For a new team just starting to work together, an existing team starting on a new mission, or a team that is not excited about their work, going through the exercise of creating a formal vision can get them energized and aligned. Even teams that are executing well towards an informal vision can benefit from re-articulating and writing down a formal version.
What is a vision? How is it different from a mission?
A mission statement is one sentence, in the format of an “end statement” of what will be true if the product is successful. The mission statement needs to be aspirationally possible but does not need to be constrained to a certain timeline.
The written vision statement is comprised of multiple end statements, is feasible to accomplish in a three-year timeframe, and gives specifics about how the user will accomplish various jobs to be done, without being overly prescriptive. A useful stylistic choice is to tell a story from the perspective of a user.
Example: Netflix Streaming
You can imagine a new initiative at Netflix circa 2008 to kick off the move to streaming.
Watch any movie or show, anytime, from any device.
Sally is waiting for a bus. She opens her phone, goes to the Netflix app, and browses thousands of TV shows and movies. She selects a show she’s already watching, “The British Bake Off”, and Netflix picks up where she left off. Because she’s on cellular, the video quality is only 480p, but it starts playing right away. She doesn’t have the video on her phone; it’s all streaming live from Netflix servers. When the bus comes, she pauses and closes the app. Sally gets home from work and launches the Netflix app on her TV. She chooses “The British Bake Off” again, and picks up right where she left off. This time, the video is in full 1080p quality. She can pause, rewind, and resume whenever she wants. When she’s done with “The British Bake Off”, Netflix recommends another show, “Yelling at Chefs with Gordon Ramsey”.
Visuals are not necessary, but they help
Believe it or not, circa 2008, the above vision statement may have been hard for even technical audiences to understand. If you’ve never streamed video before, you may not have any frame of reference for what it would be like, as a user. You almost certainly have never seen an app on a TV; what does that even mean?
Just like when we demo working software to users to get feedback, showing your audience something visual to help them understand the vision can help them vocalize their assumptions and put their requirements in concrete terms. Actual designs should not exist at this point; the team should iterate on those based on the vision, once it’s set. But, these can be rough mocks, or even a video. You can imagine a commercial-style video of the above Netflix vision, following Sally around during her day, but not necessarily showing the exact UI of the Netflix app on her phone, or the TV.
What is not included in the vision?
Pixel-perfect designs are not part of the vision. Likewise, product specs, technical specs, and the roadmap are not part of the vision. All of these necessarily come later, and flow from the vision.
What about business goals, or metrics? These can be included, in the form of end statements. For these, the end statements can be for the business, versus for the end user. For example: “Netflix will have 100m monthly subscribers for its streaming service”, and “Netflix streaming subscribers will log in to the app on average 3 times a week”.
Why do you need vision?
Every team will have some form of shared vision, whether or not it’s written down. You have to have a mental model of what you’re building towards, and what the goal is. If there is nothing formally defined, the team will invent their own individual versions, in their heads. Writing it down and saying it over and over helps make sure that individual’s mental models are as convergent as possible.
… capture and encode that vision, taking care to preserve all the richness and wonder and awe so that the other people who see it can also feel the thump-thump in their hearts and the resolve in their minds. — Julie Zhou
The audience for the vision is not just the team working on the product. It’s also the entire company, particularly executive management, and eventually external audiences as well.
For the team, the vision is about alignment, excitement, and engagement. The team members might actually be actively asking for a vision, even if they are not quite sure what a vision is, or why they want one. For the team, alignment means getting everyone rowing in the same direction. Excitement is good for its own sake, but can also motivate the team to build faster, and at higher quality. The team is hopefully engaged in coming up with the initial vision, and the vision also helps them stay engaged and connected to the work.
For the executive audience, the vision is about alignment for prioritization, goals, and funding. The apparatus of company decision making needs to agree to fund this project, which takes the form of a budget for the staffing of the team. The executive audience also needs to align on the business goals of the project, including the timeline of potential milestones. Those can typically come later, after the project is funded. The vision is what convinces stakeholders that sufficient business impact is possible in an acceptable timeframe.
Sharing a vision with anyone is also a great opportunity to get feedback. This is gold! Make sure to add a frequently asked questions section to the vision document to capture and address these.
Who should create the vision? How?
The vision can come from anyone or any group. But, the closer you can get to the ideal of the actual team who will do the work generating the vision, the better. Hopefully, they have the best local knowledge of the product space, the users, and the technology. To the extent that they can own the vision, it will help them stay engaged and motivated. If you have to generate a vision tops-down, consider generating just the mission statement, or just the mission statement plus some “must-haves” pieces of the solution, as you see it.
It also helps to include a cross-functional set of collaborators. You want the working team for the vision to be as small as possible, but no smaller. Consider including just one person for each of the roles: product manager, designer, engineer. It’s also reasonable to expand to include many engineers, especially if it’s the entire team that will build the product. But, be aware of the cost of having too many people in a brainstorming session, and plan to run more structured sessions to account for that.
Something like a Google Design Sprint is a good place to start, if you’re looking for a small group or team-based vision exercise, and can afford to spend up to a week of the team’s time doing it. No matter who creates the vision, you should get some initial input from key stakeholders like executive leadership. What do they see as “must-have” pieces of the solution? Also, plan ahead to get feedback and incorporate the feedback into your draft of a vision, before finalizing it. You want to present your vision to at least three different audiences, listen closely to what they say, try to figure out when the audience does not understand the vision, and update the vision so that it better connects with the audience.
How will we know when the vision is successful?
You will know that your vision is successful when an executive audience can paraphrase it back to you accurately, and when you can ask any team member what the vision is, and they will recite it back to you, word-for-word. Both of these are practically impossible, but that’s the goal. You will know that your team vision is compelling if you feel confident that you can send this document to anyone in the company, and they will get excited about the product.
Don’t expect your vision to stand for time immemorial. Mentally be prepared to update the vision significantly at least every year. The team is going to learn new things as it builds, and the company and business context is going to change. A good outcome would be evolving the vision every year, to incorporate new information.