Finding Your North Star

Bring focus to your product (and life) with a long term vision

Hey there👋 ! I'm Will Lawrence. Product Life is my weekly newsletter where I write about product strategy, career advice and frameworks I'm using to navigate life. If this sounds like a good time, sign up so you don't miss any articles.

Summary: bring focus to your product (and life) by creating a product strategy. Start with a product vision — a true north star to shoot for. A vision can unite thousands of people, help with decision making and focus your strategy around long term outcomes.

If I had to summarize the responsibility of a product manager into a single phrase, it would be: decide what to build.

Put yourself in the shoes of the product manager for Spotify Premium. She could invest in making song playback smoother, make following artists faster or develop new perks for members. What does she build and how does she choose?

The answer lies in creating a product strategy. If you leave this newsletter with only one core framework, I hope it’s this one.

The key components of a product strategy are:

  1. Vision - What is the change we want to bring to the world?

  2. Mission - How will we make this vision a reality?

  3. Strategy - What are the levers we will pull to achieve our mission?

  4. Goals - What milestones indicate progress on our strategy?

  5. Tactics - What specific projects can help us achieve our goals?

While this framework is the backbone of product development, it’s also helpful in navigating life. I've used parts of this framework to grow my career, identify projects to work on and even improve my relationships.

Over the next few weeks I'll walk through each of the product strategy components - vision, mission, strategy, goals and tactics. We will learn about these both in the frame of product but also how these components can be applied to your own life.

Today, let's dive into the product vision.

Why your product needs a vision

When I first heard of the concept of a product vision, I rolled my eyes. I'm very logical (ENTP ☺️) and setting a vision seemed too abstract to be useful.

But this is a common mistake of junior product managers. We often focus too much on what we need to do not why we need to do it. The more senior of a product leader you become, the more you obsess about the vision and mission of a product. If you want to become a product leader, you need to understand how to create, communicate and deploy a product vision.

A product vision gives your team a north star to shoot for. All actions, projects and late night grinds are in service of getting to this north star.

Jeff Weiner, the Former CEO of LinkedIn, explains this best in his must read article:

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned in business is that managing a hyper-growth company is like launching a rocket -- if your trajectory is off by inches at launch, you can be off by miles out in orbit. In other words, when moving quickly, it's important to make sure you've got a firm foundation in place and a clear sense of your ultimate objective.

Tactically, here are three ways to use a product vision:

  1. When a new opportunity arises, check if it aligns with the vision. If it doesn't, it may be a distraction not worth investment.

  2. When communicating what your product does, start with the vision instead of the features you're building. It gives the audience a sense of the long term direction.

  3. Unite all people — including the janitor — in your organization around a single goal. Inspire everyone and make them excited by the journey you’re all on together.

How to write a great product vision

Here are the visions of three organizations:

These visions give us the three characteristics of a good vision statement:

  1. Outcome oriented- All these statements focus on the desired outcome each organization wants in the world.

  2. No specific tactics - Patagonia doesn't mention clothes and IKEA doesn't mention Swedish meatballs. Be flexible on the how, but never the why.

  3. Shared purpose - A vision creates unity across thousands of people. Everyone at Oxfam — accountants, event planner and program evaluator — can feel united in creating a world without poverty.

Now let's practice these principles to create a product vision for the most important product you'll ever manage: your life.

The Product Vision of You

What outcome do you want to see in the world?

It's a daunting question. I've spent the better part of the last two years thinking through this problem myself. It only clicked for me when I started to learn about product strategy.

Combining some of the product methods I've learned and concepts from Angela Duckworth's book Grit (would highly recommend this book) I've landed on a framework that helped me develop my own vision statement. Want to try it out?

First, list all the activities that help you get into a flow state. This is the state where you are so immersed in what you're doing that time flies by.

Here are mine:

Next, think about why you enjoy those activities. For example, I love chess because I can always feel myself improving and its extremely accessible.

Once you have a list of why you enjoy these activities, look for the broader themes that unite your reasons for enjoyment. These can help you determine what your values are.

Here's my process:

Once you have a list of your values, turn those values into outcomes you want to see in the world. I personally care about making sure people, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to succeed. This is clear in my values for equity and the success of others. I also value my own self-improvement, and this is an ability I can incorporate into helping others improve too. This helps me land on my real vision statement: Expand Access to Opportunity.

Voilà — you’ve landed on your very own product vision!

How to get the most out of a vision

  1. Alignment - whenever you need to make a big decision, ask yourself if it is in line with your vision.

  2. Share your vision - this will help you form a community of likeminded people who share a similar vision.

  3. Revisit your vision once a year - make sure it’s still authentic to who you are and what you wish to achieve.

Next Steps

Vision is the first step in creating product strategy. Over the next few weeks, we’ll dive deep into the next steps:

  1. Mission - How will we make this vision a reality?

  2. Strategy - What are the levers we will pull to achieve our mission?

  3. Goals - What milestones indicate progress on our strategy?

  4. Tactics - What specific projects can help us achieve our goals?

If this sounds like a good time, why not subscribe?

Thank you for reading ☺️. If you enjoyed this, subscribe to my newsletter where I write about product management, navigating your career and solving life’s ambiguous problems, one mental model at at a time.