What If You’ve Been Doing Product Strategy All Wrong?
Are Vision and Mission Statements worth the Paper Their Written On?
If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
Mission and vision statements have become part of conventional product wisdom. The consensus view is that they're valuable. We’re told product managers should be able to communicate them. We know a good product vision should be ambitious, inspiring and easy to explain.
A Vision Statement is a description of the desired future state of the company. An effective vision inspires the team, showing them how success will look and feel.
Bain & Company, 2023
They’re appealing for product managers too, but mainly because there’s not much substance behind creating them. Here’s how it works:
Grab an off-the-shelf template
Have a go at filling it in
Get some stakeholder input (this is when it gets wordy)
Check in with your superior
Place it at the front of your roadmap deck
Hey presto! You have a product strategy! I can see why this caught on. It’s hard to get your head out of product execution, it’s hard to find the space. But don’t fool yourself, you’re choosing the easy way out.
If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
Proponents of vision statements claim they help drive alignment and improve strategic decision making. But do they? They suggest you start with a vision, before moving further down your strategy stack and completing your roadmap. But should you?
Introducing the Dissenting Opinion
Working with a cascade of “statements” about vision, mission, value, and strategy is a feckless activity, lacking a logical backbone, and having no evidence of being enduring…the mission statement comes from the “vision statement,” which, perhaps, derives from the “statement of core values.” Logically, this is like the turtles: “statements” all the way down.
…if you accept that strategy is a form of problem solving, that it is a journey, and that it is a response to challenges, then mission statements are not helpful in strategy work. They are a waste of time and effort
Richard Rumelt, The Crux, 2022
Richard Rumelt is a strategy professor at UCLA and clearly he’s not convinced by vision statements and mission statements. To understand why, we need to understand how he thinks about strategy.
He defines strategy as a mix of policy and action designed to overcome a challenge (or grasp an opportunity). He thinks of focus as the cornerstone of strategy. It is the concentration of resources on ‘the right thing’ that creates power and leverage. To create a good strategy, we need to diagnose the correct challenge and create a sensible response. A strategy therefore shouldn’t be a hazy sketch of a desired destination. It would be more appropriate to view it as a journey through a sequence of challenges.
I’m coming around to his way of thinking. I haven’t seen Vision or Mission Statements create the kind of alignment that’s strong enough to galvanize teams around a shared vision of what to build. They’re partially helpful, but they don’t answer “What should we do?”.
What does this mean for Product Managers? Well we can play a role in identifying an addressable strategic challenge for our product teams. A challenge that’s both critically important to the company, but addressable with extreme focus and commitment. The challenge needs to be immediate and clear, something we can start working towards today.
Product managers also play a role in driving coherence. The efforts of our product teams and portfolios must be coherent with others around us. Ideally our efforts complement each other. The cost of this coherence is saying no to stakeholders, who make reasonable and compelling reasons for you and your team to deviate.
The Key Takeaway
Regardless of how you feel about vision and mission statements. Ask yourself… Is your product strategy clear, important and addressable? Are you concentrating your efforts on the most important thing? Are you aligned with the teams around you?
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