Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do you have a visual vision?

Thinkstock Single Image Set

Does your product and organization have a clear vision of where you are headed in the next 3-5 years?

Can you explain it clearly to employees, customers, channel partners, analysts etc?

When you do a roadmap review of an individual release, do you explain how it fits into the overall vision?

Do your product people spend at least 20% of their time working out where they are headed (strategy)?

If your answer to any or all of the above is NO, then you're not alone. Your company may be succeeding and winning in a feature shoot out or just by focusing on the next release - tactics are an essential part of business, but by themselves will almost never lead to success (hey, there are lucky people in this world who win against all odds).

The good news is that it isn't hard to create a vision, and it doesn't need to be real. A vision is something that lets everyone understand where you are headed, and is a filter on the roadmap, product and company to ensure that each step is taking you somewhere. Obviously there is a business context behind this vision, which I won't go into during this post, but the vision is really the ultimate output of the business plan.

Instead of describing your vision with words, leverage what we all know, that people remember more of what they see than hear - create a visual vision. Some screen shots, a flash demo, or even a short movie are good examples. In this day of digital editing creating a movie can be very inexpensive, or you can go for the full production values (if you have a nice marketing budget)

The grand-daddy of visual visions is the Apple Knowledge Navigator series of concept videos. You can see one of them here, or do a search across YouTube. Done in the 80s, they were clearly defining a future far ahead of their time, and were not technologically possible to implement (probably not even now). But these videos created a huge amount of buzz, analysis, criticism and praise - the main thing was that Apple was willing to put out a vision of the far future that made them a leader.

When I worked at Citrix we created a similar "Access Navigator" video that really helped to focus the company. I saw the most impact with this within the company, as it helped employees to grok that Citrix was more than a one-trick-pony thin-client company. Like all visions this was useful for a period of time, and then the company continually refined and created how they communicated the vision.

Even done on the cheap a visual vision can be very effective - at one company we had a graphics artist create a series of six screen shots that showed a future system. Every customer and analyst we showed it to loved the vision, but we had to be very clear that this was just a vision and not a prototype (that's the risk). We also got some really good feedback on how it could be changed to be more effective - we ended up having the customers engaged in building an even better version of the vision. Following the vision was always the 18 month roadmap, so the customers could then see how each release took us closer to the vision - it provided a united framework for our whole product strategy, instead of customers just seeing a series of point releases.

This strategy is not without risk - many of your tactically focused colleagues will criticise you for showing something too far out. But they are missing the point. Customers want to engage with companies with vision that align with their own. You're also getting very early validation of being on the right path as you make your visual vision a reality.

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