One of my favorite parts of the design process for a product or business is creating the vision. There are no limitations and you get to act like the hero in the movie who makes the inspiring speech while epic music plays in the background. Note to self: add some background music the next time I share a vision.
What is a vision and why would you need one?
Let’s start at the beginning. A vision describes a high-level picture of the future without dictating how that end state will be achieved. It allows your team to understand the direction of the change yet also empowers them to make decisions about how to get there. How can a seemingly simple vision statement be so influential? How can one sentence spur a group to action? I love Simon Sinek’s talk about the power of “why” and how it motivates and drives people.
Around 2:50 he asks us to reflect on our products and businesses asking, “why do you get out of bed in the morning and why should anyone care?” That’s exactly what a vision should be. It’s what inspires you and your team to get up in the morning and tackle whatever comes your way. It’s your purpose and reason for existing. It reflects your shared beliefs.
You could write a vision for your personal life, your product or your organization. This particular post will be focused on vision creation in larger organizations but many of the tips are still applicable for setting goals as an individual.
Here are some examples of vision statements:
One important note is that the vision is not the same as a mission statement, which describes the present state. This site has a great infographic describing the difference between a vision and mission statement.
When do you not need a vision?
If you have no idea who your customer is, what they want, what makes your offering unique, or what you stand for then don’t worry about creating a vision right now and instead focus on learning, experimenting, and reflecting. Collect insights via interviews, research, customer feedback, analysis of your business processes and technology capabilities, or market factors. Brainstorm products or business models, create rapid prototypes and test them in the market.
After a while a vision will probably start to form in your head. You might hear people on your team discussing similar concepts over and over again. If your team is all in sync and you are making progress towards an end state then you might not need to spend too much time on putting your picture of the future on paper.
When do you absolutely need a vision?
You definitely need a vision if:
- You are unhappy with where you are but can’t seem to get out of it
- Your customers are unhappy
- You are churning out content, features, etc but don’t seem to be moving anywhere
- Your team members have different ideas about where the product or business is going
- You are trying to change an organization
What happens if you work in a larger organization?
If you are working within a larger organization with many teams and products it is beneficial to understand the hierarchy of visions and how they relate to each other. Creating a vision for the entire enterprise is very beneficial but it could end up feeling too generic and vague for the business lines and product development teams to build their strategies from. Let’s walk through some examples of visions at each level before discussing why examining the hierarchy of visions is important.
How will the world look different in the future because of your business or organization?
Teach for America: One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Microsoft: A computer on every desk and in every home; all running Microsoft software.
Lowe’s: We will provide customer-valued solutions with the best prices, products and services to make Lowe’s the first choice for home improvement.
An easy way to tackle this one is to think of your program or department as its own business that could be serving both external and internal customers. How will your department contribute to the end state?
Cornell University’s School of Biomedical Engineering: To develop a quantitative understanding of the human body across scales.
City of Pasadena’s Finance Department: The Finance Department strives to be the standard of excellence in the development and implementation of innovative programs and processes while providing world-class customer service with a professional, courteous, knowledgeable, and respectful department staff.
What will this product do and who will it serve? How will it change the world?
Kickstarter is a fantastic source of inspiration for product visions and missions.
3Dsimo mini: Our vision is to change the way you think about tools.
The case of the missing vision
Problems can arise if visions are missing. For example, let’s say you are trying to create a product vision but there is no communicated business vision. While your product might solve someone’s problems, other teams may be making decisions using a different framework. In the absence of a business vision, teams either end up waiting for direction from above or creating products and services that might not contribute towards the broader goals of the enterprise. That can lead to waste and frustrated team members or a disjointed portfolio of products.
Misalignment of product, organizational, and business vision could be a warning sign. It could also be a signal that the business vision needs to shift given feedback that the product teams are receiving. By putting all of the visions on paper it is easier for all teams at all levels to understand where the other groups are trying to go so they can make adjustments and resolve conflicts if necessary.
How do you balance vision and agility?
Some people are wary of creating visions because they see them as rigid or a remnant of waterfall processes and therefore not agile. It is definitely a balance. In my experience, if the vision is not defined the team will most likely never get there because short term incentives often lead you in a different direction. It is also extremely difficult to scale your impact if you cannot explain where you are trying to go. However, if you or your team become too fixated on the vision then you might miss opportunities that arise along the way.
My preferred method for balancing both is to create a vision and an outline of the plan to achieve it with the understanding that the plan could be updated (and should be updated) as new information is gathered. I recommend sitting down with your vision, roadmap, and the current analytics on a regular basis to reassess your short term and long term strategy. This could be done on a quarterly, monthly, or weekly basis depending on the speed of your organization.
Ideally your vision should be broad enough to not sway regularly but if your data is telling you that a drastic pivot is necessary then you would need to update your vision and roadmap accordingly. Otherwise use the vision as a decision tool to bounce ideas off of. If investing time or money on that initiative does not bring you closer to your vision then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
How do you create a vision?
Step 1) Try to write out the vision yourself
Even if you are not the final decision maker, try to write down a vision statement for the product, organization, or business. Whenever I am prepping to facilitate a meeting I always try to run through the exercise myself to identify any issues. If I am struggling to map my understanding of the situation to the exercise then I know the group probably will too because they will be less familiar with the mechanics of the exercise. Having a sample solution in my back pocket is useful in case the group gets stuck.
Step 2) Identify who needs to be part of the shared visioning session
Questions to ask yourself:
- Who are the more strategic thinkers in my organization or team? The more tactical thinkers?
- Who is accountable for this work? (This is usually a manager or executive.)
- Who will be executing the vision?
- Who has the knowledge about the business or customer context?
You might get lucky and find all of this in one or two people but in a larger organization the knowledge, strategy, and execution are split up among multiple people. Once the group gets larger than around ten people you start to lose efficiency. If you can, try to include one representative from each group or perspective. A cross-section of participants tends to be enough to build consensus.
Step 3) Run a session to develop the shared vision
Here are a few facilitation methods:
- Do “vision mad-libs” ie. the Elevator Pitch exercise. In my experience this is the most approachable exercise and is great for teams who are less familiar with other ideation or design thinking exercises. Try brainstorming some words or phrases the group would like to be considered in the final output before moving on to filling in the blanks.
- Try out other vision generation exercises such as:
Step 4) Publicize the vision
The proper medium depends on the nature of your company. Writing it down on in a word document is usually a first step but companies that embody their vision will also incorporate it into other media such as websites, presentations, videos, and graphics. Keep it simple and repeat it often. Find the influential lynchpins in your organization and make sure that they understand it and communicate it.
“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”
– Japanese Proverb
So you have your vision and everyone’s excited but without a plan you probably won’t get to the finish line as efficiently or quickly as you would like. In the future I’ll be sharing some follow up posts on creating roadmaps, identifying value, and prioritization, but in the meantime if you are interested in these concepts I encourage you to check out these resources:
- 8 tips for creating a compelling product vision by Roman Pichler at Pichler Consulting
- How to frame your product vision by Teresa Torres at Product Talk
- Vision pivots vs. discovery pivots by Marty Cagan at Silicon Valley Product Group
Do the organizations or products you interact with have clear and inspiring visions? If not, why do you think that is?