The Vision-Based Product Strategy

Have you ever wondered how certain intrinsically motivated people and companies, driven by a strong sense of passion and commitment, continually change the world we live in? If you want to understand how they do it, keep reading! This blog post takes you behind the scenes of an effective and unconventional way to define a product vision and strategy to drive innovation and success.

Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, has stated in many interviews that he and his team are working two to three years ahead into the future. They are “creating” from a future point of view. The product vision and product strategy are both tools designed to visualize and create that future state. A vivid, clear, and deeply ingrained product vision leads to higher passion, motivation, and creative high-quality outcomes.

The product vision is the foundation for the product strategy, and that’s the critical point to start with. In my previous article about product vision definition, I stated that a good product vision is a clear, inspiring sentence that describes the future state of the product. Upon further reflection and experience, I've come to realize that this viewpoint was limited.

Yes, you're reading it correctly, I was wrong.

Many companies, coaches, and articles proclaim that this is how it should be done. However, in my journey working closely with various companies and industry leaders, I've found that this isn't sufficient:

One sentence can’t fully clarify the future state of a product, nor does it answer the “why.“

This raises a crucial question:

“How can we define a clear strategy if we don’t know where we want to be in X years?”

It’s time to take a different look at how to define, communicate, and use a product vision and product strategy. Further on, I’ll elaborate on how to derive the product strategy from the product vision, introducing the concept of the "vision-based product strategy."

My goal extends beyond merely explaining the "how-to." I aim to empower you with expertise in product visioning, transforming you into an accomplished expert in the field. After reading this article, you’ll be able to quickly distinguish a good product vision from a loose one!

If not, you won’t get your money back. 🤞😉

Your Product Vision: The Product Strategy Foundation

As mentioned above, we need to start analyzing the entire topic around the product vision. A clear and well-defined product vision will help us to define a clear product strategy.

Remember: The product vision describes the future state of the product.

To illustrate the "one sentence doesn’t provide clarity" problem, let's evaluate three distinct product visions.

Product Vision #1

“To bring the best user experience to our customers through innovative hardware, software, and services.”

Product Vision #2

“Fast, visually appealing, and joyous to use.”
“Drop-dead simple to get information into the calendar.”
“More than boxes on a screen (reminders, invitations, etc.).”
“Easy to share so you can see your whole life in one place.”

Product Vision #3

“We believe in a world where small businesses can offer a super fast and safe payment experience to their customers, for minimal costs with no administrative efforts.”

Which one of those do you like the most? Please take a minute before you move on. After choosing your favorite, I have another question: “Why did you pick it?” If you like, take some notes! You might be surprised later on.

Let’s park the product visions above for now. I want you to put aside your “product glasses” for some time. There’s a great analogy that I’ve learned from the author Cameron Herold and his book "Vivid Vision". This analogy will best highlight the complexity of the single-sentence issue.

The Product Vision Analogy: Bricks-Maker

In a random town, a random man was walking down the street. At some point, he saw three brickmakers, approached them, and asked them what they were doing.

The first guy said:

“I’m making bricks!”

The second guy said:

“I’m making bricks to build a wall!”

The third guy said:

“I’m making these bricks to build the wall of a glorious cathedral that will be used for the worship of god!”

Who do you think wakes up every morning with a clear vision, and purpose, and feels most fulfilled in his job?

I believe it’s the third guy. However, we need to examine his answer closely and go back to the initial statement:

👉 The product vision describes the future state of the product…

A second sentence needs to be added:

👉 … It describes the what and the why.

I believe there are many ways to interpret and look at his answer. What are the “what(s)” and “why(s)” in his statement? We’ll examine three different ways of interpreting his answer.

1. He only answered the “what” because he was asked “what” he does.

2. Making bricks is the “what,” and the rest explains the “why.”

3. His strong belief in god is his “why,” and the rest describes the “what.”

Alternatively, we can reverse engineer his statement and ask a few times “Why” instead of “What:”

  1. Why are you making bricks? -> To build a wall
  2. Why are you building a wall? -> For a cathedral
  3. Why a cathedral? -> Because it’s glorious
  4. Why is it glorious? -> Because it will be used for the worship of god

There are many ways of looking at his statement and asking “what” or “why.”

What’s the correct answer now?

I believe there’s lots of room for interpretation. I’m sure the third guy knows his “what” and “why.” What about us? We have room for interpretation. That makes it complex. Additionally:

We’re looking at one vision from one person!

How about one vision for many people?

Product Vision Discrepancy and Gap

After this short journey, I’d like us to take on our heavy product glasses again. 🤓

Let’s revisit the three product visions from the beginning.

Product Vision #1

“To bring the best user experience to our customers through innovative hardware, software, and services.”

Product Vision #2

“Fast, visually appealing, and joyous to use.”

“Drop-dead simple to get information into the calendar.”

“More than boxes on a screen (reminders, invitations, etc.).”

“Easy to share so you can see your whole life in one place.”

Product Vision #3

“We believe in a world where small businesses can offer a super fast and safe payment experience to their customers, for minimal costs with no administrative efforts.”

What has changed if you look at them now? Do you still stick to your previous choice or do you have a new favorite? Do you like all of them right now? Or none?

Let’s look at vision number 1:

  • What does the best user experience mean?
  • What does “innovative hardware, software, and services” mean?
  • What does the product do or solve?
  • Why must it be the best UX? (how about price, quality, etc?)
  • Why hardware, software, and services?

I’m sure we all have different interpretations and understandings of what the best user experience means. The same applies to innovation. You know the famous question: “What do you want? Faster horses…” Not to mention, there is clearly no “why.”

Product vision number 3:

  • What do super-fast payments mean?
  • What does safe mean? Safe APIs? Safe in a way that no one can see the customer entering their PIN?
  • What means no administrative efforts? Is it related to bookkeeping? Printing or sending invoices? Taxes? Or even everything?
  • Why do we believe that?
  • Why small businesses?

Product vision number 2:

That was the product vision of the Google Calendar team back in 2006. Even though it’s “Google” I’d like to do the same analysis as we did before. What are the what(s) and why(s)?

All points do answer the “what.”

The last sentence could include some “why” if you eliminate the first few words.

I’m pretty sure the product and development teams at Google are aligned. I personally use and love the Google Calendar app and I’m managing my whole life with it. No kidding!

If we look at the “what” we can see that Google’s product vision is very user-experience-heavy. What actually is the future state of the product? Is it only the UX?

Some things are not defined in the three product visions above:

  • Customers/target group
  • Team & Culture
  • (Product) Marketing
  • Usage & customer behavior
  • Product growth

You might say: Christian… that belongs to the product strategy…

And I’d say: No, it doesn’t!

⚠️ Long story short ⚠️

Do you believe it’s possible to get a clear direction and strong intrinsic motivation in just one sentence or a few sentences?

The Product Visioning Process

We’re slowly coming to a point where we start looking at a different approach and way to define a product vision as well as a product strategy. Nevertheless, I believe it’s essential to understand why a vague product vision definition will lead to misalignment all the way down to execution.

Speaking of the journey from top to bottom… I’ve created a simple overview of the whole process from start to delivery. This is a simple model to visualize how it works. I’ll mainly focus on number 1 and 2.

Product Market Fit and Competition/Market Analysis

We can keep this topic short. If you don’t know who your customers are, and if you don’t know what your competition is doing, you better find out! I’ve talked to many CEOs who are pushing for a strategy and execution without having a clear target group or product market fit. In this case, I’m always asking the question:

“Can you afford to build something that nobody wants?”

That’s the first and most important step before we even think about a product vision or product strategy. Discovery comes first! I’m a big fan of keeping things simple, especially in early-stage startups.

  • For product-market fit conduct customer interviews
  • For a market analysis: TAM, SAM, & SOM
  • To analyze your competition, build a simple comparison matrix or conduct a SWOT analysis for each competitor.
  • If you have better tools or approaches, use them!

Once you have clarity on these topics, we’re finally ready to talk about the product vision definition.

Product Manifestation (Product Vision & Strategy)

A good product vision should be at least a one-pager. I recommend writing between one and three pages. A one to three-page-long, vivid product vision has many benefits. First, it will clearly define your 'why,' and where you want or will be in the given timeframe.

People will be able to imagine the future state, success, and even more. It will help your product, engineering teams, and other departments to update their mindset to the future state of the product or your company! HR teams can send out the product vision to candidates and give them the chance to check whether they like it or not. It’s a great recruiting tool. You can also formulate exercises around it too.

During onboarding processes, people will understand the bigger picture and better connect to the strategy. Just to mention some side benefits.

In the next chapter, we’ll do a deep dive into how to define and write a product vision. Afterward, we move on to the product strategy breakdown.

Are you interested in an example vision-based product strategy broken down into all its pieces with some additional templates? If yes, feel free to follow this link: Product Manifestation Guide

Product Vision Definition: Find Your Mission & Purpose

I’m sure you’ve heard of Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why.” Feel free to check out the link to a three-minute summary of his book. Starting with why is also very important for your product vision.

Why do you do what you do? What is the mission or purpose of your product? In case you’re a single-product company, your product vision is your company vision.

FYI: You might have observed that I say mission or purpose…

The reason why is that I don’t distinguish between those. In the approach of a vision-based product strategy, the product vision contains the clearly defined “what are we doing, and why” which is covered by the mission statement.

What’s left is the “why,” which I define either as mission or purpose. I realized for myself that it doesn’t help me to get hung up on definitions. I prefer focusing on the underlying questions.

Defining a product vision requires being proactive rather than reactive. That means you describe how you want the world to be!

The best way to do that is to start with your product’s mission or purpose. I recommend keeping the mission statement short. No more than five sentences. It should cover:

  • What problems it solves and why
  • For whom it solves the problem
  • How it solves the problems

Here’s an example of the automotive company Tesla and its Tesla Model 3, which I made up:

“Our mission is to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles worldwide. The Tesla Model 3 is an affordable, high-quality, mid-range-priced car made for tech-savvy people. It combines a great design experience with modern technology for a green and sustainable footprint on our planet!”

Defining a product mission is a fun exercise for product & development teams. There are many techniques and tools you can use to define your mission. If you want to learn more about working out your mission, vision, and strategy, feel free to contact me.

The product mission should be timeless. Your product vision shouldn’t be timeless, which brings us to the next topic.

Product Vision Timeline 2.0

Finding the right timeline for your product or service isn’t easy. Anything less than three years is more strategic than visionary. Timeline-wise, we can learn a lot from different cultures.

  • In Germany, mid-sized companies often think in terms of “generations,” which is 20 to 30 years.
  • In China, companies think in twelve-year cycles.
  • Other cultures think in seven to eight-year cycles.
  • In industries like town planning, infrastructure, or agriculture, you might even have outlooks up to a century!

It depends a lot on your markets, your service/product, your culture, and more. Obviously, in the tech industry, time moves much faster than in the automotive.

And there’s always the question: “Are you a single or multi-product company?“

I want to share these examples to inspire you and move away from the classic definition of "product vision = a three to five years range." Therefore, I recommend that (product) leadership teams sit down with their stakeholders and have an intense discussion on the timeframe you're looking at and planning for.

Strategic Decision-Making and Process Ownership

To make significant long-term decisions, you need to have the right people involved in the process, which raises an important question:

Who should be involved, and who drives the process?

First things first: Either the product lead (CPO, VP, Head of, etc.) drives and owns the process, or the CEO/Founder does. And these two people have to be in the room when you’re working out your product vision and strategy.

Additionally, you need to involve key people from your product team as well as key stakeholders like those from marketing, engineering, and hiring, for example. I recommend keeping the “product vision circle” to no more than eight people.

Framing Your Product Vision

Let’s do a short recap:

  1. You know your customer's problems & your competition
  2. You have a clear mission/purpose defined
  3. You have chosen a clear timeframe for your vision

With this information, you have a great foundation to write down your product vision.

In this part, I’ll cover

  1. The product vision writing style
  2. Structure & headlines
  3. Values & principles
  4. Your product vision design

The goal is to get an understanding of how to define and use a product vision after you’ve written it.

1. The Product Vision Writing Style

Let’s say you’ve decided that your product vision will come true in four years and today is the 1st of January 2023. That means you’ll note down at the top of the document the date of 1st of January 2027. You’ll always write your product vision in the present tense. Like a press release from the future.

Let’s take a look at the “classic way” companies were doing it versus a simplified snippet of a vivid product vision.

Bad example: “We’ll own a 5% market share by 2027.”

Good example: “Due to our creative product marketing efforts as well as continuous user research, we managed to build an outstanding product that our customers love! We’re profiting from engaging app features that helped us move from sales-led to product-led growth. The efforts to develop an easy and fast sign-up have taken off and given us the power to scale fast. Our product and engineering teams deliver the best product with zero bugs and 99% uptime. Our customer support infrastructure is strong, automated, and managed by experts. Now we’re dominating the market with a substantial market share.”

Note: This is just a very short, generic example, and you should go much deeper and be way more emotional.

You might see that there is much more context and power in the good example. How would you feel if you read this as an employee or someone who is applying for a job?

I can’t stress enough how much emotions matter when you work on your product vision and product strategy. We’re humans with feelings and we’re much more led by them than we might think.

2. Product Vision Structure & Headlines

The example you’ve seen above could be a piece in the middle of a product vision. We’ll now take a look at the general structure of a product vision and the areas it should cover.

The future state of the product is not only a UX thing. Many areas affect the future state of the product such as:

  • Product Marketing (Channels, Efforts, etc.)
  • Public Opinion (Media, Word of Mouth)
  • Customer Base & Customer Feedback
  • How People Will Use the Product (UX)
  • Customer Growth
  • Market Share
  • Profit & Loss
  • Collaboration With Partners
  • Logistics
  • Delivery Time/Speed
  • Organizational Structure
  • Hiring Talents & Staffing
  • Tech Stack, and more…

The list is long. The key question is: "What’s most important for your product and company?" Pick the ones you most want to focus on. Remember, your product vision paper should be between one and three pages long.

Once you’ve decided, it’s time to structure the whole paper. It could look like this:

  1. Product Mission
  2. User Experience
  3. Growth & Marketing
  4. Development Processes
  5. Hiring
  6. Finances & Budgeting

You could use every point as a headline in the paper – which I wouldn’t do!

Even though the agenda might look structured and might be built upon each other, you have one essential problem with it:

It’s focused on departments.

That would lead to writing a product vision paper and simply handing it over to the teams of the departments: “Please support us with our vision…”

How about a more collaborative approach by using value/outcome-based headlines and content?

Here’s an example based on Tesla’s Model 3:

  1. The mission of our Tesla Model 3
  2. How our customers drive & enjoy
  3. Need for Speed: Delivering & Growing
  4. Cost efficiency with environmental impact

I believe that the success of a product highly depends on how well your teams collaborate. It’s the product team’s job to act as the interface between all the other departments. Exactly that should be reflected in your product vision.

Let’s take number two of the first agenda (User Experience):

The UX and UI of your product will impact how you market it. A good marketing team will not focus on selling. It will focus on creating a demand. Therefore, it’s important to be involved as early as possible in the product development process (number 4). The development process depends also on your team members, which impacts hiring and personal development. As you can see, you can mix all six points into one headline of the value/outcomes-based version, “How our customers drive & enjoy.”

The same counts for all the other points. I’m a big fan of mixing and spicing things up so that the employees also see the need to collaborate as well as the positive outcome of it.

3. Don’t Forget Your Values & Principles

A well-written product vision sets clear values and principles. Let’s take another look at the good example snippet:

There have been many crucial information in it:

  • Creative product marketing
  • Continuous user research
  • A product that our customers love
  • Fast sign-up to scale fast
  • Engaging app features for product-led growth
  • Zero bugs and 99% uptime
  • Automated support infrastructure managed by experts
  • Market domination

The points above are more than a “where do we want to be” kind of text. It sets the tone for the upcoming years.

Creative/alternative marketing to push our product. Continuous user research has a huge impact on the product development process as well as staffing. You’ll only make decisions based on data.

A product that our customers love might be measurable by an NPS score of, for example, +75.

A fast sign-up might be an important product decision to stand out against the competition. Zero bugs and 99% uptime need even more effort towards engineering, review processes, on-call, and much more.

An automated support infrastructure, managed by experts, significantly impacts hiring and tooling. Hiring is implicated in every step.

Long story short: The product vision provides direction on where you want to be product-wise, culturally, technically, organizationally, and so on.

Therefore, you need to take a deep look into the future with your product vision circle.

4. Your Product Vision Design

Once your product vision is defined and people have given their buy-in (more about the process later), you should hand it over to your design team. It’s important to make it a highly valuable paper, not a simple Google Doc. Add your corporate identity to it, choose a good font, check out spacing, and more.

A vivid product vision is brought to life through its content and design. You might want to share this paper internally and externally with partners, candidates, investors, etc.

Be careful with images! I avoid images in product visions. People should focus on the content. Too many images might bias them in a certain direction. I leave that up for imagination and discussion.

Product Strategy Breakdown

We know that 90% of all startups across all industries fail. The primary reason is a lack of product-market fit. That leads to poor execution which will cause startups to fail (unfortunately). Therefore, a strong and well-defined product vision must be in place as the foundation for everything that follows afterward. A bad foundation will lead to poor execution. I like visualizing that by comparing the classical and vision-based approaches.

The stronger your research and foundation (product vision) the easier it will be to execute.

You might see a little difference in the wording between both images. In the classic way, I named it “strategy adjustment” while in the vision-based approach “strategy alignment.” Let’s finally look at that.

Product Strategy Reverse Engineering

Your product vision is defined, and you know what you want to achieve and by when. Now it’s time to start working backward. Let’s reuse the earlier four-year product vision for the 1st of January 2027. What needs to be in place from 2026 to 2027? Go back year by year. The more you move to 2023 the more detailed you become until you’ve defined your strategy for the next twelve months.

When I develop the product strategy with teams, we create a two-column page for each person in the product vision circle. The left-hand side describes the strategic themes or “moves” you need to make to achieve the vision. The right-hand side shows the desired outcomes and actions that need to be taken.

You can see it as a kind of OKR exercise. Here’s an example based on the “good example product vision” from the point of view of a Chief Product Officer.

FYI: Please involve your team members as a leader because they are the closest to the product. Sit down together and work strategically. Once you have identified what you need to do strategically, you can delve deeper and discuss the outcomes you desire and how you intend to achieve them.

This outlines the strategy breakdown for a CPO. The strategy for a CTO could look completely different. They might focus on:

  • Tech stack,
  • Infrastructure & Security,
  • Team staffing,
  • QA to ensure better quality, etc.

A CEO or CMO will have other focus areas. That’s how it’s supposed to be! Most important is that every person in the product vision circle does this exercise. Afterward, you come together, exchange, decide, and merge the actions and define clear themes. After connecting and deciding on the outcomes and action items break it down into max. three strategic themes. People from your leadership team will form teams around each strategic theme. There’s one clear owner who reports progress to the CEO and stakeholders.

There's a great motto: "Start finishing, stop starting!"

Limit the number of strategic themes your company is working on. No more than three strategic themes! The strategic themes for 2023 to 2024 must be well-documented, transparent, and shared across the company. Leadership teams are required to regularly align on the priorities and what’s most important to make the product vision come true.

Comparison: Vision-Based Strategy vs. Classic Product Strategy

Let’s do a recap and comparison of both approaches.

1. The Product Vision

The classic product vision is mostly a single sentence that doesn’t show a clear path.

The vivid product vision describes a clear picture of where the product will be based on strategic elements. Due to its clear living nature, values, and principles, it creates an emotional attachment for its readers.

2. The Product Strategy/Strategic Themes

The classic product strategy contains the product vision, all relevant and research-based market information, growth plans, and the high-level product roadmap. The timeframe of a product strategy is usually between one and two years.

Here is a link to a typical product strategy template which I recommend not to use!

The issue with the product strategy and roadmap is that they are usually created by the product team and/or the product lead. After the creation and definition of a “plan,” it will be communicated to the rest of the company to get buy-in. That causes the problem that teams and departments have to react and readjust their plans.

I refer to this as the "collaboration-communication-alignment problem."

Strategic themes are initiatives with clear outcomes and goals. They’re defined by the product vision circle which includes their teams as well as other key stakeholders.

There will be many strategic themes and max. three in progress. The leadership team regularly tracks the progress arrangement with the teams and decides on priorities of strategic themes as well as the desired outcome. The goals are clear and the teams will figure out ”what” they’ll do and “how” they’ll achieve it.

3. Planning & Roadmap Definition

Once the classic high-level roadmap is defined, teams will translate it into their respective team roadmaps, aligning with other teams in cases of cross-functional collaboration. The “what” is given to the teams and they only will be able to decide “how” they execute the roadmap

Road mapping with strategic themes differs. Teams know the desired outcome/goals and they’ll identify and define the solution which covers the “what” and “how” part. That only works in agile and experiment-friendly environments with autonomous teams.

Vision-Based Product Strategy Rollout Process

Before we move to the last chapter, which looks at the impact of your vision-based product strategy, I’d like to review the whole process, from start to execution.

Considering product-market fit is given, you should sit down as a team and work out the product vision, align it, and communicate it with the whole company. Once you’ve collected feedback from your stakeholders you move on to the strategy breakdown. Depending on your company size and leadership alignment you can parallelize the vision definition with the strategy breakdown.

As a good start, I recommend a two to three-day offsite meeting outside your office! Being focused for a couple of days and doing intense workshops around the product vision and strategy is just the beginning.

Moderating and facilitating these workshops isn’t easy either. If you need help with that feel free to contact me.

The strategic themes need to become key tools that will be used for any future strategic decision. At the same time, it requires reviewing and adjusting your internal processes. Whether it’s communication processes or development processes: these changes will have an impact on your whole organization and team members, which brings us to the final chapter.

The Impact of Your Vision-Based Product Strategy

First things first: If you’ve made it this far and liked the article I’d highly appreciate it if you share it with your network. 🙏 Now… back to the topic!

Once you share the product vision with your company and the world, it will make an impact. As a CEO, you might not like what comes next:

Some people won’t like your vision… and this is fine!

Even though you don’t want to lose employees, it’s essential to know that they are not on board with your plans. You can only succeed when people are fully committed and work towards the direction you’re giving. People who disagree will not perform, sabotage, or hinder progress. I’m not saying this will happen, however, the chances are very high. The more employees work for your company the higher the chance.

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