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How To Convert Client Needs To Establish Clear Product Vision

In this second post in our series, Leading Product Innovation, we look at how ITX innovation leads help clients establish a clear Vision for their software product. In the series’ opening blog, we talked about how Discovery activities guide the product team to answer Why? What? For whom? Here, we explore their role in building stakeholder alignment around the product Vision and articulating that Vision in a way that rallies the team to confidently commit to its fulfillment.

Managing risk. It’s the unavoidable reality of software product leadership. Sometimes that risk comes from not knowing what to do first, or next. Other times it’s the risk of not staying current with technology. Ultimately, product leaders face the risk that any one of these will damage their company’s brand or bottom line.

ITX innovation leads help clients manage that risk – first by guiding the product team through Foundation Stage discovery activities, later transitioning into the Planning Stage of the product development process with a clear product vision.

Exploring Product Vision

In his blog, 8 Tips for Creating a Compelling Vision, product management coach Roman Pichler described the challenge in this way:

Having an idea for a new product is not enough. You need a vision that guides everyone involved in making the product a success. The product vision is the overarching goal you are aiming for, the reason for creating the product. And it provides a continued purpose, acts as the product’s true north, provides motivation when the going gets tough, and facilitates effective collaboration.

In our experience, as teams explore the right vision for their product, ITX innovation leads ask them to consider these questions:

  • What excites you about this product?
  • Why do you care about it?
  • What positive change should the product bring about?
  • How will it shape your organization’s future?

Their innovation lead guides conversation to land on breakthrough outcomes, including –

  1. Establish and document “ways of working” for your team(s) – e.g., guidelines for personal interaction, productivity, and decision-making. Share it across your organization. As circumstances change and knowledge grows, be prepared to update the document regularly with new ideas.
  2. Connect regularly with your teams. Assume that anxiety levels are high. A listening ear and soothing tone will help calm many concerns.
  3. Now more than ever, clarity around vision, expectations, and goals is vital to team success.
  4. Where in-person contact is dissuaded, videoconferencing is the next best option. Remember, distributed work teams don’t enjoy the benefit of water cooler conversations. So if it feels like you’re over-communicating, it’s probably just right!
  5. Make sure all your team members know how to use the communication and productivity tools you provide – especially newer members. It’s not too late to re-share user instructions. Your teams will welcome the refre

Distinguishing Product, Vision, Strategy

Over 2+ decades of experience building custom software, we’ve seen clients and teams use the terms product, vision, and strategy synonymously. It’s a popular trap that innovation leads will help teams avoid.

For example, teams sometimes pivot to what they think is a new strategy – which in many cases is fine, even wise. New learning, technological developments, competitor activities, and shifting market dynamics often create a landscape that requires a change in tack.

But other times, what they believe to be only a change in strategy turns out to be a whole new product vision. A significant shift in product vision – or abandoning it entirely – can signal to the team, key internal stakeholders, and investors that your initial assumptions were wrong and, perhaps, that your business model itself is flawed. It should change very rarely.

In these situations, innovation leads step in to exercise their right (and responsibility) by saying “no.” In his podcast episode with the Product Momentum team, Dan Olsen, author of The Lean Product Playbook, said that focusing on your product vision and the strategy for getting there actually means “saying ‘no’ to a thousand other good ideas.”

Product vision, Roman says, reflects your organization’s motivation for building a product – the big picture outcomes they desire. Product strategy is the plan for achieving that vision, he adds. And product, Roman defines in terms of the output by which you achieve the overarching goal.

“An effective product vision,” Roman concludes, “goes beyond the product and captures the change the product should instigate.”

Product Vision Looks Outward

The ultimate outcome sought by product leaders is driven by the change we want to bring to the world, says Radhika Dutt in Product Success Starts with a Clear Vision, episode 27 of the Product Momentum Podcast.

“That’s why a good vision statement doesn’t look inward,” she adds. “It’s not about our own goals and aspirations. It’s centered on the problem you want to solve in the world.”

Think of product vision as your “true north,” and understand that many paths can lead to your final destination. But the best plan – i.e., the best product strategy – must be adaptable in the face of market realities.

By keeping a close eye on the market environment and customer needs, innovation leads help provide an adequate buffer between and vision and strategy. This enables you to tweak your strategy – to pivot – while remaining fixed on your vision. Pivoting is a tactic familiar to innovation leads often in response to new discovery or a change in the business environment.

Balancing Vision with Business Reality of Business Objectives

In his blog The Four Big Risks, product management expert Marty Cagan cited an important update he made in the 2nd edition of his book, Inspired.

Initially, Marty wrote that a successful product requires three things: it must be valuable, usable, and feasible. To complete the list, he later added viability.

“It’s not enough to create a product your customers love,” he wrote. “The product must also work for your business.”

Among the innovation lead’s many strategic responsibilities in the Planning Stage is coordinating the needs of external users and the needs of the business. Many clients ask, “As much as I want to change people’s worlds, I still have numbers I need to hit this quarter. How do I balance my product vision with the reality of my business objectives?”

The answer, Radhika says, is simple – but not easy.

“Your vision can continue to live on based on the changes you’re inspired to bring, but how you prioritize product features offers the counterbalance between inspiration and market reality.”

Every time the innovation lead evaluates the next feature in the roadmap, they ask themselves (and the team): “Is this feature helping us make progress toward our vision?” If it is, great. Even better if it’s helping reduce my organization’s business viability risk. In the series’ next post, we’ll explore the innovation lead’s responsibilities throughout the Planning Stage – product strategy, feature prioritization, and roadmaps / release plans – as we continue our journey along the product development process.

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Peter Sullivan is Producer of ITX’s Product Momentum Podcast and a student of Product and Design processes that work. As ITX”s Marketing Content Lead, he spearheads our efforts to deliver thought leadership that helps product makers and UX designers understand and shape the future. 

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