When most people talk about “vision” they’re evoking a concept of long-term planning, setting big and brash goals that you might or might not achieve, but which set a “north star” by which you can plot the course of your product and company. And while that’s an extremely valuable use of the term, I’ve recently been thinking that having a “vision” doesn’t always have to be a 5-year plan, but can be a 5-minute plan and be equally effective. In recent discussions with some fellow product managers, I’ve come to believe that we actually do use shorter-term visions regularly, but we talk about it in a variety of different terms. And when we do, we provide a similar “north star” effect to the people with whom we work on a daily basis — we allow them to chart the course to do more than they might have if we just told them what to do, and not where to go.
Goals Micromanage; Vision Empowers
As I was considering the best approach to this topic, one thought kept nibbling at the back of my mind, aren’t goals just short-term vision? And the answer that I’ve come to is absolutely not. Goals are tactical, while vision is strategic — even in the microcosm of a short-term vision. Goals provide a means to micromanage — we intentionally create goals that are achievable within the world we live, with the resources that we have, and with the understanding of how things have worked out in the past. Goals are small, achievable, nuggets of success that we can micromanage ourselves toward. We can map out the specific milestones that we want to achieve in a sprint — we specify the stories that we want to complete, the tasks we need to do to have a “successful” sprint. But in doing so, aren’t we stifling at least a little of the creative spirit of our teams? Couldn’t we perhaps establish a vision of a possible future, and let the team chart their own course toward that? Maybe we should take a closer look at our user stories through such a lens — how many of them assume the process that will lead to completion? How can we rework them so that they’re reflections of our short-term aspirations — things that we may not completely nail, but that will drive our teams to work smarter, harder, and with more creativity, to move that needle further than they would with just a specific set of goals that they can check off like a treasure hunt? As Product Managers, we owe our customers a passionate dedication — but I think we also owe our teams the empowerment and freedom to achieve more than they think they can.
Deliver Short-Term Vision, Not Checklists
All too often, we as Product Managers “pretend” that we’re agile, because we use User Stories. Which is totally agile, right? Well, more often than not, User Stories are just another way to list out the bullet-point features that we used to roll up into our Business Requirements Documents in the bad, old days of waterfall development. They have all the trappings of being user-centered, and focusing on the problems, but if you were to critically assess the work that you actually deliver to your teams, how much room is there really in those stories for them to be creative and shock you with some new way of looking at things that not only checks the boxes that you knew you had, but to exceed those expectations? Too many companies have a culture of achievement, focusing on the checklist of things that move us to the next evolution of the product. We focus on a micro-level view of our users and our customers, and even if we’ve done all the right things in our customer discovery, problem definition, and approach validation efforts (hint: you probably haven’t), what we’re handing over to the development teams to actually do is a soul-sucking, itemized receipt of work to be done. What if we stepped back, raised our perspective a couple of levels, and really took to heart the concept that Product Management is about delivering valuable problems for our development teams to solve in the best, most efficient, and most effective way they can conceive of? What if we removed the shackles of directive acceptance criteria, and instead set that “north star” for them to navigate toward — stepping in and helping them to stay on course, obviously? How much more would you do if you were given the freedom to set your own course? Do we really think that others wouldn’t experience the same results?
Short-Term Vision Builds Long-Term Vision
Not every company has a strong and compelling vision, or one that everyone in the organization has truly internalized such that they’re considering it every hour of every day, in everything that they do. And that’s okay. Long-term vision is a hard thing to get right, and requires a lot of repetition and evangelism even in the most functional organization. And let’s face it, a lot of the organizations we live in aren’t the most functional. But, the beauty of setting short-term vision is that people will start to see the value of having vision in general — the freedom that it imparts within the teams working toward making it a reality. And if we’re truly the best Product Managers that we can be, we should be able to weave these short-term visions into a narrative that clearly supports, and hopefully informs, that larger vision within the organization. A truly strong and compelling vision is the biggest and best motivator — when everyone is working toward the same future, a lot of the politics, the infighting, and most importantly the misunderstandings fall by the wayside. And what we create, whether it’s through the large long-term vision or the smaller short-term vision, is a team of people fully aligned and empowered toward achieving the same possible future.
And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?