(104) How to Build Moonshot Vision as Product Managers ?

Last week, I finished reading a fascinating book by Lewis Lin titled, Be the Greatest Product Manager Ever to prepare myself for my podcast interview with him. If you are in product management, and you do not know Lewis Lin, you must be living under a rock. Lewis became well known with his very successful book, Decode and Conquer, the most popular book on cracking PM interviews. Ever since, he has written a dozen odd books.

I interviewed Lewis last week on my podcast to talk about his latest book, Be the Greatest Product Manager Ever and what a fascinating conversation it turned out to be. The book talks about 6 skills that are a must for product managers to succeed in their careers. Do give it a listen:

In this post, I am going to summarize the skill that I was most fascinated about, Moonshot Vision. The first time moonshot thinking was associated was with Google with its X Development subsidiary. X’s mission is to invent and launch “moonshot” technologies that aim to make the world a radically better place. A moonshot is defined by X as the intersection of a big problem, a radical solution, and breakthrough technology.

Moonshot vision is an ambitious, groundbreaking product vision. A moonshot vision should feel audacious just as John F.Kennedy proclaimed to land the first humans on the moon.

Moonshot vision is an ambitious, groundbreaking product vision. A moonshot vision should feel audacious just as John F.Kennedy proclaimed to land the first humans on the moon.

Other examples of moonshot visions are:

  • SpaceX (2002): enable human life on Mars
  • Google (1998): organize the world’s information
  • Microsoft (1980): a computer on every desk and every home

How IBM’s and HP’s mission statement are far from aspirational moonshot visions:

  • IBM: To lead in the creation, development and manufacture of the industry’s most advanced information technologies, including computer systems, software, networking systems, storage devices and microelectronics.
  • HP: We earn customer respect and loyalty by consistently providing the highest quality and value.

Why are moonshot visions important?

Having a moonshot vision is good strategy.

  • Marketing: On the marketing-side, marketers often overwhelm consumers with promotional messages. A customer typically remembers one thing about a company, so make it unique and memorable. If several companies have a mission to go to space, being the only space company flying to Mars stands out.
  • Competition: On the competitive-side, a moonshot vision cleverly opens up a distant battlefront, out of an incumbent’s reach. An incumbent can’t easily pursue a competitor’s moonshot vision because it involves unfamiliar capabilities, customers, or regulations. The incumbents will traverse the same steep learning curve as the new entrant. However, the incumbents will learn more slowly. Why? They are distracted. They’re busy maintaining their current product portfolio or servicing existing customers. Free from these burdens, new entrants outrun the incumbents, despite the incumbents’ illusory strengths.

How to develop clear, compelling, moonshot visions?

  1. Delight the customer:

Moonshot companies can choose a practical goal like ROI. But that’s not the right choice. The best CEOs know that there is only one choice and that is delighting the customer. Consider any remarkable company — such Apple, Amazon, Google, Tesla — and you’ll find that delighting the customer was at its core, atleast in its early days. A remarkable company lose its way when it neglects the customer and prioritize goals that are not as customer-focused. Customers will tolerate neglect for only so long. Eventually, they’ll give up and move onto the next superior alternative.

2. Figure out what customers want before they do

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why’lI never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.” — Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs figured out what customers want, without asking, because he empathized with his customers. To empathize, one must understand what people say and how people act, think, and feel.

To gain empathy, Jobs pursued experiences unfamiliar to him, but were familiar to others. For example, Jobs:

  • Traveled to India & Japan
  • Enrolled in calligraphy classes
  • Obsessed over motherboard design

These unique experiences allowed Jobs to see things from someone else’s perspective.

3. Inspiration comes first

Moonshot visions do not spontaneously form. Instead, inspiration sparks vision. Your job, as guardian of the moonshot vision, is to collect good ideas. The more you have, the more you can be inspired by. You can collect ideas from anywhere: traveling to a new city, visiting a museum, or reading extensively. Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of the Year issue is one of the best sources for inspiration. Also, science fiction fans have long mined their favorite sci-fi books for inspiration. To collect inspiration effectively, push yourself to be curious anytime, anywhere. Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places.

4. Copy the thinking, not the product

It’s not enough to see the inspiration, you must smell it, touch it, and even take it apart. In other words:

  • What was the inventor’s original goal?
  • What were the constraints?
  • What were alternative ways of achieving the goal? Why didn’t the inventor pursue one of the alternatives?

Like an art study, internalize deeply the problems and solutions when creating the final product. That is, how does light color, perspective, medium, and audience affect your art? As you copy to learn, also ask yourself: What would Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos do? That question may illuminate solutions that may not be apparent to you.

The reason we want to copy the thinking and not the product is because we must learn how to approach the problem for our specific situation. Your industry, resources, and customers could be very different from Jobs and Bezos’.

You shouldn’t feel guilty about using someone else’s inspiration. Steve Jobs derived inspiration from a variety of sources.

While inspiration is important, do not wait for a divine event. Copy copy. If you copy long enough, you will find yourself and your moonshot vision.

5. Innovation is a volume game

Even the great Steve Jobs could not consistently generate successful product visions. Do you remember the Apple Lisa, Next, and the iMac G4 with the fragile sunflower-shaped monitor? Probably not. They were some of Steve Jobs’ biggest failures.

So, if even the great Steve Jobs — who gave us the Mac, iPod, iPad, and the iPhone — could not consistently generate one successful product after another, then to have at least one amazing product, we have to brainstorm and pursue lots of potential product ideas.

6. SCAMPER towards a solution

Refrain from implementing your first product vision. It’s usually generic or uninspired. Or it may be too similar to an existing solution. Instead, brainstorm at least 10 solutions. Truly creative ideas appear no sooner than the eighth idea. SCAMPER is one of the framework for brainstorming:

  • Substitute: Can we create a new product by substituting one element of an existing product. Example: Instead of ride-sharing for cars, how about ride-sharing for boats.
  • Combine: Can we create a new product by combining two products or concepts. Example: What happens when you combine circus-like acrobatics with a Broadway musical experience?
  • Adapt: Can we create a new product by re-adjusting a product for another purpose. Example: How can I adapt a tablet computer for a car?
  • Magnify or Minify: Can we create a new product by putting more/less emphasis on features. Example: Instead of a seven-step checkout process, can we do it in one-step?
  • Put: Can we create a new product by putting it to another use. Example: Can facial recognition technology, currently used by law enforcement, help journalists pick out prominent US Congress members from a crowd?
  • Eliminate: Can we create a new product by removing one or more elements of a current product? Example: Other tablets have flat displays, touch screens, and handwriting recognition. What if we eliminated the handwriting feature?
  • Reverse: Can we create a new product by Reversing or rear-ranging the product or process. Example: To test drive a car, instead of having car buyers going to the dealership, what if we have car dealers bring cars to buyers’ homes?
  1. Jump on fast growing trends of ecosystems

Consumer insight is the key to innovation. Here are some examples:

In addition to consumer trends, moonshot owners need to pay attention to technology shifts. Each technology shift can uncover an opportunity goldmine. For example:

  1. Design and innovation is not sexy

Creativity is painfully frustrating, confusing, ugly and messy. But if you can enjoy the process, you will not only enjoy it more but you’ll persist longer than you would otherwise.

8. No renegade efforts

Have a clear picture on how the new moonshot integrates with the core business. For example, YouTube videos supplements Google Search results. YouTube also adds new ad inventory for Google’s advertisers. Similarly, Prime 2-day shipping enhances Amazon’s shopping experience. At the same time, it expands the competitive moat because the logistics and distribution infrastructure — fulfillment/sortation centers and delivery trucks/airplanes — makes it very costly for Amazon’s competitors to copy.

Michael Porter argues that good strategy is a set of mutually reinforcing activities that strengthen the business’ core value proposition. Both YouTube and Amazon Prime meet Porter’s definition.

9. The best visionaries get into technical details

Engineers often criticize PMs for describing how a product should be built. Ofcourse, nobody likes to be told what to do. However, most engineers criticize PMs for suggesting how to build it because most PMs suggest a vision or feature without understanding the technical details. When asked — “How would you build it?” — PMs dont often have a clue. Instead, be like Elon Musk. Musk is an example of what moonshot visionaries should do: learn the technical details. At SpaceX, he read the fundamentals of propulsion, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, and gas turbines. In a spreadsheet, he dissected the components of building rockets.From there, he proposed that SpaceX should build reusable rockets using commercial-grade, not space-grade technology. It would be cheaper and faster than buying rockets from governments. After explaining the technical details, his team accepted his proposal, largely because he showed his team how to build it.

10. Prioritize 40% innovations first

“40% innovations” are game changing innovations that move the metric by atleast 40%. Its a way to protect your development teams from working on less impactful innovations, ones that improve performance only by a thin margin. As moonshot visionaries, we need to be forever vigilant and wary of small evolutionary features. By default, most of our innovation pipeline are often small features.

Two other reasons for looking towards 40% innovations:

  • To really delight our customers, we need to do something big.
  • Our product portfolio will invariably have losers, and to come out ahead, we need some big winners.

11. Embrace Cannibalism

Cannibalism is a concept that introducing a new product reduces demand for similar products made by the same company. Companies fear cannibalism because they do not want to hurt profits, sales, or market share. Steve Jobs was very comfortable with product cannibalism. He didn’t hesitate to introduce the iPhone, even though it cut into sales of his then-popular iPod. Also, when he introduced Mac, his colleagues were critical of the decision as it would hamper Apple II computer business. There are many classic cases of failure when companies did not embrace cannibalism, the most popular of them being Kodak not willing to embrace the digital camera.

“It is better for you to cannibalise your own product rather than letting a competitor do so.”

Building nextgen real estate platform at PriceHubble & podcaster at productlessons.com. I blog about products, business around products, and growth strategies.