Ep. 12: How Do You Craft and Communicate Product Vision?

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Hope Gurion: Vision.  Maybe just short of roadmaps, this term frequently strikes fear in the hearts of Product Leaders.  In fact, this question was top of my opportunity backlog for this podcast series and not many product leaders felt confident answering this question. Luckily, I found 5 brave souls who are answering the question “How do you craft and communicate Product Vision?” in this episode of Fearless Product Leadership. 

Welcome to the Fearless Product Leadership podcast. This is the show for new product leaders seeking to increase their confidence and competence.  In every episode I ask experienced and thoughtful product leaders to share their strategies and tactics that have helped them tackle a tough responsibility of the product leader role. I love helping emerging product leaders shorten their learning curves to expedite their professional success with great products, teams and stakeholder relationships. I’m your host and CEO of Fearless Product, Hope Gurion.  

 

Why is the topic of Product Vision intimidating to product leaders? My hypothesis is that many product leaders feel inadequate with how they approach vision for a few reasons. 

•       It’s amorphous.  What should it look like? It’s difficult to find examples online other than some fill in the blank statements. 

•       It’s difficult to measure efficacy.  How do I know we’ve hit on the right combination of storytelling and evidence that is stirring the crowds into action?

•       It’s scary.  What if we get it wrong? What if we’re clear on it but we can’t deliver? 

Why is Product Vision Scary - Fearless Product.png

 So, I wanted to get perspectives from experienced product leaders who have already been through the trial and error of crafting and communicating product visions to get their best practices and that’s what I’m bringing to you in this episode.

 

In this episode we’re going to hear how 5 experienced product leaders who are savvy in their product vision practices.  At the end I’ll share my own tips to create a vision that is motivating for your teams and doesn’t pigeonhole your product experience.  In this episode you’ll learn:

  • What inputs you need to craft the vision and the combination of story and visual forms it may take

  • How to strike the balance between the aspirational and the specific

  • How vision works to align your teams and stakeholders with what matters to customers and the company

  • How to best communicate it and your progress towards it again, and again, and again 

Fearlessly tackling the question “How do you craft and communicate product vision?” are:

and yours truly, Hope Gurion, Fearless Product (www.fearless-product.com) 

First, Albert Lee shares how he evolved from googling for Product Vision slides to crafting a vision that aligned a diverse set of teams at Under Armor with the right mix of aspiration and specificity.

 

Albert Lee: You know it's kind of interesting this question. I actually think is pretty interesting in terms of I think a problem in communicating a Product Vision and is obviously something that many people end up being  tasked with. I remember very distinctly kind of the first time that I ever got asked to sort of illustrate a Product Vision, and you're going to laugh about this but it's sort of the silliest thing that I did was I started googling it.

 

I go on Google I  search for Product Vision example something super simple like that and it's funny it comes back with a whole bunch of these slides that have diagrams on them or sort of like these weird charts, that's like kind of half of the stuff you see. The other half is maybe a single statement like a Vision statement, and I was like wow this is kind it and so I kind of thought about that for a bit.

 

I  had obviously even seen some slides similar to that of my own work you know these were just so abstract right you know and you're trying to balance this idea of not being so specific that you can't be aspirational with what you're trying to show. Then also have something that is clear, that can really serve as guidance to your team, individuals, and anyone that is sort of responsible for contributing to the overall goal of achieving this vision.

 

With that kind of idea in mind one thing that I decided to try after that was to actually develop, essentially like a prototype right so that was kind of my next idea I'm going to build a prototype. I'm going to work with some people on my team. It's going to be something that's like almost functional where maybe it doesn't have a backend, but you're kind of tapping through different stuff and you can actually walk along sort of this journey with it.

 

That certainly solves some of that problem right it was like really specific, it was something that people could totally feel as being very tangible. Then you kind of introduce this other issue where it's almost like it's too real, all of a sudden everybody starts getting fixated on these little details. and maybe most importantly it really loses its kind of aspirational nature.

 

All of a sudden, it's like wow we're spending all of our time so we can get to this funky prototype that Albert and a couple other people develop, and it's like "Why am I doing this?"  So, you know where I ultimately landed, and this is something that I've done a few times that I thought was really effective was developing essentially kind of customers storyboards.

 

So, literally, hopefully, everyone has kind of seen examples of storyboarding and how it's used in like commercials or movies; a series of illustrations that kind of walks through a very specific kind of experience. If you lead into that with a really clear sort of detailing of "How you see your customer? How you see their problems?" Then I think the end result can be really powerful and then all of a sudden the whole team really understands "Here's how we see our customer. Here's how we see these fundamental things that they're dealing with to achieve some goal or to be able to accomplish something. Here's the types of experiences that we aspire to create that are ultimately going to hopefully allow them to be  successful in doing that."

 

It's not like you're showing screenshots. You're not like showing these--that get people bogged down in the details, but in their heads they can really visualize like ‘no this is like what I'm trying to do for my customer.’ Then that now feels specific enough that now  when I'm in my job and I'm trying to  make decisions on what to do or I'm  thinking about feature sets I can say "How would that live in this  world where I'm trying to do X for this  individual?" 

 

I actually had a pretty good  experience with this right towards the  end of my time with Under Armour when we were  working on a project that was really  difficult within the company which was  the first project that was integrating  our manufacturing, operations, and software development team which  was really new to the company where we were actually developing a digitally-enabled-shoot of a running shoe.

 

So, the challenge with this is not just that you had to illustrate this compelling Product Vision but also to the people working in the rest of the company, the footwear team/running category that are super excited about what you're trying to deliver for their customers and so that was really difficult. So, we actually used this kind of methodology to really get alignment and clarity to interrupt "These are how we see our customers" and then you actually run in category people and footwear people who are the ones helping us understand this and supplying us with this information.

 

These are the types of things that we can do with technology service that we're aspiring to do to service that customer. We’re going to help them avoid injury by giving them all these really interesting pieces of data in terms of "How we run. We're going to improve their  performance by essentially showing them how they train, change the way that  they train" and you know those things  were really clear at the end of the day  to those individuals which we thought  was a big success, and it helped us  obviously get some really clear  alignment like, “What are we trying to  build now?"

 

Hope Gurion: Next, Ben Newell shares his approach to craft, validate and communicate product vision, and why you should expect to continuously communicate vision and your progress towards it.

 

Ben Newell: So, you asked kind of the most effective way to create and communicate a product vision and I think the first part is a really interesting which is how to create it. I had an interesting path in my career where I switched industries and it was a little tough stepping into a new industry and not immediately having a Product Vision. I had been in the travel industry for 17 years; I knew it backwards and forwards. I knew all the players and setting a Product Vision for things that I had been working on.

 

In many cases I had already done most of that so that's what brought me to this role, and when I switched industries it was really important for  me to not step in and think I knew the  right answer right away.  I wanted to take time to listen to everyone and really understand what the challenges that our customers were facing. How our business worked. How did we actually make money? Where the areas that were most successful? Do all of that before I really laid out a Product Vision.

 

As I was  interviewing I had thoughts, things that  I thought would be interesting but it  really took me about six months to fully  kind of grasp everything then really  go ahead and decide "Hey I think  this is the path we want to take" and lay  out that vision. I think it’s important when you're creating one to make sure that you're not going off of your first gut and make sure you're running it by multiple people and you're taking input and feedback from others.

 

When you switch industries it’s a good time to do that you kind of have a pass for a while everybody knows that you don't know all those pieces, and it’s a great opportunity to hear from everyone. However, it does come time once you’ve created it to actually communicate it and to get it out in front of the teams and to vet it and make sure that it's right. I really find there’s no better way than pitching it in person quickly to those who are closest to it, and so obviously that's your internal teams and I like to do that one-on-one.

 

Really you want to make sure you can take somebody’s feedback independently you don’t want groupthink to kick in so kind of building a vision and putting together a big presentation for the entire executive leadership team. Before you've had a chance to do that it’s probably a bad idea and they're probably going to shoot it full of holes and you’ll feel in a tough spot. So, I like to kind of one-on-one, go around hear everybody’s take and see what lands and what doesn’t when I talk about it. Then that gives you an opportunity to know where everyone in the room sits when you do actually then communicate it more broadly, and that is important. 

 

I've talked prior about tips  for persuasion with executive teams and  one of the things I've said is, "Never ask  a question that you don't know the  answer to" you want to make sure  that you know what everybody's issues  are with your vision before  you go pitch it in a broad group. From  that point it's really not that  complicated to simply say well then  you've got to socialize it and repeat it  seven times, just until you're blue  in the face of saying it so that  everybody understands it, but that's  easier said than done.

 

I think one of the areas where product teams can struggle is the forum that allows them to communicate that and there isn't good settings inside the companies that I've worked in at least to allow people to regularly share and  iterate on that strategy. One of  the things that I've done in my career  is create that forum through a meeting  that we call Product Update which was every  six weeks we got in front of the whole  company and we'd talk about what we've been  working on and is it working so; a lot of  real good heavy data and sharing AP test  results sharing interaction engagement  growth metrics etc.

 

Sharing what we're  working on now and what you should  expect to see coming which is always  helpful for people to help prevent  product from being that black box, and  then lastly just reiterating our  strategy and vision and using the data  of what's worked and what hasn't to say, "Yes we're still on track or maybe we're rethinking this a  little bit or we're refining our strategy based on some of that data." I think really closing that loop for teams and then giving that forum to continually share it is really valuable for product teams to help communicate that product vision

 

Hope Gurion: Just a follow-up question on that so what is the format that that vision takes is it words on a slide is it story. Tell me for you what was the artifact, or you know visual that helped people understand that vision?

 

Ben Newell: It's different from company to company, but one of the things that I have found to be very helpful is a visual story connected with product visuals, so a prototype that includes a story of a typical user’s interaction with this product.  I have  found people hesitant to lay that out  there for fear that like they can't do  the things that are listed in the story  or technically we may  not be able to achieve that or we're not  sure how we would do that or it's too  much money; all the reasons  why you'd be scared to share a vision.

 

I have found that unless you do that  nobody really is getting it you know I  can use words I can write it down I can  say it to everyone and people will not  like "Yes I get that" and then you  see the execution starting to occur and  it's not what you were talking about it  it's slightly different  or it's just a skew a little bit or  maybe it's the old vision just slightly  adjusted to make it look like it's  fitting into your pattern.

 

I have found that the visual story so working closely with the design to help tell that story as well as using an actual person. Well now Tina is going to go from here to here and this is got how she’s going to interact with it. I  was really struggling and once I did  that in the TripCase space it gave me an  opportunity and all of a sudden everyone's "Oh I get it" and like it  was completely done and so I have found you know visuals and storytelling to be  the best way to help achieve that.

 

Hope Gurion: Now we’ll hear how Ezinne Udezue focuses with her team on crafting vision through a narrative of the customer journey that aligns to company strategy, priorities and success metrics.

 

Ezinne Udezue: Let's talk about vision. You're right, vision means a lot of different things to different people so I'm not going to talk about the vision, the story-telling part for our clients and for people to buy into us as strategic partners. It is more about the vision that helps folks realize and build the product on your behalf.

 

Quite recently we were using PowerPoints and stories and JIRA and some big goals within our Wiki system, but we made a shift recently to building out something called a Strategic Intent Document. It is a Word document that actually explicitly calls out why we were doing what we are doing as a product organization. What are our priorities? What amount of time do we think these will be our priority? What metrics are we trying to move and why?

 

It's built by the product leadership team, us sitting together and saying "These will be what  matters to us" and for those three or  four things we picked three areas and we went  into details of why? We also talked about  what we thought output products might  look like but we left room for the  product manager to take their area and  build out, but it was important to help conquer ties before the R&D organization of 'WHY'  in words,  not in PowerPoint, not in a ticket but a  story of why we were doing what we're doing and what exactly we were going to  do, and then how its led up to the  bigger company vision.

 

I think that the Strategic Intent Document format has been one of the most successful methods for actually containing Vision so now I'm asking all my product managers, to build  out something very similar. Having to  write in words why you're doing what you're doing? What the context is. What the metrics are. Not as a ticket but as a story and a narrative forces you to really list out and seek refinement for those core objectives. You can bring your engineering team along and anybody is on now, anybody can read certain documents.

Now for each area the product managers who are responsible have a strategic intent document. It's usually a six to nine-month time span and then as they build-out the ticket they tag it and attach it to be intent document, and it’s working fine and I'm actually proud of that shift.

 

Hope Gurion: How do you get people to read these documents?

 

Ezinne Udezue: How do we get to read it? Well this is new because I did something like six months and it worked, so what we’re doing is whenever the leadership team talks or presents, we actually refer to the Strategic Intent Document. Say if you haven't read it you won't know you will not be able to follow what we're saying. It is available to everyone go and read that document as we really encourage people, even our marketing team has read it.

 

We now have what I call “Pitch Fest” and each product manager is going to have maybe five to six slides to talk about what they're doing but they will reference the context in the document, so you'd better read it. Everybody gets timed-in, it's a very collaborative document right now it's actually happening as we speak people are locking their document for me by the 24th. I'll read it I'll send it to my peers, and we'll refine it then we'll send it more broadly and then we'll have pitch fest so that's kind of how it works right now.

 

Hope Gurion: Troy Anderson shares his recommended formula for crafting and communicating product vision: verbalize, visualize, mathematize!

 

Troy Anderson: As you know I was at a different company and on  day one the CEO said to the entire work  right before I was about to get up to  speak, "These are our three north stars" and so I got up not  trying to be popular with the CEO  obviously I said, "No we  can't have three  north stars you kind of have to have more [17:08 PH]. You have to understand what you’re trying to solve at a 50,000' view. You can't have three of them" The focus is something that's hard enough, you have limited resources of those and it's much much better if you can really come to some clarity on what that one north star is so, start there.

 

You need to understand what you're trying to solve  for at most Mackerel Science and from that using the same framework as I  discussed earlier of "Why What and How" why we trying to hit  this goal because we should have really good reasons." So, if use a five-wire framework to say "Now if I really wanted to make a hundred million dollars on this profit. Why do we want to have the  sort of valuation?" What you should really decide is what these things are. If your team is not aligned on what you're solving for, Are you solving for a valuation? What is the hypothesis?

 

If there's no hypothesis for me it’s not exactly real. So, the best way to get a Vision and make it real for people on the ground is to actually tie that Vision to some real hypothesis and putting that real hypothesis together. Let's say its evaluation you should have a model for your evaluation purposes, you have some thesis for that. Now if you're held  by private equity or if your venture capital or your public you could say  well we're attorneys to shareholders  their portfolio might increase whatever, it  is that tends to make the [18:48 PH], but  you need to align around those things. One of the best ways to communicate a Product Vision is to do all the homework beforehand to get your hypothesis tied-back to the Vision.

 

What then happens is that you can take that Vision and you can actually break it out into the various groups. So, then from the 'WHY’ perspective we understand why we’re trying to solve similar hypothesis. It's okay for the hypothesis to be  wrong so you want to be able to  update your hypothesis as you go because it's like "Oh well our valuation went down when we  did this" so okay well maybe we should have  thought about security as an issue.

 

Those sort of things are really important but the key is not to have the right hypothesis the key is to have one to try to  measure against them so that  when your engineering teams are going "How does my work pertain to the company?" Then you should be able to draw very nice line, and no one says it has to be exact right. I think it was Eisenhower who said:

 

                        "Planning is essential but plans are worthless"

 

So, you need to take that same sort of mind frame when thinking about your product vision to put some Math to it right. My physics science Professor Scott McEwen back at Kellogg said, "Verbalize Visualize and mathematize" so if you can draw a picture of it if and you can verbalize it and you can Mathematize it. If you can Mathematize it you can make it concrete for everyone” which is really good.

 

Hope Gurion: Finally, Prasad Gune shares how he evolved his Product Vision approach away from being company-centric to customer-centric by sharing an inspirational story what the customer may become through using your products.

 

Prasad Gune: To address the question "What's the most effective way to communicate a Product Vision? I've tried many things over the years and many things some of which we’ve succeeded and some with which we didn't. If I start with the one which didn’t work typically, I think the way to think about it is those are written with my organization and myself in mind.

 

Let me tell you about the product features I'm building and what I'm doing in which quarter both lacking context and oomph, if you will. Oomph, is a technical term obviously as you know but it really is about your Visions. Visions are not simply about tactically achieving things or taking a feature and making it better. Obviously, those all fall within some parts of the Vision for sure but the way I look at it now through tons and tons of trial and error and learning is to paint a crystal clear picture of the end state we are aiming for.

 

I think people are inspired by possibility and unfortunately, I think product folks we typically tend to be very pragmatic, practical, and sometimes we step away from the third thing which is a possibility. I think a big part of our role as leaders is to make that a real possibility real for our teams of this people beyond that for rest of the organization all the way to prospects and customers.

 

I'll say one thing about crystal clear end-picture is and it's not just what it means for our company. I  think in fact actually the more useful  approach I've seen is frame it as an impact for your end customer or end-user,  and if you do that right by the way many good things will happen for  the company, and so people get that and that's my best approach and I'll make it as crystal that I  can.

 

A few years ago, I did a presentation which was a big road map presentation and rather than jump into "Here's what we're going to build" I used a framework from a gentleman called Michael Schrage who's at (MIT) Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had an interesting approach which was asking a question about "Who do you want your customers to be?" What really was his thesis? His thesis was 'Innovators don't just ask their Customers or End-users to do something different they ask them to become someone different.'

 

I highly recommend it you can find it on Google I'm sure. It's a short hundred-page book is written on this topic, but it's really a form of self-actualization. If you deliver a product or a feature how does that you know it may or may not transform a whole life, but it may transform some aspect of their life and they become better at what they do. That was an  interesting framing and I use the  examples of this, this was in my time at Open-Table and one simple example would be instead of saying, "Hey we need to  make our hospitality suite best in  class" so that would be how I might have  done it ten years ago saying "We have  got to have a best-in-class hospitality suite."

 

 I might so use that terminology  but to bring it to life the way it was described was how "How do we help a  restaurant owner have even a brand new  host at their host stand deliver service  of the caliber of the maître d who's  been at the role for 10 or 15 years?"  If you think restaurants the challenge has been you know 20 years ago you'd go to a fancy restaurant where the maître d who knows you by name knows your family knows your preferences.

 

In today's world that's not  possible anymore because you have people who are relatively new, some just out of  college, but with our tools we could  provide that value and expertise to somebody who  is relatively new, and so that's the way  I phrased it. We built  that product later a suite of  hospitality features to do that but the  framing of what it means for an  end-user was I, at least for me was interesting and I think our folks at the end for the recipients for the people that were hearing really allowed me to make the future real and concrete for my team.  

 

 

Hope Gurion: Crafting and communicating vision is frequently a dreaded part of the responsibility of a product leader.  But as you’ve heard today, it is a key responsibility that facilitates to align your team’s work to company strategy in the best interest of your desired customers. Let’s review the top 3 concerns from the beginning of this episode and what we’ve uncovered based on the perspectives our product leaders shared:

 

  • It’s amorphous.  What should it look like? It’s difficult to find examples online other than some fill in the blank statements. 

    • Yes, there is no perfect template for this, but rather than a vision statement on a slide, you heard our product leaders share that it should be visual and told from a customer’s perspective.  I have a hero’s journey-style formula I’ll share in the show notes and momentarily.

  • It’s difficult to measure efficacy.  How do I know we’ve hit on the right combination of storytelling and evidence that is stirring the crowds into action?

    • The best way is to first validate it with experts one on one to see where it misses the mark and iterate.  Then you can test to larger groups.  This is no different than how you’d validate a new feature to see if it stirs customers into adoption action!

  • It’s scary.  What if we get it wrong? What if we’re clear on it but we can’t deliver? 

    • You might get it wrong, but that’s no reason not to try. The more your vision reflects your customers, your company, your capabilities, your competitive positioning and your audience, the more momentum you’ll garner to do whatever it takes to realize this compelling vision.

The formula that I use, and I’ll put a link to an article I wrote about it in the show notes with some rare examples of product vision is to create a video that tells a “hero’s journey” of sorts.

•       HERO: Clear customer with a

•       HERO’s GOAL: Meaningful, measurable problem/need yet have

•       EVIL SPELL: painfully inadequate solutions, so the

•       MAGIC POTION: visualized future solution

•       HERO’s SELF-ACTUALIZATION: that fulfills on potential

•       WHY US: employees and customers are emotionally connected and inspired to be a part of it

Crafting a Product Vision - Fearless Product.png

 

Of course, this vision will only resonate if its grounded in evidence from customer discovery and is inspirational and actionable for the product and engineering teams.

 

I recently worked with two clients who were in desperate need of a compelling, meaningful product vision and I helped with both the customer discovery and the video artifact that was used in product reviews, customer meetings, sales and support trainings, etc to ensure everyone was informed and aligned. 

 

If you’re seeking to expedite the creation and communication of a product vision for your company, please do reach out to me for information on my Product Leader coaching and consulting services.  This is the work I love to do, and I’d love to help you accelerate your success.

 

Also, as this is the last episode, while I plan to do more, what I’ve learned in this process is that podcast audience analytics suck!  I need a signal from you the listener to know whether I have product-market fit.  Would you be disappointed if this podcast ceased to exist and I didn’t continue to release new episodes?  Contact me on LinkedIn or Twitter or leave a review to let me know your answer.


 Resources mentioned:

Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? by Michael Schrage

Is Your Product Vision Moving People in the Right Direction? by Hope Gurion on Product Coalition (contains example Product Vision videos)

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