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Strategy and the Importance of Vision

Let’s talk about the importance of vision for creating shared understanding around why are we bringing a product to market in the first place.

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.
  • While a Vision is an aspirational description of what your team (or organization) would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid- or long-term future, to be truly useful (and powerful), a vision must point out not only to where you want to go and where, but also how you’re going to get there.
  • Find ways to situate long-term vision alongside short-term missions. Encourage others to clarify how vision relates to strategy. Take time to occasionally re-evaluate preferred futures by paying attention to emergent issues or new trends on the radar.
  • Ultimately, communicating the vision is really about leadership. It is about giving consideration to how everyone involved in implementation can embrace the ideas as his or her own.

Strategy and Shared Understanding

Have you ever been part of a team that didn’t seem to make any progress? Maybe the group had plenty of talent, resources and opportunities, and team members got along, but the group never went anywhere? If you have, there is a strong possibility that the situation was caused by the lack of vision (Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork, 2013).

Great vision precedes great achievement. Every team needs a compelling vision to give it direction. A team without vision is, at worst, purposeless. At best, it is subject to the personal (and sometimes selfish) agendas of its various teammates.

Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork (2013)

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.

As the agendas work against each other, the team’s energy and drive drain away.

Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork (2013)

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)

The first thing most people do when they hear the word “vision” in a business context is yawn. That’s because vision are vague, unclear, and – frankly – nothing to get excited about. Well-designed visions should be rally cries for action, invention and innovation (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016)

Designers should advocate for the importance of vision and 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).

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)

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).

Leadership and Vision

The importance of vision should be on everyone’s mind, 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 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.

In my experience — more often than not — lots of projects (and organizations for that matter) lack an inspiring vision.

Being able to envision the future is decidedly important and has a
tremendous impact on peoples motivational levels and workplace productivity: For many leaders, however, compelling images of the future don’t come easily — at first.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (2017)

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.

The importance of strong ownership

Most of strategic design project outcomes do not see the light of day, in many cases due to lack of ownership on the client side. Strong ownership of a project serves not only to focus the process of decision making during the project – more importantly, it secures a sustainable effect once the project is completed.

A strategic outcome – a business opportunity, innovation portfolio or product/service system – is a continuum. Once it has been installed, it needs to be nurtured, developed and exploited. It needs ownership within a company.

Calabretta, G., Erp, J. V., Hille, M., “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design (2016)

A strong sense of proprietorship gives organizational stakeholders the focus and drive to complete the project, despite complexity (Calabretta, G., Erp, J. V., Hille, M., “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design, 2016)

How to identify strong ownership

To evaluate the extent to which a strategic design process has a strong ownership within the organization, the design team should ask the following three questions (Calabretta, G., Erp, J. V., Hille, M., “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design, 2016):

  • Who is responsible for the innovation project, its implementation and future nurturance? Can the right person for the job, in terms of skills and position, already be found within the company? Is it a person who organizational structure exist to support ex- post nurturing? For instance, a project to develop a new e-commerce platform for an organization that has no online manager will not work in the long run. Projects need to be sustained and developed by individuals who have the power, drive and expertise needed to help the project grow.
  • Does the project owner (or owner’s department) hold the mandate to execute and complete the project? Is the project owner able to take key project decisions independently, or does he/she always have to ask his/ her manager? One of the biggest challenges in cutting through complexity is breaking down the silos and rigid hierarchies within an organization’s infrastructure. A mandate from the board is one of the strongest weapons designers can use to combat this.
  • Does the project owner (or owner’s department) have a budget that matches the project’s ambition and goals, and the implementation phase? Enthusiasm is a key driver for innovation. It combines with optimism and a strong push from every stakeholder to get a project realized – but together with this enthusiasm comes the danger of losing sight of reality, and underestimating the time and money it takes to get the job done.
four types or projects, four types of leadership
How do you deal with the different circumstances for the different project types? Using the ownership questions, each strategic design project can be plotted on the vision/ownership matrix, and designers can adjust their leadership accordingly (Calabretta, G., Erp, J. V., Hille, M., “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design, 2016)

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)

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).

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 Importance of Vision and Airbnb Company Vision: "We imagine a world you can belong anywhere".
The Importance of Vision: Airbnb Company Vision

A Vision Statement is a method for describing the result of an innovation project as an overview, showing how the innovation offering is implemented by the organisation. Part of the method is to express the innovation intent and its realisation in only a minimum set of words or visuals, for example, a title statement as brief as, “We will eradicate breast cancer in the next twenty years.” It contains no specifics, but grounds all innovation efforts (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013).

The product vision statement looks forward, describing the change users will experience when the product deployed to the market and what the company hopes to accomplish by developing it.

Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning (2021)

A vision statement expresses the value proposition, targeted users, key activities, performance, channels, resources, cost structure, revenue streams, strategy, and similar key factors, distilling all of the research, analysis, and synthesis into a concise expression that summarizes the fulfilment of the innovation intent in an easy to grasp format, especially making it clear to any stakeholder. The Vision Statement is often developed during the process of crafting a Strategy Plan (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013).

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]

Here is an example from Microsoft Surface

For the business user who needs to be productive in the office and on the go, the Surface is a convertible tablet that is easy to carry and gives you full computing productivity no matter where you are.

Unlike laptopsSurface serves your on-the-go needs without having to carry an extra device.

280 Group LLC. What is a Product Vision? Methods and Examples (2020)
Product Vision Board in Strategize: Product strategy and product roadmap practices for the digital age, Pichler, R. (2016)

When you’ve formulated your point of view with an eye toward the future, it’s the vision that will guide you and your team towards that north star. A clear vision brings focus and and provides an anchor point for making bold strategic decisions (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016)

Use the "5 Bold Steps Canvas" to determine how to get closer to your vision.
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 product vision statement should be designed for longevity. However, it should be revised if the company wishes to reorient the product in a fundamental way in response to changes in the market or public perception of the product (Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning, 2021).

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.

As a rallying cry, a clear and compelling vision provides the direction in everything you and your colleagues do. Ask each other this question every day: does this action, activity, experiment, project get us close to realizing our vision? If the asnwer is “no”, then don’t wast time, energy, and money on it (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016).

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.

An agile vision statement articulates a view that leaves ample room for emergence, whereby new features are discovered by observing how customers use the product rather than predetermining what will be useful (Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning, 2021).

To allow for emergence, don’t specify features in the vision statement; focus, instead, on the raison d’être for the product or change.

Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning (2021)

For example, Instagram’s product vision statement is about “capturing and sharing the world’s moments.” Note how this statement describes the value of the product but does not specify whether those moments are captured as photos, video, or virtual reality. This lack of specificity is deliberate because it does not place unnecessary constraints on how the product will evolve. Had Instagram’s vision statement specified photos, it would have limited the potential scope of the product in the minds of users, the business, and product developers (Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning, 2021).

With that in mind, 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’re trying to solve, 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)

In traditional planning, the solution provider commits to delivering specified deliverables (the scope) at a specified cost within a given time frame. This approach doesn’t work when requirement are volatile because it locks all parties into predetermined specifications that are likely to be outdated by the time the product is delivered. Instead of focusing on predetermined deliverables, agile enterprises focus on desired outcomes, such as increased revenues and increased customer loyalty (Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning: From Strategic Plan to Continuous Value Delivery, 2021).

You might be asking, “what you do mean by outcome”. Joshua Seiden defines as outcome “a change in user behaviour that drives business results.”

The Project Logic Model, adapted from Kellogg Foundation
“What are the changes in behaviour that drive business results?” in Outcomes over Output, Seiden, J. (2019)

You can help the team and leaders to start thinking in terms of outcomes by asking three simple questions (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019):

  • What are the user and customer behaviours that drive business results? I’ve suggested in another post that facilitating discussions around Jobs to be Done can be a great way to get the team to align.
  • How do we get people to do more of these things?
  • How do we know we’re right? The easiest (and the hardest) way to answer that question is to design and conduct tests.

Using outcomes creates focus and alignment. It eliminates needless work. And it puts the customer at the center of everything you do

Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output (2019)

Managing by outcomes communicates to the team how they should be measuring success. A clear outcome helps a team align around the work they should be prioritizing, it helps them choose the right customer opportunities to address, and it helps them measure the impact of their experiments. Without a clear outcome, discovery work can be never-ending, fruitless, and frustrating (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits, 2021).

multiracial colleagues shaking hands at work
Learn how to use Jobs to be Done to facilitate two-way negotiations between leadership and product teams that allows for managing by outcomes (Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com)

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)

Even as you stop, look, and listen to messages in the present, you also need to raise your head and gaze out toward the horizon. Leaders have to be on the lookout for emerging developments in technology, demographics, economics, politics, arts, popular culture, and all aspects of life inside and outside the organization. They have to anticipate what might be coming just over the hill and around the corner. They have to prospect the future (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

However, seeing clearly further than the next revision, iteration or release 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.)

The vision does not have to be defined in detail. However, it must be recognisable as something ambitions but achievable for the enterprise. Painting a scene that is desirable, challenging and believable is the task of the lateral leader. If you can do this, then they are three big gains for the organisation (Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills, 2017):

  1. People share a common goal and have a sense of embarking on a journey or adventure together. This means they are more willing to accept changes, challenges and difficulties that any journey can entail.
  2. It means that more responsibility can be delegated. Staff can be empowered and given more control over their work. Because they know the goal and direction in which they are headed, they can be trusted to steer their own raft and to figure out the best way of getting there.
  3. People will be more creative and contribute more ideas if they know that there are unsolved changes that lie ahead. They have bought into the adventure so they re more ready to find routes over and around the obstacles on the way. 

Narrating Stories about the Future

While we may have lots of great ideas in our heads, they are only useful if we communicate them effectively, and at all stages and modes of the innovation process, not merely at the end when a final presentation or report is often required. Storytelling is an effective way to express ideas that didn’t previously exist or ideas that are abstract (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013).

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)

As useful as storytelling is for generating new ideas, the mindset ought to be about telling stories that matter. Stories need to be built on what we have already analyzed and understood about people and the context. Moreover, concepts must be clear and compelling to ourselves, to our team members, to our users, and to our client(s) if they are to succeed (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013).

Telling stories about the future, particularly while concepts are being explored, can trigger more concepts and help speculate on how they will be valuable in future scenarios.

Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods (2013)
group of people having a meeting
Learn more about the importance of incorporating storytelling in your facilitation toolset for better idea generation, discussing design, and creating shared understanding (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

Future and Scenario Planning

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).

It is important to construct positive images of the future–not just avoid negative ones. Foresight is often employed in crises, leading to an avoidance bias. Also, executives often use foresight to anticipate potential negative outcomes of their decisions. Thus, negative images of the future tend to be overemphasised. But overlooking positive images misses the power they have to create a pull towards a positive future. Consciously develop positive expectations from the very beginning of a foresight activity. Deal with any cynicism and criticality right away (Hines, A., & Bishop, P., Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight. 2015).

“Any useful statement about the future should appear to be ridiculous.”

“Dator’s Law” in Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight (Hines, A., & Bishop, P., 2015)

A common mistake of teams in a foresight activity is to look only for negative signs and miss the positive ones. Thus, an ethos of collecting positive signals should be established and maintained throughout the activity. The mindset here is akin to Disney’s concept, “the willing suspension of disbelief.” This guideline emphasises having the presence of mind to consider even the most off-the-wall solutions and search for the kernel of a useful idea within them (Hines, A., & Bishop, P., Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight. 2015).

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).

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).

It is impossible to recognize one’s ability to shape the future without developing a certain level of positive attitude.

Hines, A., & Bishop, P., Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight (2015

Moreover, a truly plausible picture of the future is enabled only by exploring positive as well as negative trends and indicators, or both the advantages and disadvantages of a proposed strategy. Note that a positive attitude does not imply a naïve belief that “we will get lucky.” Failing to take responsibility for the decisions and actions that result from a strategic foresight activity would be irresponsible. Instead, the point is that a negative attitude towards the future can limit one’s capacity to change the course of events. Toffler (1970) popularized this concept as “future shock”-a phenomenon in which people feel so stunned by the complexity of the future and the possible negative outcomes that they become paralyzed for problem-solving (Hines, A., & Bishop, P., Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight. 2015).

Alvin Toffler
Learn more about Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock in Possibilities, Not Predictions interview for NPR

To foster team spirit, breed optimism, promote resilience, and renew faith and confidence, leaders look on the bright side. They keep hope alive. They strengthen their constituents’ belief that life’s struggles will produce a more promising future. Such faith results from an intimate and supportive relationship, a relationship based on mutual participation in the process of renewal (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

Visions are images in the mind; they are impressions and representations. They become real as leaders express those images in concrete terms to their constituents. Just as architects make drawings and engineers build models, leaders find ways of giving expression to collective hopes for the future.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (2017)

To motivate senior leadership to do something different or create some ideas, a visioning tool works well. Senior leaders are used to looking at the big picture, and want to influence the future. A tool like Four Futures helps them to create personally resonant scenarios of a successful future, and inspires ideas for how to achieve that success (Hamilton, P., The workshop book: How to design and lead successful workshops, 2016):

  1. Ask the team to consider the future, in five years’ time, when this project has been a huge success. Give them a couple of minutes to think about what it would feel like in that future.
  2. After allowing a little time for self-reflection, show the team the four futures template. The workshop leader should have prepared the exact wording of these questions to suit the workshop topic, within these four quadrants:
    1. What does this success look like at work?
    2. What does this success look like at home?
    3. What does this success look like to customers?
    4. What does this success look like to competitors?
  3. Ask the team members to each write at least one answer per question on a Post-it note, in full, descriptive and emotional sentences, and then to stick their answers in the relevant quadrant. Split the team members into four groups, assigning one group to each quadrant, and ask each group to read through the Post-its and select the best ones (3-5) to read back to the team.
  4. The groups present back their best examples from each quadrant.
  5. After presenting, the teams can spend some time creating ideas for how to achieve that future vision.
Four Futures
The Four Futures tool helps leaders create personally resonant scenarios of a successful future and inspires ideas for how to achieve that success (Hamilton, P., The workshop book: How to design and lead successful workshops, 2016)

Walking back from the Future

There are two ways of thinking about the future: In one, we stand in the present, looking forward at some desired future, and plan the steps that will take us to it. This way of thinking about the future is quite common, and usually leads to incremental innovation. Another way is to imagine ourselves standing in the future, after our innovations have already taken root, and to look back at how we must have gotten there. This way of thinking is somewhat akin to the approach of science fiction and futurists authors, who create fantasies of the future that inspire us in the present, and is more likely to help us create breakthrough, disruptive innovations (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013).

While a Vision is an aspirational description of what your team (or organization) would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid- or long-term future, to be truly useful (and powerful), a vision must point out not only to where you want to go and where, but also how you’re going to get there.

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

Planning in reverse takes you backward through the steps required to make your long-term dream project a reality. In this way, you’re able to make a reasonable assessment of what it’ll take to fulfil your vision; how you address these needs can be formulated as a plan, with goals and deadlines (Sommers, C., Think like a futurist, 2012).

blue printer paper
There are some Project Management skills that will prove invaluable for the effectiveness of design strategists (Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com)

By approaching your future from the future, you ensure greater coherence between your business today and your goals for tomorrow.

Sommers, C., Think like a futurist (2012)

Long-term visionary futures seen from a present-day point of view can feel distant and aspirational. Those placed in strategic roles should be informally charged with representing a desired or preferred future by giving voice to it, while also monitoring it as its nature evolves, or as its desirability shifts. We hear a lot today about so-called ‘north star metrics’ used as guiding principles for organizations, and these are, unfortunately, most often meant in terms of a fixed, short-term measure (Smith, S., & Ashby, M., How to future. 2020).

When an strategist links an organisation’s vision to a time continuum, he or she can help the organisation track its progress towards the vision over time (Hines, A., & Bishop, P., Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight. 2015).

close up photo of survey spreadsheet
Learn more about the visibility and traceability aspects of the execution of an idea/approach (Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com)

First, however, the strategist should assess the organisation’s present situation as well as the potential futures for its operating environment. Start by analyzing the basic beliefs of the present: mission, busines idea, operating environment. The idea is to increase the organisation’s self understanding of “who we are.” After defining the direction of development, the organization can choose specific years (2010, 2020…) for expressing its status relative to the preferred course of development-i.e., its progress towards the vision (Hines, A., & Bishop, P., Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight. 2015).

Find ways to situate long-term vision alongside short-term missions. Encourage others to clarify how vision relates to strategy. Take time to occasionally re-evaluate preferred futures by paying attention to emergent issues or new trends on the radar.

Smith, S., & Ashby, M., How to future (2020)

Guiding principles forming a vision of the future for your customer and your organization, and a strategy for achieving them, are essential ingredients of a compelling roadmap. Framing the timing and deliverables for your product within these buckets will help you establish, explain, and gain alignment on your roadmap. (Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M., Product Roadmaps Relaunched, 2017).

Implementing a plan that is based on a clear vision is an act of leadership in itself, and it also inspires leadership in others. People are energized by vision and do their best work when expectations are clear and they feel that they’re being set up for success (Sommers, C., Think like a futurist, 2012).

Communicating the Vision

Once solutions are conceived, strategies formulated, and plans developed, consensus and support for the initiative need to be built. This calls for creating a vision that can be shared with all stakeholders to guide activities and bring focus to the entire organisation’s efforts. Thinking about how to move to action is all about effective communications (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013)

Just painting the picture is not enough, it quickly fades from view if it is not constantly reinforced. If you want the vision to endure then you must communicate it in many ways.

Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills (2017)

Many managers make the mistake of thinking that communication is a one-way process. They repeat the message but they do not solicit feedback. It is only by consulting either in small groups or individually that you can fully understand whether the message has been received and what concerns and issues it has generated (Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills, 2017).

Communicating the vision requires an empathetic frame of mind, one that seeks to understand stakeholders’ values and points of view. It needs crafting messages that will inspire a wide number of people in an organisation to work toward a shared goal. Cultivating foresight is important for anticipating challenges and being able to counter them with reasons for moving forward with initiatives (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013).

Ultimately, communicating the vision is really about leadership. It is about giving consideration to how everyone involved in implementation can embrace the ideas as his or her own.

Kumar, V., 101 design methods (2013)

To be an effective leader you have meet people at all levels of the organization, reinforce the message, solicit their buy in and gain feedback on their views and concerns. Here are some tips for setting and communicating vision (Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills, 2017):

  • Ensure that everyone understands that standing still in not an option
  • Communicate the need for change
  • Paint a good of where the organization will be. Visualize the benefits.
  • If you do not have a clear and meaningful vision statement today, then pull together a team to construct one.
  • Choose a vision that inspires and directs the organization.
  • Ensure that it is broad enough to allow great flexibility.
  • Communicate the vision and the messages and strategic objectives that flow from it.
  • Derive innovation objectives with measurable targets and deadlines
  • Solicit feedback to draw out concerns and to ensure the vision is properly understood.
  • Help people buy into this process by getting them to set their own objective in line with the vision.

Importance of Vision and Risks

Just because we have a vision, it doesn’t mean that everything is going to fine: looking back at the Cone of Plausibility, we have to evaluate the futures that are preferable, probable, plausible, possible, and identify the risks associated with each of those futures.

As the team evaluates each of these futures, design strategists should help stakeholders and teams think through:

  • Quantifying and mitigating risk of pursuing ideas / approaches for creating each future.
  • Creating strategies for pivot while pursuing an idea/approach.
  • Identifying what signals they need to capture in order to know when to pivot.

Start by selecting the biggest risks: the uncertainty that must be address now so that you don’t take the product in the wrong direction and experience late failure (e.g.: figuring out a a late stage that you are building a product nobody really wants or needs). Next, determine how you can best address the risks — for instance, by observing target users, interviewing customers, or employing a minimum viable product (MVP). Carry out the necessary work and collect the relevant feedback or data. Then analyse the results and use the newly gained insights to decide if you should pivot, persevere or stop — if you should stick with your strategy, change it, or no longer pursue your vision and take the appropriate actions accordingly (Pichler, R., Strategize, 2016).

Whether you work for a small start-up or an existing large organization, validate your riskiest assumptions as quickly and cheaply as possible so you don’t waste valuable time and resources toiling away at something that likely will never work.
Riskiest Assumption Canvas in Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., 2016)

Iteratively reworking the product strategy encourages you to carry out just enough market research just in time to avoid too much or too little research, addressing the biggest risks first so that you can quickly understand which parts of your strategy are working and which are not, thus avoid late failure (Pichler, R., Strategize, 2016).

Pivot, Persevere, or Stop

Once you have collected the relevant feedback or data, reviewed and analysed it, ask yourself if your strategy is still valid: your initial product strategy may contain plenty of assumptions and risks, and you may as well discover that the strategy is wrong and does not work. If that is the case, then you have two choices (Pichler, R., Strategize, 2016):

  • stop and let go of your vision, or
  • stick with the vision and change the strategy, which is also called pivot.

Pivoting is attractive only if you pivot early, when the cost of changing direction is comparatively low.

Pichler, R., Strategize (2016)

You should therefore aim to find out quickly if anything is wrong if your strategy, and if you need to fail, then fail fast. While a late pivot can happen, you should avoid it, because the later it occurs, the more difficult and costly is is likely to be (Pichler, R., Strategize, 2016).

people playing poker
Learn more about the cost of changing your mind, and what signals we need capture in order to know if we should Persevere, Pivot or Stop in pivot and risk mitigation (Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com)

By building, measuring and learning, designers are able to get closer to great user experiences sooner rather than later (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2013).

From this perspective, Risk Mitigation and Testing Business Ideas should go hand-in-hand.

crop laboratory technician examining interaction of chemicals in practical test modern lab
Testing Business Ideas throughly, regardless of how great they may seem in theory, is a way to mitigate risks of your viability hypothesis being wrong (Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com)

The Right Time for Creating Product Vision

“You should ask yourself the question “Do people want my product?” all the time—right when you have an idea, when you make a lot of progress with building and developing the product, and definitely after you launch it. Keep doing that. By asking the question before you actually build the product, feature, or service, you are reducing waste—time, resources, and energy. The more you learn about what people want before you build anything, the less time and effort you will spend on redundant code, hundreds of hours of irrelevant meetings, and negative emotions of team members when they realize they wasted their blood, sweat, and tears on something nobody wanted (Sharon, T., Validating Product Ideas, 2016).

You might be asking yourself “These are all great, but when should I be doing what?”. Without knowing what kind of team set up you have, and what kinds of processes you run in your organization, the best I can do is to map all of the techniques above the the Double Diamond framework.

The Double Diamond Framework

Design Council’s Double Diamond clearly conveys a design process to designers and non-designers alike. The two diamonds represent a process of exploring an issue more widely or deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking).  

  • Discover. The first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume, what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.
  • Define. The insights gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.
  • Develop. The second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.
  • Deliver. Delivery involves testing out different solutions at small-scale, rejecting those that will not work and improving the ones that will.
Design Council’s framework for innovation also includes the key principles and design methods that designers and non-designers need to take, and the ideal working culture needed, to achieve significant and long-lasting positive change.
A clear, comprehensive and visual description of the design process in What is the framework for innovation? (Design Council, 2015)

Map of Product Vision Activities and Methods

Process Awareness characterises a degree to which the participants are informed about the process procedures, rules, requirements, workflow and other details. The higher is process awareness, the more profoundly the participants are engaged into a process, and so the better results they deliver.

In my experience, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplate and explore the problem space a little longer.

Map of Quantifying and Qualifying Activities in the Double Diamond (Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver)

Knowing when team should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.

This phase has the highest level of ambiguity, so creating shared understanding by having a strong shared vision and good problem framing is really critical. Creating Product Vision in this phase is probably the best way to increase your level of confidence that you’ve got the right problem framing.

Here are my recommendations for suggested activities and methods for and around vision:

Making the Vision Real

Your product strategy is the bridge that connects your high-level vision to the specifics of your roadmap. And for many companies, the product strategy is the main contributor to their overall business strategy. This makes it crucial that you use product strategy as a starting place for your roadmap (Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M., Product Roadmaps Relaunched, 2017).

Here are some tips for making the vision a reality (Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills, 2017):

  • Empower people at all levels by agreeing clear goals and giving them the authority they need to be entrepreneurial in finding ways of achieving their goals.
  • Remove fear of the unknown and fear of failure in your words and actions.
  • Stay focused on the key strategic goals despite all the day-to-day distractions.
  • Create a working environment that encourages creativity.
  • Allow people time for exploration and discovery in addition to normal work.
  • Plan for success but prepare for setbacks too.
  • Invest in employee training. Help them develop entrepreneurial and creative skills.

Refer to Vision in every interaction

Goals and vision support decisions to resource projects as well as onboard new team members. However, as north stars, teams must reference goals and vision on a continual basis to take advantage of the alignment they provide. Revisit and reference goals and vision at every opportunity, especially to evaluate options and rationalize project decisions. For example (Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design, 2019):

  • Reference the Project Goals and Vision at the beginning of every discussion or review: North stars aid navigation only when referenced. When the team comes together to share learnings and work, display the goals and vision at the beginning of the discussion. When evaluating options, reference goals to support decisions. Although goals and vision should not change during the course of the project, they are difficult to articulate. As the team works on specific parts of the project, you may discover the initial goals and vision were incorrect. Every time you use goals and vision to rationalize a decision, you provide the opportunity to review and adjust the goals and vision and to improve them and make them more accurate.
  • Start with Goals and Vision when speaking with Stakeholders: When you review material with others outside of the project, start with the goals and vision. When you begin with the project goals and vision, you give managers and executives the opportunity to review your north star and make sure you’re still on track. If the team is off, the stake- holder will tell you. When you share the vision, it creates a context for any project-related discussion, so stakeholders understand what you are trying to do. Prioritized project goals describe your decision framework, so stake- holders know how to evaluate and respond to everything you share.

Measure what matters

Splitting the strategy portion of your roadmap into objectives and key results will allow you to direct your product development efforts toward measurable outcomes rather than specific outputs such as features and functions. Focus your measurement efforts on fewer than five objectives that will make the most difference to the success of your customer and organization (Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M., Product Roadmaps Relaunched, 2017).

measurement-millimeter-centimeter-meter-162500.jpeg
Learn about ways to objectively measure the value of design in The Need for Quantifying and Qualifying Strategy (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Removing Fear of Failure

For a learning culture to thrive, your teams must feel safe to experiment. Experiments are how we learn, but experiments — by nature — fail frequently. In a good experiment, you learn as much from failure as from success. If failure is stigmatised, teams will take few risks (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond. 2017).

woman placing her finger between her lips
Learn more about how to create safe spaces for people to experiment and feel they have permission to fail in Strategy, Teamwork and Psychological Safety (Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com)

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.

280 Group LLC. (2020, November 2). What is a Product Vision? Methods and Examples. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from 280 Group website: https://280group.com/what-is-product-management/skills/product-vision/

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). 

Design Council. (2015, March 17). What is the framework for innovation? Design Council’s evolved Double Diamond. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from designcouncil.ork.uk website: https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/what-framework-innovation-design-councils-evolved-double-diamond

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

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2017). Sense and respond: How successful organizations listen to customers and create new products continuously. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

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.

Hamilton, P. (2016). The workshop book: How to design and lead successful workshops. Pearson.

Hines, A., & Bishop, P. (2015). Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight. Hinesight.

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)

Kumar, V. (2013). 101 design methods: A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

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.

Maxwell, J. C. (2013). The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork: Embrace them and empower your team. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

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.

Podeswa, H. (2021). The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning: From strategic plan to continuous value delivery. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley.

Sloane, P. (2017). The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills: Unlock the creativity and innovation in you and your team (3rd ed.). London, England: Kogan Page.

Smith, S., & Ashby, M. (2020). How to future: Leading and sense-making in an age of hyperchange. London, England: Kogan.

Sommers, C. (2012). Think like a futurist: Know what changes, what doesn’t, and what’s next (1st ed.). Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Torres, T. (2021). Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value. Product Talk LLC.

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

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

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

During his 7 years in China, he 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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