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Strategy and the Importance of Vision

In this post, I’ll talk about strategy and the importance of vision, especially while creating shared understanding around product vision.

In my last post, I’ve made the case for the need of incorporating storytelling in your facilitation toolset for better idea generation, discussing design, and creating shared understanding.

In this post, I’ll talk about strategy and the importance of vision, especially while creating shared understanding around product vision.

TL;DR

  • Is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.
  • Making sure organizations and designers share the same vision is crucial to the success of any design project.
  • While goals provide a context about where you’re going, the vision paints a picture of what the future will look like, so people want to go there.
  • It doesn’t matter if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.
  • Product Vision clarifies why are we bringing a product to market in the first place, and what it’s success will mean to the world and the organization.
  • A clear and meaningful vision of the future to which a business is aspiring will help to engage people and unlock energy and commitment. It also guides actions and decisions at all levels of the organization and helps to promote consistency of purpose so that everyone works towards the same goal.

Strategy and Shared Understanding

In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.

photo of people near wooden table
Lean more about Creating Shared Understanding at Strategy and the Need of Facilitation (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood — as my colleague Anton Fischer usually says — it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

Strategy and the Importance of Vision

A global study conducted in 2012 involving 300,000 employees found that just over half did not really understand the basics of their organizations’ strategies (Zook, C., & Allen, J., Repeatability, 2012). Given the effort applied to strategy development, there is a massive disconnect here. The opportunity to reconnect a firm with its strategy lies in how the strategy is communicated and understood (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016).

Six Strategic Questions, adapted from "Strategy Blueprint" in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).
Six Strategic Questions, adapted from “Strategy Blueprint” in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020)

Designers should facilitate the creation of product visions that explain a strategy’s complex connection and express the product’s future intended destination. (Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 2020)

The beauty of a shared vision is that it motivates and unites people: it acts as the product’s true north, facilitates collaboration, and provides continuity in an ever-changing world (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

Strategy and Shared Vision

Having a vision is important, as creating and managing a successful product requires a lot of time and energy.

Shared vision creates the common language that helps you work together.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

Making sure organizations and designers share the same vision is crucial to the success of any design project. A “shared project vision” means (Calabretta, G., Erp, J. V., Hille, M., “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design, 2016):

  • There is widespread clarity in the stakeholders’ and designers’ understanding of the project goals and direction.
  • There is widespread clarity in the stakeholders’ and designers’ understanding in the approach taken during project implementation.

The product vision communicates why you are building something and what the value proposition is for the customer.

“Product Vision” in Escaping the Build Trap. Perri, M. (2019)

The design team needs to assess the extend to which the challenge at hand is driven by a vision that is shared by asking three questions (Calabretta, G., Erp, J. V., Hille, M., “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design, 2016):

  • Is there a project vision? Does the company have a clear view of the project direction, and where it fits into the raison d’être (the “why”) of the company? How exactly will the project help the company fulfill it’s why? A satisfactory answer to this question should emerge during the early stages of a strategic project, when the brief is formulated. Lack of clear-cut answer to these questions usually signals the absence of a strong, cohesive project vision.
  • Is the project a good fit with the wider goals of the organization? Sometimes the project vision does not align with the KPIs or primary goals that the organization has expressed elsewhere. This usually happens – for example – when a trend emerges and organization may act impulsively because they are afraid to miss out on what they see as an opportunity for growth.
  • Is the vision shared across the company? If there is a clear project vision, is there widespread awareness and alignment within the company? Can various department move in the same direction during project setup and implementation.

As I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t matter at this point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart. I believe designers should step up to the plate and work with stakeholders to facilitate the the discussions that will better communicate the vision or create one is it is lacking.

group of people sitting in front of table
Learn more about how to influence stakeholders in Strategy, Facilitation and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com)

Creating Shared Vision through Product Vision

While goals provide a context about where you’re going, the vision paints a picture of what the future will look like, so people want to go there. Unfortunately, where goals come out as a list that’s easy to document and share, it takes more work to convert your concrete vision into something that’s easy to share (Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design. 2019).

Product Vision Board in Strategize: Product strategy and product roadmap practices for the digital age, Pichler, R. (2016)

Product Vision clarifies why are we bringing a product to market in the first place, and what it’s success will mean to the world and the organization. It’s the destination we want to reach. For example, Google Search’s product vision is “to provide access to the world’s information in one click” — which is derived from the company mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M., Product Roadmaps Relaunched, 2017).

For[target customer]

Who: [target customer’s needs]

The: [product name]

Is a: [product category]

That: [product benefit/reason to buy]

Unlike: [competitors]

Our product: [differentiators]

Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., “5 Bold Steps Canvas” in Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation (2016)

The Qualities of a Good Vision

The five most important characteristics of good vision are (Berkun, S., Making things happen, 2008):

  • Simplifying: a good vision will provide answers to core questions and give everyone a tool for making decision in their own work. While a vision will raise new questions, these should be fewer in number than ones that no longer need to be asked.
  • Intentional (goal-driven): the vision is a project’s first source of goals. It sets the tone for what good goals look like, how many goals there should be in a plan, and how much refinements the goals may need before they are complete.
  • Consolidated: for the vision to have any power, it must consolidate ideas from many other places. It should absolve the key thinking from research analysis, strategic planning, or other efforts, and the best representation of those ideas (Tip: I usually start with the Product Vision Board to draft the product vision statement).
  • Inspirational: to connect with people, there must be a clear problem in the world that needs to be solved, which the tam has some interests or capacity to solve.
  • Memorable: being memorable implies two things. First, that ideas make sense; second, that they resonate with readers and will stay with them over the duration of the project. They might not remember more than a few points, but that’s enough for them to feel confident about what they’re doing every day.

Beware of Feature Lists and the Importance of Vision

If you’ve got this far in the article, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve rarely mentioned requirements or features. I’ve seen too many “feature lists” disguised as strategy, so I try to help team stay as long as possible in the problem space.

If you don’t have an underlying understanding of the problems you can never deliberately create the right solution.

“Understanding the Problem” in Escaping the Build Trap. Perri, M. (2019)

It is easy to fall into the trap of solving problems before you find their root causes. We’re all prone to problem solve, even if we don’t know what the problem is. Our brain loves thinking in terms of solutions (Perri, M., Escaping the Build Trap, 2019)

turned on pendant lamp
Learn more about creating shared understanding of what problems we’re trying to solve in Strategy and the Art of Asking Questions (Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com)

If your organization has documented features they want to see in the new product (either using the Product Vision Board or the 5-bold Steps Canvas), use those to seed the discussion and ask participants to reframe them in terms of what people will do (Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design. 2019).

At the heart of a vision should be answers to many questions. Some of these questions are intentionally similar to questions asked during planning. The difference is that these questions are angled heavily toward priorities and decisions. During planning, there can be room for exploration, but the vision is obligated to take a stand and be decisive (Berkun, S., Making things happen, 2008):

  • What is the one sentence that defines this specific of this specific project/ product? Check how to write product vision.
  • How does this project contribute to the goals of the organization? Why is this project more relevant than others that also might contribute to the goals of the organization?
  • What scenarios/features for customers are essential to this project?
  • What scenarios/features for customers are desired but not essential?
  • How is this not a technology is search of a problem?
  • What is this project not going to accomplish?
  • What solutions for customers have been requests or suggested but will definitely not be part of this project?
  • What are some of the likely ways for this particular project to fail, and how will they be avoided or minimised?
  • What assumptions are being made that the project depends on? What dependencies does this project have on other projects, companies, or organizations?

Importance of Vision and Assumptions

One way I’ve found very helpful to avoid describing vision simply in terms of features is take some cues from Lean UX and start with assumptions instead of requirements.

The key to dealing with complexity is to focus on having good conversations about assumptions.

Break Down the Hypothesis in The other side of innovation: Solving the execution challenge, Govindarajan, V., & Trimble, C., (2010)

The idea is that we write our ideas, not as requirements, but as our best guesses for how to deliver value and with clear success criteria to tell us whether our idea was valuable and we delivered it in a compelling way (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX, 2013):

We believe
[this outcome] will be achieved if
[these users] attain [a benefit]
with [this solution/feature/idea].

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., “Hypothesis Template” in Lean UX, (2013)

The hypothesis statement is a way of expressing assumptions in testable form. It is composed of the following elements (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX, 2013):

  • Assumptions: A high-level declaration of what we believe to be true.
  • Hypotheses: More granular descriptions of our assumptions that target specific areas of our product or workflow for experimentation.
  • Outcomes: the signals we seek from the market to help us validate or invalidate our hypotheses. These are often quantitative but can also be qualitative.
  • Personas: Models of the people for whom we believe we are solving the problem.
  • Features: the product changes or improvements we believe will drive the outcomes we seek.
Declare Assumptions in Lean UX, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., (2013)

Importance of Vision and the Future

Even the world is trusting on agile and lean, many companies still develop their vision and strategy traditionally, without end-customer insight or clear link between the discovery and execution. An actionable vision gives you the ability to see clearly further than the next revision or just data (Niemelä, S., & Haaparanta, J., Actionable Futures Toolkit, n.d.).

A clear and meaningful vision of the future to which a business is aspiring will help to engage people and unlock energy and commitment. It also guides actions and decisions at all levels of the organization and helps to promote consistency of purpose so that everyone works towards the same goal.

Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making (2015)

However, seeing clearly further than the next revision requires sensitivity and understanding of larger systems at play: macro and micro trends, foresight, business strategy, all blended together with design (Niemelä, S., & Haaparanta, J., Actionable Futures Toolkit, n.d.). For example:

  • Playground: What is the future playground like? Who or what are the products, services, companies, initiatives or ideas are dominant at the market of your future? In your future, what and who are the fast moving, visible experiments?
  • Vision of the Future: What is the optimal future we want, and how does it look like? What is the impact we want to achieve, for whom and why?
“Playground Canvas” from Actionable Futures Toolkit
“Vision of the Future” from Actionable Futures Toolkit

By having a clear picture of the futures we want, we can proactively bring key pieces of it into today and make our experience feel downright magical (Niemelä, S., & Haaparanta, J., Actionable Futures Toolkit, n.d.)

Whether the future is next year or next century, it will be different that what anyone expects. Scenario planning is a tool for telling stories about the future. Scenario planners stress that a scenario is not a prediction. No one knows what will actually happen in the future. We do know that the conditions of today (the present) did results from decision that were made in the past. Likewise, the decision we make now will most certainly affect the future — we just don’t know how (Lupton, E., Design is Storytelling. 2017).

Cone of Plausibility
Cone of Plausibility in Design is Storytelling, Lupton, E. (2017)

The cone of plausibility looks like a funnel. The narrowest point is the present. The cone widens as it looks toward the cure, where circumstances are less known. A scenario is considered “plausible” if it processed in a logical manner from the known trends or developments (Lupton, E., Design is Storytelling. 2017).

A vision is the headline to a much richer story about your future. It’s an anchor to the bigger story.

Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation (2016)

Scenario planners planner use the cone of plausibility to digram future development based on past or present trends. Achieving a preferred (rather than probable) outcomes requires rethinking old habits and pushing the status quo (Lupton, E., Design is Storytelling. 2017).

There are many techniques to walk back from the future state to the present (for example, backcasting) but one approach that my colleague Anton Fischer and I have been experimenting is to reverse engineer the future using an Agile Game called Prune the Tree (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J. in Gamestorming, (2010).

“Prune the Tree” game in Gamestorming (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., 2010)

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

As I mentioned in first post if this series, myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi are designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors to help designs pick up the skills to influence product strategy and decisions that help drive product vision forward.

Such program is practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.

My colleague Anton Fischer and I have been successfully combining Product Vision, Storytelling, Jobs to be Done and Story Mapping into a framework that brings all together. We’ll talk about in an upcoming article.

Recommended Reading

Berkun, S. (2008). Making things happen: Mastering project management. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Calabretta, G., Gemser G., Karpen, I., (2016) “Strategic Design: 8 Essential Practices Every Strategic Designer Must Master“, 240 pages, BIS Publishers; 1st edition (22 Nov. 2016)

Callahan, S. (2016). Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Melbourne, Australia: Pepperberg Press (18 Mar. 2016). 

Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., (2020), “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 288 pages, New Riders; 1st edition (August 2, 2020)

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013). Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media

Govella, A. (2019). Collaborative Product Design: Help any team build a better experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Govindarajan, V., & Trimble, C. (2010). The other side of innovation: Solving the execution challenge. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J. (2010). Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Kourdi, J. (2015). Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making. New York, NY: PublicAffairs

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z., (2017), Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, Jossey-Bass; 6th edition (April 17, 2017)

Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M. (2017). Product Roadmaps Relaunched. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Lupton, E. (2017). Design is Storytelling. Chicago, IL: Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

Niemelä, S., & Haaparanta, J. (n.d.). Actionable Futures Toolkit. Retrieved May 6, 2021, from Nordkapp.fi website: https://futures.nordkapp.fi

Perri, M. (2019). Escaping the build trap. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Pichler, R. (2016). Strategize: Product strategy and product roadmap practices for the digital age. Pichler Consulting.

Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K. (2016). Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Zook, C., & Allen, J. (2012). Repeatability: build enduring businesses for a world of constant change. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press.

By Itamar Medeiros

I'm a Strategist, Branding Specialist, Experience Designer, Speaker, and Workshop Facilitator based in Germany, where I work as Director of Design Strategy and Systems at SAP and visiting lecturer at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, I've helped truly global companies in several countries (Brazil, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During my 7 years in China, I've promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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