Product Marty Cagan

Product Vision FAQ

In the previous article discussing product vision versus mission, I received quite a few follow-up questions.  Most of these have been addressed in earlier articles and in INSPIRED, but I thought it would be useful to gather together an FAQ related to product vision in the hopes that we can help clear up some of these very common confusions:

What is the timeframe for a product vision?

The product vision should describe the desired end state 2-5 years out for software companies, and 5-10 years out for device companies.  The common mistake is to describe only a year or so out, which is more likely a roadmap.

What is the appropriate scope for the product vision?  Is it a single product team?  The tribe?  The product line?  The business unit?  The full company?

As the main article described, it’s rarely a single product team as that misses the point of the common north star.

We want the product vision to apply to as much of our organization as possible, until the point where this becomes meaningless.  For example, a single product vision that would span AWS, Kindle, Alexa, and would not be helpful or meaningful.  But a product vision does make sense for each of those units.

The more common mistake is to break up a product into smaller visions, such as having one product vision for the buyer side of a marketplace, and another for the seller side.  But this misses the important dynamics between the sides of the marketplace.  It’s much more helpful to have a product vision for the marketplace as a whole.

Who is responsible for creating the product vision?

The product vision is the explicit responsibility of the head of product, which in startups and growth-stage companies, is often one of the co-founders.  This is not something that is delegated to individual contributor product managers or product teams, although they can of course contribute and review.

While the head of product is responsible for this, in many organizations, there is some nuance involved as it’s important that the key leaders of the company, starting with the CEO, feel a real sense of ownership over this vision.  Realize these leaders will need to evangelize this vision to investors, board members, other leaders and of course prospective customers, so it’s essential that they feel a real connection with the product vision.

What is the right level of detail?

The common problem is just declaring something like: “We will make customers’ lives better through automation.”  This is nice but not helpful.  You need to give the audience a real sense of how you will make their lives better.

It is understood that you don’t have the details, and that you are not even sure you’ll be able to figure how out to solve the problems that you’ll need to solve, but you need to inspire the audience that it’s worth solving these problems, and that you have the skills and enabling technologies to have a real shot at delivering on the vision.

How do we come up with this product vision?

Hopefully you’re starting to realize that a strong product vision is the result of a creative process,  much like crafting a story.  As such, there is no single way to come up with your product vision, and don’t expect to find a simple fill-in-the-blanks, paint-by-numbers, canvas or board approach to a strong product vision.

That said, when I work with a company on their vision, I have evolved a form of facilitated discussion designed to get what we need in order to create a product vision.  This discussion usually takes 1-2 days, ideally done as a form of off-site.

I like to gather all the key leaders (typically: CEO, head of product, head of technology, head of design, head of marketing, and often the head of sales) as well as the set of very smart and influential people that most companies have that may be in individual contributor roles – it’s usually a group of somewhere between 5 and 15 people.

One other key person I like to include is a strong product designer that can listen to these discussions and debates, and then after the session, help us flesh out the vision with a visiontype (more on this below).

I’ll arrange to have key people do significant preparation for this offsite, such as a written narrative explaining the key insights, or a presentation on the competitive landscape, or a summary of business constraints.  

I have learned to personally review the data and preparation for each of these areas of discussion, so that we can build on a solid foundation, and we can use the time with the group to discuss the implications, rather than to rehash and debate the situation.

These are the factors that I consider essential as we craft the product vision:

  • Business Objectives and Constraints
  • Customer Problems
  • Critical Insights
  • Enabling Technologies
  • Industry Trends
  • Competitive Landscape
  • Go To Market Considerations
  • Our Own Capabilities
  • Organizational Impacts

With the right people in the room, and having done the necessary preparation, we can start to sketch out the product vision.  But to be clear, the purpose of this session is not to actually create the visiontype.  Rather, it is to give the head of product and the product designer the necessary context and clarity so that they can spend the next days creating an early version of the visiontype.  After some iteration, we’ll have our visiontype, and we may take that further and produce a video showing off the visiontype.

What if I want help coming up with a product vision?

One option is to find a product leadership coach.  Another option is to use the services of one of the agencies that provide “product vision sprints” which you can find by searching for.

How often does the product vision need to be updated?

While the product strategy changes frequently (at least yearly if not quarterly, based on new data and insights), the product vision doesn’t usually change much at all. If it is created at the right level of detail – enough to convey the desired customer experience, yet not so much that it’s viewed in any sense as a specification – then it should hold up well for several years.

Do we ever just abandon our product vision?

Sometimes during our product strategy or product discovery work we uncover an insight that is so impactful that we decide it makes sense to change the direction of the company.  That is called a vision pivot.  I want to be clear, this is usually a good thing as you’ve found an even larger opportunity, but it’s also not very common.

The much more common problem is that the company gives up on their product vision far too soon.  I see this with companies of every size, but especially with startups.  They give up after 6-12 months, and try something else, and usually give up on that after a few months too.  This is especially common when the company does not have the discovery skills to solve the hard problems they need to solve in order to deliver on any vision, so progress is too slow, and they run out of funds or their investors lose confidence.

And of course there are occasionally cases where after working hard towards the vision for at least a year, we realize the vision was an illusion, and this just isn’t going to happen – either because our customers don’t need these problems solved as much as we thought they would, or because we can’t manage to solve the problems in a way that customers find valuable and our business finds viable.

Do you have examples of good product visions?

Yes, see these examples for some of my favorites.