product exists

Product vision clarifies why you are bringing a product to market in the first place, and what its success will mean to the world and to the organization. The vision is the raison d’etre of the entire effort, and forms the basis of the roadmap. As we mentioned previously for vision, it is the destination you plan to reach.

Capella University was an early innovator in online higher education. Its initial success came from delivering high-quality online learning experiences, but as others began to follow suit, they needed to differentiate their offerings.

A key insight came when they discovered that even one personal connection dramatically reduced the student’s likelihood of dropping out, and that online access to financial aid and similar resources reduced volumes of phone calls to support hotlines and resulted in more satisfied students. This led them to a product vision of “delivering the entire university experience successfully over the web,” according to Jason Scherschligt, who managed Capella’s online experience. Critically, this vision included not just access to academic learning spaces, but also administrative functionality, support resources (tech support, a career center, writing resources, disability services, and an online library), and a private network of fellow learners, faculty, and alumni.

“The vision work was critical to the success of this initiative,” explains Scherschligt. “While it started as just an upgrade of an ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] portal, it became a much more valuable property for the organization through strong vision and storytelling. We initially conceived of the initiative in 2008, launched the first release in June of 2009, and it remains at the heart of the Capella online experience.”

A clear product vision made it straightforward for Scherschligt and his team to tie every decision and every priority to the result they wanted for students—a full university experience via the web—and to develop what we call “themes” based on those desired outcomes.

It’s likely that someone, somewhere in your organization, has a product vision. This does nobody any good if it remains stuck in that person’s head. If your CEO has a vision but she doesn’t communicate it to the rest of the organization, you can bet there will be struggles when it comes time to make decisions and she’s not present.

If your organization has multiple products, the product vision is likely different from the corporate vision, though still supportive of and derived from it. For example, Google Search’s product vision is “to provide access to the world’s information in one click.” It’s easy to see how that comes directly from the broader company mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

To create a product vision, we suggest starting with Geoffrey Moore’s “Value Proposition template” (also known as the “Elevator Pitch template”) from his book, Crossing the Chasm (HarperBusiness). We have adapted it slightly for use in product roadmapping.

Value Proposition Template

For: [target customer]

Who: [target customer’s needs]

The: [product name]

Is a: [product category]

That: [product benefit/reason to buy]

Unlike: [competitors]

Our product: [differentiation]

Example for our wombat hose

wombat house

For homeowner landscape enthusiasts

Who need a reliable hose that’s survives repeated use

The Wombat Garden Hose

Is a water delivery system

That offers a reliable operation under any conditions

Unlike the competition

The Wombat Garden Hose is indestructible and offers uninterrupted water delivery

Then, take this one step further and tie this sentence to your company’s strategy by adding a description:

Supports our [objective(s)]

Finally, to pare this down to a vision statement, try to compress that information into the following:

A world where the [target customer] no longer suffers from the [identified problem] because of [product] they [benefit].

Wombat garden hose example:

A world where American landscape enthusiasts [target customer] can have a more predictable and automatic [identified problem] watering system that can perfect their lawns [benefit] with an effective water delivery system [product].

This focuses on the who (target customer), the what (problem it solves), and the why (benefit they receive). Additionally, it also helps to write out all the preceding information in order to arrive at a clear product vision. We realize this can seem formulaic, and there is a downside to a vision statement that’s plug-and-play when it should be unique and specific to your product and business. However, this template is a great tool when you are starting from scratch, or if you have established a product vision and need a gut-check to determine if you have something robust to drive your product strategy and roadmap.

Some product teams will pare this even further to just the product benefit and product differentiator.

To [benefit realized] by [product differentiator]

Wombat garden hose example:

To perfect American lawns by perfecting water delivery.

When done well, the product vision is one of our most effective recruiting tools, and it serves to motivate the people on your teams to come to work every day. Strong technology people are drawn to an inspiring vision; they want to work on something meaningful.

—Marty Cagan, founder of Silicon Valley Product Group and author of Inspired

Duality of company and customer benefit

While we’re discussing vision, let’s not forget the organization’s perspective. A vision of company success might be to “operate the best omni-channel specialty retail business in America” (Barnes & Noble) or to be “a major platform player like Salesforce and Hubspot” (Contactually). An internal vision like this is just as important as an externally motivated one. They work together symbiotically to make something great.

Acknowledging that you need to make money to stay in business and deliver on your vision of a better world is healthy, and it allows you to have open discussions of ideas that serve both or only one of those visions.

One caution about internal vision statements, however, is that they can become too company-focused and fail to include the customer. Microsoft’s famous vision of “a personal computer on every desk running Microsoft software” from the 1980s is a great example. At that time, it described a future aspirational world where the benefit to Microsoft is apparent, but inherent to that is a benefit to each individual by having a computer at their desk. One could argue that this vision fails in service to Microsoft’s customers and is too centric to Microsoft. As we’re writing this book using a combination of MacBooks, tablets, and desktop computers, we’re fully aware of the benefit of a personal computer. Today that benefit is clear, but in 1980s it came with an implied customer benefit, so it worked. Today that vision could fall short since it’s too Microsoft-centric and times have changed with respect to a computer on everyone’s desk (it’s now in your pocket, and soon to be ubiquitous). As you can imagine, it no longer is Microsoft’s vision as of the writing of this book.

Guiding principles forming a vision of the future for your customer and your organization (along with a strategy for achieving them) are essential ingredients of a compelling roadmap. Framing the timing and deliverables for your product within these buckets will help you establish, explain, and gain alignment on your roadmap.

Article image: Treasure map (source: Steven Johnson on Flickr).