Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor, where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor, where the Shadows lie.
The above is the perfect description of the product called The One Ring of the JRR Tolkien fame. It is an almost perfect definition of a product; it describes the exact boundary and limitations of the product, yet not a product vision. There is no aspiration, no process to reach the goal, and no mention of competition.
Product Vision is for Sustained Competitive Advantage
When we discussed strategy, we delved into differentiating corporate strategy from being different from product’s competitive advantage. The vision captures it succinctly. A typical product vision should have the following elements:
- Aspirational goal to accomplish a task
- A methodology to meet the aspiration
- Differentiation from the competition.
For the sake of discussions, let’s use this one:
We shall provide
the best value to our customers
systematically optimizing costs
who are indifferent to the customer’s cause.
If you are a cost differentiator in generic strategy, the above is a likely product vision. The actual vision statements are more elaborate on the explanation of best value.
The product vision is the most valuable statement or document a product management organization owns; probably the only task of the product manager, which he cannot delegate. While inputs from everyone are welcome, if you are a product manager, you should ensure you own the vision and explain it to everyone in the organization or outside.
The user stories you write for agile teams to implement must adhere to the vision statement. For example, if your vision is on optimizing cost, it is obvious you cannot have significant touchpoints in support or professional services while installing or setting up the product. The user stories are so good on usability metrics that there are no overheads on writing significant documentation. The workflows are simple so that you do not need extensive training. If you never had a vision statement in place, it will be hard to judge the user stories against a benchmark. Most products are developed on their own by taking user feedback. As the product is there in the market, the companies try to aggregate and make a meaningful vision statement. It becomes harder; every time you fit the vision, you feel something is amiss. It is a reality that not all that is in the product does not align with the core vision. When I have faced unaligned features, I have funded the functionality as customizations separate from the core product. What is your approach to the same?
Dissemination of the product vision to the rest of the organization is training. In short, product management ends up training the whole organization. What is interesting is many organizations misplace product training with vision dissemination. Telling the exact mouse clicks and user interface details in accomplishing a task should be left to the formal trainers or engineers who have developed the product. However, what is most important for a product manager, is to convey why the functionality is so significant to the overall product vision. If you are a small organization, you may not have the luxury of a trainer, and a product manager doubles up to the function of a trainer. But, is the product manager using the training as a platform to deliver the association of product vision to the product features?
Messaging is the external view of a product vision. So if you are messaging something, make sure you live up to it. A product has a market message, easy to use, easy to deploy, and easy to manage: a powerful statement and equally appealing brand promise. But, over the period, the product had expanded its footprint and added significant functionalities. There were inconsistencies in how the product behaved for each of the features. There was a matrix of feature combinations that sales engineers needed to carry to understand the feature compatibilities. And the worst happened when a competitor harped on this point and challenged the Easy claim position with a simplified product but with lesser features. Suddenly your messaging and positioning are being claimed by your competitor if you are not careful.
Sometimes exaggerated messages are passed on. These are not wrong or unethical unless outright dubious or false claims. For example, Pidilite, in a visual ad, showed an actor stuck to a cliff as a Fevicol adhesive jar was placed on the television. As soon as the adhesive jar was removed, the actor fell off the cliff. It is a clear exaggeration, yet an imaginary expression only for a fun element to the brand. It also tells Fevicol has the strongest bond in adhesives.
The product vision is a guiding principle on which the product rests. Indeed, the product vision is not a constant. As the market shifts, the vision needs to be reviewed and realigned to a new position. Vision realignment must be carried out once or twice a year. It should not be so frequent that it just seems tactical.