What did I learn about product vision from Radhika Dutt?

I had the privilege of interviewing Radhika Dutt on my podcast.

Here is the summary of what Radhika has written about product vision in her book, Radical Product Thinking.

Your product is your mechanism to create the change you envision for your users. This means that before you can build your product, you need to define your vision for the change you want to bring about.

Your product is your mechanism to create the change you envision for your users.

Your vision aligns you and your team on the change you want to bring to the world.

Your product is your mechanism to create that change — it’s not the end goal in itself.

To bring about this mindset shift, you need a detailed vision that is centered on the people for whom you want to create a better world.

Your vision aligns you and your team on the change you want to bring to the world. Your product is your mechanism to create that change — it’s not the end goal in itself.

Traits of a good vision

Conventional wisdom says that a vision must be aspirational and big enough.

What are the characteristics of a vision that finds its way into the hearts and minds of employees rather than the filing cabinet?

A good vision has three important traits:

  • It is centered on the problem you want to see solved in the world.
  • It is a tangible end state you can visualize.
  • It is meaningful to you and the people you intend to impact.

Your vision shouldn’t be about your aspirations for your organization at all. Instead, your vision should be centered on the change you want to create in the world, your impact.

Your vision shouldn’t be about your aspirations for your organization at all. Instead, your vision should be centered on the change you want to create in the world, your impact.

Center Your Vision on the Problem You Want to Solve

One sign of a good vision is that even if you were to take yourself and your organization out of the picture, you would still want the problem to be solved.

If your vision is about your business goals, you’re less focused on solving the customer’s problem and are creating an opportunity for a competitor with a clearer focus on the customer’s problem to beat you at your game.

If your vision is about your business goals, you’re less focused on solving the customer’s problem and are creating an opportunity for a competitor with a clearer focus on the customer’s problem to beat you at your game.

When your vision articulates the problem clearly, your team can more easily understand the problem intuitively, and everyone has a clear purpose in solving it.

When your vision articulates the problem clearly, your team can more easily understand the problem intuitively, and everyone has a clear purpose in solving it.

Visualize the End State You Want to Bring About

When you’re creating change, you’re creating something that doesn’t exist today.

To do this, you and your team must be able to clearly picture that world in your mind — you must have a shared vision of the world you want to create together.

When your goal is a tangible, visualizable end state instead of something abstract, people can internalize it and make it their own dream.

To create such a shared picture, your vision must be detailed — a short slogan fails to paint such a clear picture of the world that you want to bring about.

To create such a shared picture, your vision must be detailed — a short slogan fails to paint such a clear picture of the world that you want to bring about.

A descriptive vision helps you recognize when you’re getting closer to your vision or straying from it.

Your picture of the end state serves as a guidepost for you and your team to help you decide if you’re on the right path to creating the world that you intended or if course corrections are necessary.

Galvanize Both Your Team and Your Customers

Often the sole focus of a vision statement is to create internal alignment. In reality, however, while your vision acts as a guide for your team, it will also form the foundation of your external messaging.

Your vision must resonate with the people whose lives you want to impact, since you want them alongside you on this journey.

Your vision must resonate with the people whose lives you want to impact, since you want them alongside you on this journey.

When you share your vision with your customers for the change you want to bring about for them, they should be nodding along with you.

This is why you should steer away from vision statements like “To be a leader in our industry” — your customers don’t care who the leader is! They just care that they have a product that solves their problem.

This is why you should steer away from vision statements like “To be a leader in our industry” — your customers don’t care who the leader is! They just care that they have a product that solves their problem.

How do you know if your current vision meets these criteria?

You can ask team members and some of your customers to share what they think your vision is. If your vision is clear on the problem you’re setting out to solve and it resonates with them, they’ll be able to state your vision in their own words — that’s the true sign of a shared vision. If it doesn’t resonate with them and they haven’t internalized it, they may repeat back your slogan or feel embarrassed that they don’t remember the vision statement.

Studies have repeatedly shown that people are more motivated when they’re solving a problem that’s bigger than them — so it’s tempting to write a vision statement that sounds righteous, even if you’re solving a different problem. But you must resist this temptation; be authentic.

Your vision should be authentic so your team clearly understands the problem you’re setting out to solve.

Your vision should be authentic so your team clearly understands the problem you’re setting out to solve.

Crafting Your Product Vision

Even when you know the characteristics of a good vision, it’s counter- productive to start with a blank sheet of paper.

Starting with an empty sheet of paper creates pressure to use the perfect words that merit contaminating the pristine white. As a result, you tend to use the words you may have heard in the past to describe your vision, and the exercise often devolves into “wordsmithing” your existing vision.

To alleviate that problem and to make it easier for you to iterate on a vision without getting attached to the words, you can use the Radical Vision Statement written in a Mad Libs format:

Today, when [identified group] want to [desirable outcome], they have to [current solution]. This is unacceptable because [shortcomings of current solutions]. We envision a world where [shortcomings resolved]. We are bringing this world about through [basic technology/approach].

Below is this vision statement filled out for Lijjat:

Today, when [underprivileged women from poor households] want to [run the household and educate their kids], they have to [depend on their hus- band’s income, borrow from relatives, or take charity]. This is unacceptable because [in a patriarchal society they have little influence on household spending, and without a sustainable source of income their children’s edu- cational prospects are limited, thus repeating the cycle of poverty]. We envi- sion a world where [women gain self-employment and thereby become self-reliant, leading to their socioeconomic progress] . We are bringing this world about through [manufacturing high-quality, fast-moving consumer goods that meet consumer needs without ever taking charity] .

Such a vision statement is radical and goes against everything you’ve learned traditionally about writing vision statements.

Shouldn’t a vision statement sound short and memorable?

This sounds more like an essay than a statement!

Conventional wisdom suggests that you should have a short vision statement so it’s easy for everyone to remember.

Until now, the emphasis has been on remembering vision statements. Instead, the RPT way emphasizes internal- izing the vision. It creates alignment and clarity on profound questions so that all team members can describe the vision in their own words.

Until now, the emphasis has been on remembering vision statements. Instead, the RPT way emphasizes internalizing the vision. It creates alignment and clarity on profound questions so that all team members can describe the vision in their own words.

A detailed vision makes the end state clear to your team so your vision is actionable and your team can use it to build the product. You can think of this fill-in-the- blanks statement as the blueprint for your construction team. The blueprint may have too much detail for a passerby to understand what you’re building. So your marketing team uses the blueprint to craft a 3D rendering (brand positioning, image, and tagline, for example) to communicate to the world about what you do.

A detailed vision makes the end state clear to your team so your vision is actionable and your team can use it to build the product.

But even when you have a pithy version and images that you use for external communication, as a member of the construction team, you need the blueprint to be able to build the product. You’ll find that having this detailed vision is handy when you are in a heated discussion or at a decision point. You’ll be able to refer to it and ask, “Are we being true to this vision?”

You’ll find that having this detailed vision is handy when you are in a heated discussion or at a decision point. You’ll be able to refer to it and ask, “Are we being true to this vision?”

Your vision must be detailed enough that it is able to exclude certain actions — that is, not all actions or activities should be compatible with your vision. This too is a radical departure from the conventional wisdom that your vision should be broad and aspirational.

You should be able to test your vision by looking at different opportunities and scenarios and asking, “Is this aligned with my vision?”

You should be able to test your vision by looking at different opportunities and scenarios and asking, “Is this aligned with my vision?”

If every opportunity fits your vision, your vision is too broad and you need to add more details to articulate the Mad Libs statement.

If every opportunity fits your vision, your vision is too broad and you need to add more details to articulate the Mad Libs statement.

Even if your end goal is utterly audacious, your near-term goal should be more achievable.

You can use the Mad Libs statement above for your near-term vision and the following vision evolution statement to help you lay out the end goal:

We started by changing the way that [customer segment] did [activity/ outcome] through [basic technology/approach].

We’ve learned and grown since then, and now believe that the next big step is [end state].

SpaceX started by building a reusable rocket — its near-term goal was theoretically achievable and could be laid out in a road map. Its vision evolution, on the other hand, would be the audacious goal of enabling human life on Mars.

WHAT YOUR VISION STATEMENT MUST ANSWER

The Radical Vision Statement is designed to align teams on the who, what, why, when, and how. To craft your vision using the Mad Libs statement, you may find it helpful to think through the following questions:

  1. Whose world are you trying to change? Who are the people who have the problem you’re inspired to solve?
  2. What does their world look like today? What are they trying to accomplish and how are they doing it today?
  3. Why is the status quo unacceptable? (Keep in mind that maybe it’s not.)
  4. When will you know that you’ve achieved your vision?
  5. How will you bring about this change?

Let’s explore how you can answer each of these questions.

1. Whose World Are You Trying to Change?

The who question helps you identify the group of people you intend to impact. Your answer should be as specific as possible. For example, it cannot be as broad as “consumers” or “businesses.” It must be a group distinguishable from others so you can identify their problem specifically.

It must be a group distinguishable from others so you can identify their problem specifically.

In Lijjat’s case, the organization doesn’t try to change the world for all women but specifically addresses the needs of women who are not educated and want to earn a dignified living.

When answering whose world you’re setting out to change, list all the possible groups whose lives you’re impacting and prioritize them.

When answering whose world you’re setting out to change, list all the possible groups whose lives you’re impacting and prioritize them.

For example, Amazon’s e-commerce business serves two segments:

  1. Consumers who want to buy goods and
  2. Merchants who want to sell their wares.

Amazon takes a clear stance in prioritizing the customer segment over merchants — in the case of a dispute, for example, it takes the consumer’s side.

Your answer to “Whose world are you trying to change?” has far-reaching consequences in terms of the outcome and even the business that you build. For example, had Lijjat’s vision prioritized consumers’ needs over giving women a way to earn a dignified living, it would have been a valid vision but one that led to a very different end result.

For example, had Lijjat’s vision prioritized consumers’ needs over giving women a way to earn a dignified living, it would have been a valid vision but one that led to a very different end result.

Lijjat today measures success by the number of women who become financially independent as a result of working at the institution. If Lijjat’s vision had prioritized consumers, it might have measured success by its market share and consumer satisfaction with its product.

This is not to say that Lijjat’s market share or consumer satisfaction is unimportant. Of course, if Lijjat didn’t produce good pappad- ums and its revenues tanked, it wouldn’t achieve its goal of maximizing the number of women who can become self-reliant.

2. What Does Their World Look Like Today?

Put yourself in the shoes of the people you want to help and ask, “What is the problem they face today?

What are they trying to accomplish and how are they going about it today?

Most of the Lijjat sisters came from poor families and their educational prospects had been limited as kids — most were young when they had to drop out of school to contribute to the household income. As a result, their job prospects were grim as adults.

Paradkar, who was elected president of Lijjat in 2009, started her journey at the institution at the age of 10 when her father passed away and her mother became a member of Lijjat. Together with their mother, Paradkar and her three sisters rolled 65 to 75 pounds of pap- padums every day to make ends meet.

She herself became a member in 1971 and continued her school- ing while rolling pappadums on the side. Through her work at Lijjat, she was able to educate her two sons, who now have families of their own and live comfortably. Such stories are echoed by other women who joined the institution.

The problem that Lijjat founders wanted to address was that in a patriarchal society, unless they could bring in their own income, they couldn’t influence household spending and direct spending toward educating their children.

3. Why Is the Status Quo Unacceptable?

The next question gets to the why of your vision. You’ve articulated the problem, but why is it imperative that it be solved? What are the consequences if it’s not solved?

In Lijjat’s case, the answer to why the status quo was unacceptable was very clear: Without the financial independence to educate their children, many of these families would have continued to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

In writing your vision, you have to be open to the possibility that perhaps the status quo doesn’t need changing. We have come to look at disruption as inevitable and always leading to progress. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” venture capitalist Josh Linker proclaimed in his book The Road to Reinvention.2 The Harvard Business Review article “The Inno- vator’s DNA,” quotes former CEO of eBay Meg Whitman as saying that innovators “get a kick out of screwing up the status quo. They can’t bear it. So they spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about how to change the world. And as they brainstorm, they like to ask: ‘If we did this, what would happen?’”3 But screwing up the status quo without a clear picture of the end goal often leads to an iteration-led approach. When we’re vision-driven, we don’t disrupt for the sake of disrupting — we ask, “Is the status quo unacceptable?”

In asking this question, it’s important to recognize that while you may see the status quo as unacceptable, the people you intend to impact may not. Take the example of the Segway. It was launched with fanfare in 2001 on ABC’s Good Morning America as a better alternative to walking to work. Most customers, however, didn’t walk to work, and few felt like their urban walking commute was unacceptable. The les- son from Segway is that your vision may be meaningful to you, but it must also be meaningful to the people you want to impact.

4. When Will You Know That You’ve Achieved Your Vision?

The when question should describe a visualizable end state and what success looks like.

It’s tempting to write a high-level description of the end state. For example, Lijjat’s desired end state could have been described as “Empowering women” — it’s easy to remember and a catchy enough tagline. But it fails to describe how the organization would achieve this vision and leaves many unanswered questions. In what way would the women be empowered? How would the Lijjat sisters recognize that they have succeeded in empowering women? In answering these questions, you create signposts so you know if you’re making progress or if you need to course correct.

For Lijjat, the desired end state is to create a world where women from low socioeconomic status households can earn a sustainable liv- ing, have more of a voice in household spending, educate their chil- dren, and lift the next generation out of poverty.

5. How Will You Bring about This Change?

In answering the how question, you can finally talk about the product, technology, or approach that helps you to bring about the change you envision.

Lijjat’s mechanism for bringing about change is high-quality products for consumers that can be produced by the member sisters at home. Lijjat started with pappadums and has since expanded into other packaged goods, products including spices and soaps.

By describing the mechanism for bringing about your desired change, you make your vision actionable for the team. As you execute on your vision, you may discover that your mechanism needs refine- ment — in fact, this is why RPT defines product as a constantly improv- able mechanism for bringing about the change you desire.

Spreading Your Vision

To make sure that your vision gets translated into tactical activities, you need your vision to spread across your team and organization. Lijjat built its reputation to be synonymous with quality, even though its 45,000 member sisters manufacture products at home. The oppor- tunity for discrepancies in quality is enormous. For Lijjat to deliver on the promise of high quality, the vision had to be deeply internalized by the 45,000 member sisters.

The RPT vision statement was deliberately created in a Mad Lib format to help create similar buy-in.

You can use it in a group exercise to craft a vision as a team — this format helps you stay focused on the content rather than the wording.

You can use it in a group exercise to craft a vision as a team — this format helps you stay focused on the content rather than the wording.

In my workshops I’ve found that even in a two-person startup, founders most likely have different answers to the who, what, why, when and how questions. It’s important to air the differences so you can create a shared vision.

Workshop:

To do this in a group exercise:

  1. Write the fill-in-the-blanks vision statement on a white board.
  2. Have each person answer the who, what, why, when, and how questions on sticky notes and place the notes in the blanks.
  3. Go around the room and share your answers and discuss similarities and differences with the goal of crafting a version that you agree on as a team.
  4. In a facilitated session, writing such a vision takes only one to two hours — but the time it saves in the long term by aligning the team on the details is immeasurable.

It’s important to note that keeping buy-in and alignment requires revisiting your vision statement periodically.

The questions of who, what, why, when, and how are existential questions and your answers may change.

You may find that the landscape has shifted, and the answer to “What does their world look like today?” may have changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of a market shift — the problem that you had set out to solve may have changed subtly or in more significant ways. You may also have learned more through your execution so your answers to the who, what, why, when, and how questions may have changed.

You’ll want to review your vision statement as a group regularly. In a more mature market, your cadence might be once six months. In an immature market or a startup, you may find it helpful to review your vision once a month if you’re discovering new things about the market or if it’s evolving quickly.

You’ll want to review your vision statement as a group regularly. In a more mature market, your cadence might be once six months. In an immature market or a startup, you may find it helpful to review your vision once a month if you’re discovering new things about the market or if it’s evolving quickly.

Crafting and reviewing your Radical Vision Statement as a group ensures that each person on the team can participate in this vision.

But beyond participation, internalizing the vision requires developing a deep sense of responsibility for the change you’re creating — you need every person on the team to experience the status quo you want to change.

But beyond participation, internalizing the vision requires developing a deep sense of responsibility for the change you’re creating — you need every person on the team to experience the status quo you want to change.

At Lijjat, the member sisters come from poor households and have experienced the inability to earn a dignified living. As a result, they have a sense of shared responsibility for changing the lives of other women in the same situation. Producing high-quality pappadums is their mechanism to deliver on their vision. As a result, they are visibly committed to producing high-quality pappadums. Paradkar explains, “At every stage of production, member sisters are so conscious about maintaining high standards and the right quality that it is nearly impossible for any nonstandard piece of pappadum to go undetected.”

Every Lijjat sister experiences the impact of the organization’s vision in creating a better future for her family — this is an important factor in internalizing the vision.

If the impact of your vision isn’t as easily visible, you may need to create opportunities for team members to experience it.

One technique you can use to create visionary moments is to get team members to observe users struggling with the status quo.

One technique you can use to create visionary moments is to get team members to observe users struggling with the status quo.

In our conversation, Jeremy Kriegel, former UX Lead at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, explained how he develops a shared experience of the problem: “We get the whole team involved with user research where we observe users getting frustrated as they try to complete the task using the existing solution. Even if teams can’t participate in live observations, we organize lunch-and-learns where they can watch user research videos.”

This is a scalable approach to creating visionary moments so teams can see the problem firsthand and how your solution can make users’ lives better.

Even if teams can’t participate in live observations, we organize lunch-and-learns where they can watch user research videos.This is a scalable approach to creating visionary moments so teams can see the problem firsthand and how your solution can make users’ lives better.

To accomplish this at scale, Atlassian, a company that builds products for software developers and project managers, often produces a video to illustrate a team’s vision.

To accomplish this at scale, Atlassian, a company that builds products for software developers and project managers, often produces a video to illustrate a team’s vision.

Sherif Mansour, distinguished product manager at Atlassian, explained in our conversation, “The video shows users struggling with the problem we’re setting out to solve and the solution we envision for our users. It always has a voice-over that describes the same in words to ensure that everyone has the same interpretation of the visual.”

You can create visionary moments across the company by helping individuals see users’ problem firsthand and how your solution can make their lives better.

You can create visionary moments across the company by helping individuals see users’ problem firsthand and how your solution can make their lives better.

In addition to creating visionary moments, it’s important to help all individuals see how their role contributes to the vision.

In addition to creating visionary moments, it’s important to help all individuals see how their role contributes to the vision.

Translating Lijjat’s collective vision into what it requires from each member sister is key to the success of its operating model. For example, Lijjat’s vision of giving women self-employment means that the 45,000 member sisters are all equal owners of the institution who share in the profits equally. As a thought experiment, imagine 45,000 equal partners in a law firm or a consultancy who are asked to share profits equally, regardless of their seniority and how much they’re billing. Unfathomable, right? And yet this model has worked at Lijjat for over 60 years. This equal distribution of profits requires individuals to think differently about compensation, in a way that aligns with the vision.

Lijjat’s pledge is its instrument for translating the collective vision into what it means for each individual. Paradkar explains, “Each sis- ter becomes a member and co-owner of the institution by signing the institution’s pledge form.” The pledge details the responsibilities the member sisters agree to. For example, they commit to rolling at least five kilos of pappadums per day. But it also describes the mindset mem- ber sisters must adopt for profit sharing: “No one in a family counts the number of pancakes one eats when they sit together for dinner. Similarly, I shall also not put that type of calculation while sharing [profits]. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘I should get more than oth- ers’, I shall aspire that others should not get less than me.”

Every member sister has a clear sense of the collective vision and how she contributes to it through her behavior and role, whether it’s through kneading the dough, distributing the dough, rolling pappadums, or col- lecting the rolled pappadums. The concept of communicating how every role contributes to the shared vision is equally applicable in the corporate world. We may have leaders with a clear vision, but all team members, whether software engineers or customer service representatives, are using their roles to create the collective change the organization seeks.

To spread your vision across organizational boundaries, you can encourage every team to build a vision for how the team can contribute to the collective vision through their work.

Some Radical Product Thinkers even choose to write a vision statement as an individual to articulate the impact they want to have through their work.

Whether or not you choose to go to that level of granularity, as a manager, you can talk to all individuals on the team on how their role contributes toward the team vision. You may find that people with similar skills could have very different ideas for the impact they want to create through their work.

To build vision-driven products, we need to have a clear vision for the world we want to bring about. A good vision must act like a signpost so we know if we’re making progress or if we need to course-correct. It sets the direction so that the success of our iterative execution is not measured merely by moving financial KPI up and to the right but by whether we’re bringing about the world we set out to in the first place.

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