Defend the Vision

Without a vision, any direction is valid…

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 10.08.24 PMFor years I managed product direction, strategy, and delivery. I developed two simple rules to product management. Rule #2 for any product manager is to defend the vision. Rule #1 is to build the best product for the market opportunity (vision). Often rule #2 is more difficult to adhere to than rule #1.

Every day customers, partners, sellers, managers, and competitors add additional requirements to your product direction. This causes stress, anxiety, and churn… but only if you have no vision to evaluate each new request. For example, one customer will commit to a $500K deal this quarter if you add two arbitrary features. However, no other customer needs these features. If you agree you have an instant $500K in the bank, but to accept these two features you need to drop another feature that once released in the market will net you $20M. What do you do? When you are true to your vision, and your vision can be executed and brought to market in time (meaning not arriving late to the party to discover all the beer and snacks are gone), the answer is pretty simple: “No, we are not going to do these two features.”

I know this sounds absolutist and not agile as in “agile product development” where you evaluate the product backlog and realign the priorities in short cycles to respond to market shifts and market demands. However, I’m not suggesting a rigid product waterfall approach either.

The main point is to have a vision, communicate the vision, ensure the vision is clear, and design the plan to achieve the vision. By being clear about the vision and the strategy you make everyone aware of what is open for discussion and what is not. If a new requirement fits with the direction then it is valid and should be evaluated against the backlog of requirements. But if not, you quickly reject the new request and get on the next task.

This is not always easy in the context of a big organization where one product is in the same basket of products being bought by a very large customer. For example, if your product is going into an enterprise deal with a major financial institution that is ready to spend $50M with your company but your share of the $50M is a mere $400K, the politics and the pressure become exponentially complex. If you don’t do these two features the company risks losing the $50M deal. But we also risk the $20M market opportunity in the broader market due to the opportunity cost of not doing the other features that were of higher priority. In these cases, the organization has to find a creative way to fund the investment; either through custom development or funnelling revenue from the deal to your development team to absorb the costs and not undermine the other product priorities. Meaning, you still need to defend your vision, but get creative as to how to absorb the new requirements without taking you off track.

On the flip side, you have to realize when you’ve broken rule #1. Technology and markets shift all the time. I recall being in a 24-month development tunnel on a product that had a fantastic vision, but was architected from the beginning to only work on a user’s laptop or in distributed environments. Several cycles into the project it was clear the market had shifted and cloud delivery (Software as a Service) was rising as the new buying agenda. Inertia, tunnel vision, and sunk costs meant we still brought the product to market and tried to salvage the investment by targeting a sub-segment of the buyers. The product’s market success was sub-optimal and a new project was created to attach to the new cloud buying agenda.

In hindsight, we saw the mistakes we made. Yet while we were in the daily tornado we didn’t recognize the direction was flawed, or we failed to admit it as we were too married to the vision and not willing to split under any circumstances.

As much as you have to defend the vision (rule #2), you have to remember rule #1 is to build the best product for the market opportunity. And be willing to change the vision, and then defend it again.

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