While you might “own” the product, your product’s vision should be coming from the top of the house. It should be driving everything in your organization, not just product development. Sales, operations, technology… all of it should be working toward a common vision.
So, if the vision isn’t the responsibility of the product team, what is? Let’s use a hypothetical example — a space travel company — to break this down:
The vision for the company is affordable and repeatable space travel. You do not own the vision, but you should have a clear sense of what it is as you help carry it out. If the vision isn’t clear enough to build a strategy and roadmap around it, you should (diplomatically) communicate that.
The product strategy is to build vehicles capable of going to space multiple times, along with the supporting infrastructure to make that possible. It might be a single rocketship, or it could be a fleet full of spaceships with various capabilities. You have some ownership over strategy.
The product roadmap is (for each spaceship) the high-level steps required to build a spaceship that meets the requirements of the product strategy, which in turn is fulfilling the company vision. You own this.
So what do they look like?
There are no absolutes on the perfect format for a product vision, product strategy, or product roadmap, but here are some general guidelines:
Your vision should max out at one to two sentences — just enough to clearly and concisely convey your high-level purpose. This should be aspirational, not just descriptive.
“The vision statement is not an opportunity to use creative, colorful language to describe the operations or activities of the organization,” says Shaun Spearmon of Kotter International. “It should describe the resultant experience or outcome. Too many organizations get caught up explaining how they work. Instead, focus on the subsequent outcomes after the work is done.”
Here are a few examples of great vision statements:
- LinkedIn: “To connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.”
- Warby Parker: “Offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially-conscious businesses.”
- Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
You should be proud of your vision statement and happy — not embarrassed — to share it with customers. It should resonate with you and your fellow employees and not just sound good to investors.
“I find that a vision focused on creating a benefit for others provides a particularly deep motivation and a lasting inspiration. It guides me when I am feeling doubtful much more than a money- or self-centric vision can,” says Roman Pichler of Pichler Consulting. “I find that people excel because they believe that they are doing something meaningful and beneficial.”
Product strategies should be a little more specific than the vision, but not so specific that you’re delving into the details of implementation.
Your product strategy should cover the fundamentals:
- Who are we trying to serve?
- What problem(s) are we trying to address?
- How are we planning to address the problem(s)?
- How are we going to monetize our product?
You’ve now defined a target market, created a value proposition, and laid the groundwork for a business plan. You can certainly be a little more specific, but trying to nail down the details at this level can create assumptions that lead your product roadmaps and product releases down narrowly-defined paths that may limit your options and miss opportunities in the future.
“When we are building products, we have a threshold of knowledge. We cannot start on Day 1 and exactly plan to reach our vision. There are too many unknowns and variables,” says Melissa Perri of ProdUXLabs. “Instead, we set goals along the way, then remove obstacles through experimentation until we reach our vision.”
We’ve written plenty about product roadmaps at UserVoice, so instead of recreating the wheel here I will direct you to a couple of our favorites on this subject:
- How To Prepare an Executive-Level Product Roadmap Presentation
- How to Hold an Interactive Product Roadmapping Meeting
In the context of this piece, the fundamental idea to grasp is that roadmaps are tactical. They’re a set of plans and instructions that get you close to achieving the goals laid out in your product strategy. They’re the only of these three items that should dictate specific behavior or tasks.
Keep teams on the same page
While your company may not be trying to go to space (at least not literally), you likely have some ambitious goals at the corporate level. Your product team then needs to figure out the strategy that will work toward those goals, and the individual product managers will define their product roadmaps to build products supporting that strategy.
“In order for a product team to actually be empowered and act with any meaningful degree of autonomy, the team must have a deep understanding of the broader context,” says Marty Cagan of the Silicon Valley Product Group. “The more product teams you have, the more essential it is to have this unifying vision and strategy in order for each team to be able to make good choices.”
That is why it’s incredibly important to have a clear product strategy when your organization has more than one product manager. While a lone wolf may always know why things are happening when, it’s a lot murkier when you add some cooks to the kitchen.
“When you know exactly where you’re going, it’s much easier to get there,” says John Mansour of Proficientz. “For product managers specifically, they no longer have to go it alone for their products and compete with one another for resources. It’s a divide-and-conquer scenario across the product management team.”
Keep Product Strategy changes to a minimum
One way you know you’re operating a strategic level? Things aren’t actually changing very often.
“Product Vision specifies the What and Why of the product, while Product Strategy elaborates how to realize the vision with a specific approach, and provides a roadmap showing a timeline for executing the strategy. Product vision is the guiding North Star, and does not change much, if at all,” says Satish Thatte of VersionOne. “Once the product strategy is prepared, it may undergo adjustments and refinements over a period of time, but not too frequently.”
Unlike the vision and the strategy, product roadmaps will change somewhat frequently as market intelligence comes in, users request new capabilities and technical considerations are factored in. As the roadmap is a tactical plan, these changes should be welcomed (as long as it’s not for the release your engineering team is already working on), as it shows you’re being responsive to the changing dynamics of your industry.
Be positive about the negatives
While most people think of product strategy as everything your company will build to achieve its goals, just as important are all of the things you won’t be building.
“Providing a solid product strategy will help focus activities, establish a direct link between the product and the company strategy, and clearly identify to everyone involved the high-level steps currently being taken to achieve the vision,” says Greg Geracie of Actuation Consulting, adding that it “not only defines the boundaries of the actions you intend to take to achieve the desired future state, perhaps most importantly, it also articulates those activities that lie outside of the scope of the strategy that will not be pursued.”
Defining the scope is essential to creating an achievable strategy, and this is vital downstream information to the specific roadmaps being created and implemented.
Tie Your Product Roadmap to Your Product Strategy
The tiered system of defining goals and planning products enables a series of checkpoints for everything that uses your organization’s precious resources. If what you’re doing on the roadmap doesn’t directly tie back to something specific in the strategy, then you have to question why you’re doing it at all.
Tweet this: Everything on your product roadmap should tie back to your product strategy.
A helpful exercise is to actually go through every item and see how it fits.
For example, let’s say your strategy is to:
1) Aggregate the best gluten-free recipes on the planet
2) Make it easy to discover and share them with others and
3) Create a critical mass of users so the platform can be monetized with premium content and product sales.
If you’re putting a recipe ranking feature into your roadmap, great: it connects with strategic goal #2.
But let’s say you propose a calorie counter. Sounds like a good idea, yes? Think again. At present, your calorie counter doesn’t link with any of your three strategic goals, so you need to put that on hold unless you want to proactively change your strategy.
Whether you’re color-coding your roadmap, labeling features accordingly or just running a quick comparison check, you can now be sure that everything you’re building is strategic.