Product Design Marty Cagan

Vision vs. Strategy


In recent articles on keys to product success and the alternative to roadmaps I have highlighted that if you want the benefits of product team empowerment and autonomy, then you need to provide each team with the necessary context in which to make good decisions.  I’ve explained that the context typically needs to be the product vision, and a specific set of outcome-based objectives for each team (OKR’s are an effective way to do that).

I’ve already written about outcome-based objectives, and in this article I want to talk more about product vision, and especially how important the role of product strategy is in delivering on the product vision.

Product Vision

The product vision describes the future we are trying to create, typically somewhere between 2 and 5 years out.  For hardware or device-centric companies it’s usually 5-10 years out.  This is not in any sense a spec; it’s really a persuasive piece.  It might be in the form of a story board, or a narrative like a white paper, or a prototype (referred to as a “visiontype”).  It’s primary purpose is to communicate this vision and inspire the teams (and investors and partners) to want to help make this vision a reality.

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.

You can do some validation of the demand for the vision, but it’s not the same as the validation of specific solutions we do in product discovery.  In truth, buying into a vision is a bit of a leap of faith.  You very likely don’t know how, or even if, you’ll be able to deliver on the vision, but remember you have several years to discover the solutions.  At this stage, you should believe it’s a worthwhile pursuit.  As Jeff Bezos says, you want to be “stubborn on the vision, and flexible on the details.”

Product Strategy

One of the most basic of all product lessons learned is that trying to please everybody will almost certainly please nobody.   So the last thing we should do is embark on a ginormous, multi-year effort to create a release that tries to deliver on the product vision.  That would truly be the antithesis of the concept of minimum viable product.

So, what even is product strategy, and why is it so important?

“Strategy” as a term is ambiguous as it exists at every level on just about everything – business strategy, funding strategy, growth strategy, sales strategy, discovery strategy, delivery strategy, go-to-market strategy…

Whatever the goal is, your strategy is how you’re planning to go about accomplishing that goal.  Strategy doesn’t cover the details; those are the tactics we’ll use to achieve the goal. Strategy is the overall approach, and the rationale for that approach.

While there’s many forms of strategy, what we care about here is product strategy.  Which in short means: how do we make the product vision a reality, while meeting the needs of the company as we go?

So many of the companies I meet have a goal (like doubling revenue), and they have a product roadmap (the tactics), yet no product strategy to be found.

In terms of product teams, the product vision describes where we ultimately want to go; the product strategy helps us decide what problems to solve in order to get to our vision; product discovery helps us figure out the tactics that can actually solve the problems; and product delivery builds that solution so we can bring it to market.

Product strategy breaks down into four steps:

  1. The first is to be willing to make tough choices on what’s really important;
  2. The second involves generating, identifying and leveraging insights; 
  3. The third involves converting insights into action;
  4. And the fourth involves active management without resorting to micro-management.

None of these steps are easy, but all are essential.

Why are Product Vision and Product Strategy so important?

So back to the concept of providing context to the product teams.

In order for a product team to actually be empowered and act with any meaningful degree of autonomy, the team must have a deep understanding of the broader context. This starts with a clear and compelling product vision, and the path to achieving that vision: the product strategy.

The more product teams you have, the more essential it is to have this unifying vision and strategy in order for each team to be able to make good choices.

I was with a startup recently and describing the value and importance of vision and strategy, and it occurred to me that it’s very analogous to the difference between leadership and management.  Leadership inspires and sets the direction, and management helps us get there.

Most importantly, the product vision should be inspiring, and the product strategy should be very intentional.

NOTE 1: Normally when we create the product vision, we usually also create a set of product principles. The two components are often lumped together and just referred to as “the product vision.”