Four ways of defining your product vision
Defining what success looks like for your product, before you start building it, can not only save you time, money, and effort, it can also act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A truly inspiring definition of product success – whatever form that takes – has the power to motivate teams, organisations, and supply chains and can attract talent, investment, and even target users.
Many leading companies have seen the value of starting with a definition of success and using it to work backwards – planning and aligning activities, sharpening focus, and guiding decision-making and resource allocation.
But knowing where to start can be confusing. Firstly, many established tools and techniques are intended for defining corporate, not necessarily product, success. While the concepts are easier to apply if you’re a single product company, there aren’t many references for multi-product organisations. To make matters worse, many of the articles and books we’ve come across on the subject conflate terminology or were primarily written to upsell product management software.
If you’re truly interested in motivating your stakeholders and driving coherent action, this article is for you. In it, we explore four different ways of defining your product vision and help you choose the right one for your product.
What is a product vision statement?
Starting with the most popular. Vision statements have been used in corporate strategy since the 1970s and were later applied at different organisational levels, from divisions to functions, to individual product lines.
“An effective statement of vision provides an inspiring portrait of what it will look like and feel like to achieve the organisation’s mission and goals. It crystallises an emotional connection between employees and the business. Critically, a formal statement of vision is not an end in itself.” — Michael D. Watkins
A product vision statement is one or two sentences that describe what you want the future to look like as a result of people using your product.
It is not a value proposition statement, which describes how your product creates value for a specific customer segment. It is not a mission statement, which is usually time-bound and focussed on a shorter time horizon. And it is not a purpose statement - which describes why your company exists. While all of these tools are valuable in their own right and can be complementary to a product vision statement, they are often conflated and serve different purposes.
Product vision examples:
Finding good examples of product-specific vision statements can be difficult, but typically they come in two different flavours: Competitive (be the best or become the next X) or impact-focussed (solve world hunger):
- Make doing taxes a thing of the past
- Become the leading global fast-food provider
- A world without period poverty
- Reinvent how people find love
- Become the world’s most trusted content provider
- Fundamentally change the way we understand nutrition
- Give parents their lives back
Product vision statements are effective because they inspire action. Their simplicity makes them easy to remember and their broad scope provides flexibility and autonomy to those tasked with making them a reality.
Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs)
What are BHAGs?
BHAGs were developed by Jerry Porras and Jim Collins and popularised by their 1994 book ‘Built to Last’. A BHAG (pronounced “Bee hag”) is a compelling, long-term goal that is intriguing enough to inspire employees of an organisation to take action.
Jerry and Jim categorise BHAGs in four different ways:
Role model BHAGs are BHAGs which focus on emulating the success of another company or product. E.g. We want to become the Airpods of the medical device industry.
Don’t underestimate the rallying potential of a common enemy. Competitive BHAGs pit your company or product firmly against your main competitor or category leader. E.g. We want to knock Uber off their perch.
Targeted BHAGs are goals that you’re aiming to achieve within a specific time frame. E.g. We want to provide 50% of the FTSE 100 with employee analytics software, within the next five years.
Internal transformation BHAGs are centred around the changes you want to make within your organisation, from shifting your market focus, pivoting your business strategy, or overhauling your culture. E.g. We want a ratio of 1:7 Product Managers to Engineers in our organisation.
BHAGs are similar to vision statements in that their primary objective is to inspire action. Where BHAGs differ (to their advantage), is that they are often easier to track progress against by being more quantifiable. Measuring progress towards ‘capturing 50% of the FTSE 100’ is a lot simpler than figuring out if you're making meaningful progress towards ‘reinventing the way people find love’.
What is a winning aspiration?
‘Winning aspiration’ is the first box in Roger Martin’s strategy cascade. To keep strategy simple, Roger avoids multiple vision, mission, and purpose statements in favour of a single statement which he calls a winning aspiration.
A winning aspiration combines a strong desire to achieve something great with a description of how a company or product creates unique value for its users. It should motivate people to want to work on or support your product, and convince users that the product is focused on their welfare. In this respect, it’s like combining a vision statement with a mission or value proposition statement.
Examples of winning aspirations
- To build the most convenient, secure, cost-effective online payment solution
- To provide an unparalleled AR experience that changes the way people experience live sports.
- To become the most trustworthy content provider in the world, by combining high-integrity journalism with a market-leading fact-checking product offering.
Articulating your product’s definition of success as a winning aspiration can often make it more relatable, tangible, and unique than more generic platitudes, such as ‘solving world hunger’.
Future press release
What are Amazon’s future press releases?
Amazon’s future press release approach, brilliantly documented by Colin Byar and Bill Carr in ‘Working Backwards’, is a core component of their product development approach. Before a single line of code is written, the product team crafts a 1-2 page press release, imaging the future release of the product.
The press release outlines the users’ problem, how they’re failed by current solutions, and how the new product will disrupt the market. The process of crafting this more long-form definition of success helps the team to sharpen their ideas before moving into product development. It also provides a good amount of detail for the product team to work backwards from.
Amazon future press release structure
The structure of the press release usually follows:
- Title - E.g. [Company] announces [product] to enable [user segment] to [benefit statement].
- Subtitle - A slightly different framing and longer version of the title.
- Date - The expected or targeted launch date (Tread carefully).
- Summary - An overview of the product and its benefits.
- Problem - A description of the problem that the product solves.
- Solution - A description of how the product solves the problem.
- Quote - A quote from a spokesperson from your company.
While Amazon’s approach to defining product success is certainly the most verbose, it fits in with a company culture that values well-crafted narratives and thoughtful memos. In established and large organisations, adopting a format which is already used and known with the organisation, or one that fits the culture of the company, can often help ensure engagement.
Elements of a strong definition of product success
While the four methods described above demonstrate contrasting executions, we believe there are some common attributes of strong definitions of success:
- Memorable: Whether it’s long or short-form, it should be memorable
- Clear: It clearly defines a single primary goal
- Long-term: It should be firmly rooted in the future (think more 10 – 50 years, than 2-3).
- Stable: It should offer a long-term perspective and is unlikely to be impacted by market or technology changes
- Challenging: It shouldn’t be something that can be easily achieved or discarded
- Inspiring: Most importantly, it should motivate people. Whether that’s your team, your organisation, your supply chain, investors, potential hires or users.
Common misconceptions when defining product success
You can only pick one
We have only described four different ways of defining product success. There are plenty of other methods out there. Some of the most creative and inspiring examples we’ve come across have been hybrids of different approaches. If you’re struggling to apply a particular approach to your product, that might be an indication that it’s not a good fit. Not all companies start with a clear vision of how they want to change the world, whereas others do, they just don’t know they’re going to do it yet.
You shouldn’t define success at the product level
This is a simpler argument when you’re a one-product company, because you will likely have a single, company-level definition of success that is intrinsically linked to your product. In larger organisations, with multiple, distinct products, defining a long-term version of success for each product can be just as effective. So long as your product’s definition of success supports your overall company’s definition of success, there shouldn’t be an issue.
You can’t retrofit
Don’t feel put-off if you have already set off without defining your product’s success up-front. While strong definitions of success are often fairly static, it’s not uncommon for them to be tweaked and refined as a company matures. Providing that your new definition doesn’t come across as disingenuous, or in conflict with your company values or culture, you can still reap the benefits of defining success for existing or developmental products.
You can’t be successful without one
We’ve worked with lots of successful organisations that didn’t have a clear long-term definition of success, either for themselves or their products. Many of these organisations instead relied more heavily on a sense of purpose, a specific mission, or a set of values to guide their activities. But we also found that those companies who did define their products' success up front, were often able to achieve their goals faster, and create a larger impact.
- Defining success for your product up-front motivates people and allows you to work backwards.
- Advice on how to define long-term product success is often confusing, and finding good examples is hard.
- We explored four different methods of defining product success: Vision statements, BHAGs, Winning Aspirations, and Future Press Releases. There are more methods out there, and combining approaches can be effective.
- A strong definition of success should be memorable, clear, long-term, stable, challenging, and above all, inspiring.
- You don’t need a definition of success to be successful, but it does help.