What "Alice In Wonderland" can teach us about building great products

Why vision is so important, and 6 actionable steps on how to create one and set your direction

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I heard this quote recently, and it really resonated with me as I’m currently in the planning cycle for our 2022 product roadmap.

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. â€ś

- Antoine de Saint Exupery

Building, growing, and managing a product is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort from everyone on the team. The people behind it are everything, if there is misalignment on what people are doing and why they are doing it – then that will directly translate into how the product is built and ultimately where it ends up. 

If you've ever read or watched Alice in Wonderland, you might recall this important conversation:

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get too.
Alice: I don't much care where.
Cat: Then it doesn't matter which way you go. 

Now, that's a fine and exciting answer when you're backpacking through Europe. However, if not knowing where you're going, and not really caring, is the answer you and your team have to building a product – you're going to build a mess, waste resources, and fail to work together efficiently to deliver great customer value. 

Product vision is the aspirational statement about where the product hopes to go, and what your product hopes to achieve in the long term.

It's your north-star guide that reminders everyone involved in your product’s development (the product and engineering team, executives, marketing, sales, etc.) about the shared overarching objective they’re trying to achieve with this product, and why they investing their time doing what they're doing.

The purpose of having a clear vision can be summed up in three points:

  1. Vision brings the future into the team's everyday work. It helps everyone understand the purpose of the product and company and clearly see the what the bigger picture is. It's your handy statement to create alignment across the team and company.
     

  2. Vision helps drive the product strategy and roadmap. Before sitting down and coming up with your strategy or roadmap, you need to have a clear high-level vision. This statement sits at the top of everything, allowing you to translate it into your strategic plan and set of coherent actions—your product roadmap. 
     

  3. Vision helps you make strategic decisions during development. Throughout the year you're going to have to triage feedback and ideas that come in, prioritize them against your existing roadmap, and figure out which initiatives are worth executing on. Having a vision, and a clear strategy around it, makes it much easier to manage prioritization because it gives you a sense of direction you can easily refer back to.   
     

Take a look at these examples of company vision:

  • GoogleTo provide access to the world’s information with one click.

  • InstagramTo capture and share the world’s moments.

  • Uber: Evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers.

  • LinkedInTo connect the world’s professionals and make them more productive and successful.

  • Tesla: Create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world's transition to electric vehicles.

  • Airbnb: To create a world where people can belong anywhere and can live a place instead of just traveling to it.

The purpose of hi-lighting these vision statements is to show you what makes a great vision:

  • It's short & simple.

  • It's memorable.

  • It's unique.

  • It's actionable. 

  • It's relevant.

  • It's durable.

  • It's inspiring!
     

These examples are all from large companies, and they are not a single product – rather they have a portfolio of products within them each with their own strategy, roadmap and team. When this is the case, the company vision will often differ (although still align) with each product's vision. For example, Airbnb's Instant Book product had the vision, “If you see it, you can book it”,  giving that team more focus around their specific product.

All of those companies are a wild success with incredibly successful products. A common thread – they all knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, and everyone on the team got behind that product vision to make it happen.  

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Where vision comes from

Like many other things, this depends on the size and stage of the company. In most instances, you will probably be part of team that already has a product vision. This vision may be for the entire product if it's a single-product company, or one product within a larger portfolio.

This vision most likely was driven by product leadership with involvement from executives, since it is such a foundational and direction-setting statement.  

Even with a high-level vision statement set, it's still an important skill for you to know how to create a product vision. Why?

  • Improving an existing one. You want to be able to identify a weak or stale vision statement and work to improve on it.

  • Creating one for a specific initiative. While there is a high-level vision for the product, it's useful for each initiative you work on to also have it's own vision.

  • Create one for a new product.  You may be starting your own company or responsible for a new product offering at an existing company, and you need to be able to develop a clear overarching product vision.

6 steps for creating a product vision 

This is a collaborative process, and shouldn't be created in a vacuum. It's important to get buy-in from your manager before you kickstart this process, as you will end up speaking to other people from inside the company, as well as your current and potential future customers. 

Below is just a guide-post to get the process of creating a vision statement started.

1. Gather information and listen

The most important part of anything in product management is knowing and understanding your customers and what they need.

If you don't know what problems they have and why, then how could you possibly know how your product helps them and makes their life easier? 

Vision is the ship’s compass, and should be rooted in customer insight, and as you go through the motions of customer and market research, think about answering some of the following questions:

  • Why does our product exist? What is the main problem we solve and our customers' Jobs-To-Be-Done? 

  • What do we do much better than anyone else? What is our key advantage we can leverage most? 

  • What is our unique strategic value curve compared to the market/competitors?

  • What are the growth opportunities over the next few years?

  • What does our ideal product and experience looks like for non-customers/potential new -demand? 

  • What do we want to be as a company/product when we're all grown up? How will our product shape the future for our customers?

  • Why am I excited to work on this product? Why do I care?
     

2. Distill a first draft.

Now that you have all those insights, you can start with the harder challenge of putting that all together nice and cleanly into a single, succinct, sentence.

As you do this, it's key to think about describing the motivation behind the product, and not describing what the product itself is or will be. This will help you look beyond the product as your create the vision, and that's important because a good vision statement should paint a picture about what change the product is aiming to bring about, so that it can drive the idea of the product – it doesn't work the other way around. 

By thinking about the motivation behind the product and the future state the product wants to help get too, you're not narrowing yourself to a set idea – so think big, be broad and ambitious! Your vision isn't the place to be pragmatic – planning comes later from the vision.

3. Get feedback and workshop it.

Creating the vision that the whole company and team are going to get excited about and rally behind is a non-trivial task.

Now that you have your draft, that should serve you as a platform to share it around, get feedback from your managers, teammates and other leaders – and be prepared to workshop and fine tune it.

You're working towards a vision that resonates with people and makes it easy for people to see how the work they're doing relates to the shared vision. And the more that people feel like they were involved in this process, the more buy-in you will immediately have and the easier it will be to be the ambassador of vision and advocate for it later. 
 

4. Craft your shared vision statement.

With all the feedback you've received, you have more inputs now to make adjustments and refine your vision statement. Keep it short and sweet. 
 

5. Run it through the sniff test.

Once you've got your final statement written out and you're excited by it, ask the following questions and critique honestly: 

Is it short/simple/memorable/unique/durable/relevant/actionable/ inspiring?

You should ask these questions to yourself, and also to others.
 

6. Make it visible and evangelize it.

Once you and the team are happy, you have a vision and you should be proud! The next step, like strategy, is to make sure it's front-and-centre and always part of the conversation. You should have this written down, widely available to everyone, and possibly even publicly on your site and other team and customer facing pages. 

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The Product Slice is the free weekly newsletter for PMs and founders about product, startups and growth.

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