This article originally appeared on Medium on December 10, 2019.
When I was first getting into product, I was pretty wary of the old saw that a product manager should be an evangelist for the product. Every time I would hear that, all I could imagine was some smarmy guy in a sparkly blazer yelling at crowds of people who didn’t want to listen to him. Not really my cup of tea.
I decided to ask around among product folks to understand what this phrase actually meant, but the results did not make me feel better. Consensus was that being an evangelist meant carrying the vision for the product. Well. The word vision used to make me see nothing but unicorns galloping into a rainbow sunset which, while a lovely view, was not the reason I got into product. I got into product to listen deeply to my users, empathize with their pains and opportunities, and then build something to alleviate those pains and capitalize on those opportunities. Unicorns in sparkly blazers were just not going to cut it for me.
And then I had an experience that changed my mind.
I joined a great team working on a great product, and to get myself situated, went on a listening tour of my colleagues. It turns out this team was full of folks like me, who wanted to alleviate pains and capitalize on opportunities. But, because our product did just what it was supposed to do, and did it well, there really was no consensus on where it was supposed to go in the future. In fact, it was not clear there was a reason for the product to exist except to do just what it was already doing. We felt adrift. And a little voice at the back of my mind starting asking, “Is this because we lack…[ugh]…a vision?”
When I couldn’t really deny it any longer, I decided to rally the team around aligning on a vision for our product to see if it could help. Of course, being product folks, the first thing we had to do was define what we meant by vision (as our product had little to do with rainbows or sunsets).
And here’s what we decided vision is: The Good Future.
That’s it. Vision is just The Good Future your product is helping work toward. For the Alzheimer’s Foundation, The Good Future is “A World Without Alzheimer’s.” For Airbnb, The Good Future is when we can “Belong Anywhere.” Those organizations are referring to a good future that is decades, if not centuries, away, but the future can also be just six months or a year away. In a year, a team might want to be in a Good Future where their users transition seamlessly between product components. Or, they might want to be in a Good Future where patients can access their own blood sugar levels most of the time. To me, it feels much more practical to ask “What is The Good Future we would like to be in a year from now?” than it does to ask “What is your vision for this product?” The Good Future feels like something we can work towards, not something fluffy and irrelevant to our daily work.
Once my team aligned around a Good Future, we saw two important effects. First, we reduced our risk aversion. The Good Future does not rely on the implementation of a single feature, which means that trying something out and having it not work is a much smaller deal than it used to be. There are plenty of other paths to get to that Good Future.
Second, we increased our alignment. We explored ideas we might have otherwise dismissed because now they could bring us to that Good Future in a creative way. We much more quickly discarded those strategies and tactics that could not clearly bring us there. The Good Future helps because it is a big tent, but small enough to require choices.
Aligning around a vision certainly is not a panacea for a team, but 1) it’s not as daunting as it sounds, and 2) it can have a measurable impact on a team’s morale and courage with decision-making. For us, vision isn’t unicorns and rainbows, it’s just The Good Future.
… though unicorns and rainbows also sound like a pretty good future to me.