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Establishing a Product Vision

July 31, 2018

Crafting a product vision, which defines the desired future for an organization’s product, is a key responsibility of a product manager

A product vision defines the desired future state for a b-to-b organization’s product. The product vision is used to align internal stakeholders – and often external partners – around a central purpose and objectives, and informs or serves as the foundation for the product strategy, roadmap, value proposition and other messaging components. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we describe the four components of a product vision – audience, objective, impact and boundaries – and explain how to craft these components into a statement that unites and inspires team members.

One: Audience

The first step to crafting a b-to-b product vision is identifying the offering’s target audience. Many product managers make the mistake of focusing the product vision on themselves and their needs or goals without defining the vision in terms of the customers or market.

The audience definition for a product vision should be broad and reflect its long-term market potential. A value proposition, on the other hand, is more focused and usually tailored to specific market segments, buying centers or buyer personas. For example, a value proposition may be useful for a chief risk officer at a mid-sized bank, whereas the product vision covers the entire banking industry. Starting with the audience helps product managers orient their product visions – and resulting products – around customers and their needs, rather than the technology or functionality the company wants to build.

Two: Objective

A strong product vision requires a clear, focused and appropriately aspirational objective that inspires and galvanizes relevant team members. If the objective appears too easy to achieve, it will not be exciting and forward-looking enough to inspire a team for the long term. If it appears too challenging or broad, it will demotivate the team. Objectives can be defined in the following ways:

  • Needs enablement. Enabling customers to address a need, particularly one that is difficult or impossible to act on today, can be an appropriate objective – e.g. helping healthcare organizations reduce their use of paperwork, assisting universities in improving student performance. Objectives give product teams something tangible to measure long-term progress against, and organizations can set or adjust metrics along the way. Objectives must be driven by high-priority identified customer needs, rather than internal opinion or needs that are less important to customers.
  • Satisfaction. In competitive markets, where customer experience factors heavily into product success, the objective may be to create a the most preferred or trusted offering on the market. Product satisfaction can summarize other objectives (e.g. the product’s ability to meet needs) and predict other important metrics like revenue growth or market share. Organizations using a satisfaction metric should define whether the main goal is overall customer satisfaction or satisfaction with a single offering. Although customer satisfaction and engagement are noble goals, they incorporate so many other factors beyond the product itself that it may be more appropriate to limit the focus to product satisfaction.
  • Market success. Objectives can be defined by market strength (e.g. the product’s status as market leader, or the organization’s status as the biggest provider). While these objectives are common, they can sometimes – intentionally or unintentionally – wind up being internally focused rather than audience-focused because they are defined in terms of what the company wants to achieve, rather than its impact on the market or customers. Market success goals can also drive undesirable behavior. For example, an objective of becoming the top-selling product in a category may cause people to try to achieve that goal by any means necessary, even if it doesn’t necessarily align with values or other priorities.
  • Completion of a mission. For some organizations, the goal is to build a product with specific constraints (e.g. a portable dialysis machine that can fit in a pocket or a product that allows anyone to sequence a gene in a day). This type of objective is particularly common in technology and engineering. It is appropriate so long as the mission provides value to customers and motivates and challenges team members (i.e. it is not attainable under current circumstances). Unlike needs enablement objectives, which exist on a spectrum against which progress can be measured, mission-focused objectives are much more clear-cut; the vision is fulfilled when the mission is completed.

Although the product vision does not need to lay out the specific method used to measure the objective, organizations should have a plan to measure progress toward that objective. For example, for a product with the objective of being the leading product in a category, the organization should ensure that it can measure progress and determine how progress or success is measured (e.g. market share, revenue, number of customers).

Three: Impact

The impact component addresses the question, “Why are we doing this?” If the objective defines the finish line, the impact describes why the finish line is important and how the audience benefits. Product managers should move beyond simply stating what the product does, and describe the impact in inspirational terms. Although an impact statement such as “make it easier for employees to save for retirement” may be true, it is not as energizing as “allowing employees to prepare for the retirement of their dreams.” Portfolio marketing colleagues may be especially helpful in crafting inspirational phrasing, which should connect to the value that the offering provides for customers.

Four: Boundaries

Though a vision should be aspirational and forward-looking, organizations should put appropriate constraints in place:

  • Time. Product managers can set a timeline for the vision to be fulfilled – a specific date or a period following commercial launch.
  • Organizational or business unit strategy. The organizational strategy may set limits within which the product vision needs to exist. Organizational-level directives (e.g. minimizing environmental impact, setting strategic goals for a business unit) serve as guardrails for the what the product can and cannot do.
  • Values. Organizations often have core founding and operational principles. They expect their employees to live by these values, so their products should also align with them. For example, a company that values individuality and innovation should expect its products to be trailblazers rather than fast followers. If patriotism is a company value, then the product vision might reference the need to have a positive impact on the home country.
  • Convictions. If product managers and team members have beliefs and opinions that are crucial to the way they want to achieve the product vision, these are important to include. These convictions should not conflict with identified audience needs, but establish a position on a specific point of view or about the desired future. The product concept may rely on a conviction (e.g. in the future, most human tasks can be replaced by machines, or that charter schools are an effective alternative to private or traditional public schools). Thus, including the conviction in the product vision shows it needs to be the central concept behind the commercial opportunity.

A product vision doesn’t necessarily need to include all three types of boundaries; to keep the vision concise and appropriately aspirational, one or two usually suffice. However, without at least one parameter, the vision risks being too vague and open-ended.

The Sirius Decision

While creating and agreeing to a product vision are an important milestone, the real impact of creating a product vision comes from using it regularly. A multitude of decisions are made daily – not just by the product manager, but also by portfolio marketers, user experience designers, developers and others – that affect the product. The product vision should serve as the guide to aid in those decisions, so product managers need to ensure that it is always top of mind for the entire team. Consider printing the product vision on a large banner posted in a conspicuous place in the office, or explicitly referencing it at the beginning of all-hands meetings or executive presentations. Additionally, actively bring it into discussions, such as by asking “What would our product vision tell us to do here?” Finally, recognize team members for specific actions that were conducted in line with the product vision.