How do you create a product vision? Part 5

Day 151 of Self Quarantine             Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  163,000

Communicating the product vision – to employees, to customers, to investors

This post is the fifth part of describing how to create a product vision.

Getting to a product vision for an innovative product is a five step process:

  1. Understanding what a good one looks like
  2. Becoming an expert quickly in the knowledge domain of your product innovations
  3. Using an influencer centered design process to collaborate with domain experts and customers on your product vision
  4. Creating the product vision using service dominant logic and an outcomes orientation
  5. Communicating the Product vision – to employees, to customers, to investors

“They did what?” I exclaimed in my youthful arrogance.

“They took your reality of an ALL-IN-1 office automation product and your four Fortune 100 corporate installed customers and turned it into a vision that might be available sometime in the future,” shared one of my favorite sales people.  She described the product vision that the business products marketing department was distributing to sales and to customers.

As I reflect on those moments of my product leadership education, I realize that is the fundamental challenge – how do you take the reality of your generic V1 product and paint a vision of the potential product?

Steve Jobs did a masterful job of introducing the revolutionary iPhone as a continuing evolution of previous Apple products like the Mac and the iPod.  He had an hour and a half to show the path of arriving at the iPhone, describing its innovative features, and along the way shared how much better it was than the competition of the many attempts to marry “smart” with “easy to use.”  He illustrated in a simple 2×2 matrix how the iPhone was a leapfrog product:

I loved the way that he started with humor depicting their vision of a rotary dial attached to an iPod.

This image reminded me of the UX cartoon of the design of a new swing by committee:

Jobs uses a wonderful tag line to describe how smart phones with internet connectivity and cameras and music and a wealth of apps have evolved – “Your life in your pocket.”

Few of us have 90 minutes to introduce a new product and paint a vision of its future.  Few of us have a V1 product that took two years to develop and had over 2000 patents filed to protect the innovations.  Few of us have the history of Apple behind us when we are launching our first product.  Few of us have powerful partners like Google and Cingular (now AT&T) to join in our launch event.

So, what does an early stage entrepreneur do?

The recommended resources suggested in the first part of this series are a good place to start.

In addition to the Jobs launch of the iPhone, I particularly like the analysis of Elon Musk’s powerwall introduction outline:

  1. Name the enemy
  2. Answer “Why Now?”
  3. Show the promised land before explaining how you’ll get there
  4. Identify obstacles – then explain how you’ll overcome them
  5. Present evidence that you’re not just blowing hot air

Over the years, I’ve stumbled into a few additional ways of describing a product vision, particularly when you have little time and attention from your audience.

    • Tell a story
    • Develop an explanatory image
    • Start with an assertion that wakes the audience up
    • Like Tom Sawyer, invite people to help accomplish the vision

If you review Steve Jobs iPhone launch, he nicely hits all these attributes of communicating a product vision.

On my first day at work at Conga in early March of 2018, my chief product officer boss, Doug Rybacki, let me know that I had thirty days to come up with a vision and road map for the contract lifecycle management (CLM) products and then present that vision at the upcoming annual customer, senior management and all product development team event in Chicago.  I wanted to protest and argue that I didn’t know the products yet and I didn’t now the professional staff that worked for me and most importantly I had no knowledge of the Conga CLM customers.

Then I laughed and said “Sure, I’ll accept that challenge.”  I had no idea how I was going to accomplish that, but I had thirty days and a lot of travelling to the four US development sites to figure that out.

“Oh, by the way, you are making a presentation to IACCM members, the contract and commercial management association, in two weeks on the strategic value of CLM implementations with the director of IACCM,” added Doug.

“Great.  I can do that,” I eagerly replied.  My motor mouth was running while I was thinking “How am I going to do that?”

Fortunately, I had some background in the CLM market from building the Attenex Structure product for authoring contracts from a clause database library.

The month flew by (literally and figuratively) as I visited Orlando, NYC,  and Denver many times to learn, learn learn.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit any customers at their sites, but I talked to several by phone and teleconference.

I spent a lot of white boarding time with the product managers and engineering team leaders.  They were all eager to understand my vision of the future.  Images like these emerged from the discussions:

As I was in the middle of one two hour white board discussion, Doug wandered through and shared “By the way, you will only have 15 minutes to present your vision of CLM at the customer conference.”

Thanks, Doug.

After lots of sleepless nights and many discarded Powerpoint slides, I called my story telling mentor David Robinson and asked for help.  Pleaded for help might be a better way of saying it.  David listened for 30 minutes and then said, “tell a story and use the one word pitch from Dan Pink.”  Then he hung up.

Thanks, David.

Some time during the month, the words “Know Now” entered my head.  These words were the organizing principle that I needed and if I smashed them together I had my one word pitch.

Here is the 15-minute pitch I used to describe our vision of Conga CLM to our employees, our customers, and the influencers at IACCM.

What if we could “Know Now,” what is going to happen in the next 90 to 120 days with the Conga business?  Not predict, but know.  What if our customers could “Know Now” what is going to happen with their business for the next 90 to 120 days?  Not predict, but know.

“Know Now” is our vision for the future of the Conga CLM product line.

Twenty-Five years ago, I was the VP of Software Engineering for Primus Knowledge Solutions.  Our biggest customer was Compaq.  We spent nine months negotiating an enterprise contract with Compaq so that we could recognize the $2 million in revenue at the signing of the contract instead of spreading the revenue over the two-year life of the license.  We knew we were going public soon and we wanted to have a boost in revenues.

A month after the signing of the contract and Primus going public, I got a call from our customer support manager telling me that I had to send two of my software engineers to Valbonne, France the next day.  I laughed and hung up the phone.  He called me right back.  “No, I’m serious.  We are required by contract to put software engineers onsite if there is a problem.”

That was my first inkling that we were in deep financial trouble.

“Why do you think that?” I said.  “I was part of the contract negotiation and there was nothing in the contract that says we have to put engineers onsite.  All we agreed to is that any problems will be fixed in the next software release.”

“Well, the customer has an email from the salesperson that says that we will do this,” he replied.

I hung up and called the CFO.  After a set of emergency meetings (and a lot of yelling and screaming), we realized that we had to make a public announcement to restate our revenues.  Our stock lost, 80% of its value in the next two days.

The sad part was that none of the executives were aware of what the salesperson had committed us to supporting Compaq.  But our computer systems did.  If only we had a way to make sense of our email traffic in real time.

As I’ve gotten to know some of our Conga customer stories over the last month, I loved learning that when Conga Contracts was installed at Preferred Hotels, they immediately discovered that they had missed billing $600,000 to their customers.  The billing for services was in their negotiated contracts, but nobody went back and checked.  Preferred Hotels was able to pay for our product by the revenue that their current contract administrators didn’t know was past due.

The sad part was that the Preferred Hotel executives didn’t know, but the computer systems did.

While having lunch with the head of the FTI Consulting Forensics market segment, he wondered if our Ringtail product might help his business with his very large construction clients.  He shared that most large construction project clients like the multi billion-dollar airport in Abu Dhabi must allocate 10% of their costs to dealing with the inevitable litigation.  He lamented that in every forensic investigation they performed over his twenty-year career, all of the problems that resulted in litigation where usually found in email traffic in the first six months of the project.  He asked, “can’t we use Ringtail somehow to monitor the email and project plan changes and alert us?”

“Maybe,” I replied.  “If you’ve noticed any patterns in the emails, particularly common words that are used often, then we have a starting point and can turn our AI/ML and visual analytics loose on the digital information.”

“No problem,” Paul responded.  “When I get back to the office, I will send you the seven patterns we’ve noticed in all of our construction forensic investigations.”

As I reviewed Paul’s seven patterns, I started laughing because these patterns are present in every late software engineering project I have led.

The sad part was that the executives of these construction projects didn’t know, but their computer systems did.

Let me reiterate “no one person knows, but the computer system knows.”

When I built my first contract management product back in 2000, I realized that you could understand a corporation by the formal contracts with customers, suppliers and employees AND the informal contracts like business plans, product plans, sales compensation plans, and marketing plans.  When you combine these unstructured documents that move through email with the structured data that is in our financial systems, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and project management systems you KNOW NOW what is going to happen in the future for your company.  Cliff Dutton in his research paper “Empowering Board Audit Committees: Electronic Discovery to Facilitate Corporate Fraud Detection” proved my assertion.

Knowing Now what is going to happen in the next 90 to 180 days means that you can start making organizational interventions NOW to change future business performance instead of having to wait until the end of the quarter to figure out what happened.

I shared with you the very personal pain of not Knowing Now while at Primus Knowledge Solutions.  I vowed to myself that if I could, I would never let that happen to another company.  The painful Primus experience is why I started Attenex to create a powerful visual analytic software system that can make meaning out of terabytes of unstructured and structured data to support litigation and to achieve compliance with corporate policies.  I came to Conga to continue extending the vision of Know Now.  Conga’s CLM products today, along with the products of the three companies we just acquired are the repositories of most of the formal and informal contract information.  Our new AI/ML capability which we are announcing this week will make meaning out of that information in real time.

I am exited to share with you today the KNOW NOW vision and the reality of what we are creating at Conga.

Thank you.

Later in the day at an all hands employee meeting, one of the senior product managers stood up and referred to the above presentation.  She shared “Skip’s reason for joining Conga to keep other companies from experiencing the problems that Primus had, and that Preferred Hotels had, and that every construction project has, made me realize that I had a very myopic view of my job as a product manager.  I’ve been trying to define features and then make sure that we stayed on time and on budget with my products so that we could hit our financial goals.  I never thought to have a higher order goal or drive to make our corporate customers’ businesses healthier.  Thank you Skip for sharing a powerful vision for CLM.  And thank you for inspiring me to take on a powerful meta goal.”

Thank you.

Over the next two days, many of the senior software engineers, product managers, and engineering team leaders took time to thank me for providing a vision that they could relate to.  They shared their frustration at not being able to see how their daily work on their products would make a difference in their customer’s lives.  They related that they were having trouble figuring out how the new Conga Corporate vision we were presenting to our customers that week had anything to do with what they were building.

These wonderful conversations led me to the “Tom Sawyer” approach to product vision.  I shared that Know Now was a vision, but that I didn’t know how to get there.  I asked for their help every day to figure out how to get this vision built.  They all signed up to “paint that fence.”

I was not able to come up with a summary diagram in my first thirty days like Christine Martell provided to summarize my Valuation Capture methodology.

However, a few months later I was able to incorporate the Know Now stories and presentation into an explanatory 2 x 2 matrix that follows the scenario planning guidelines.

The Know Now example is a path to sharing a product vision with employees and customers.  Steve Jobs at the end of the iPhone product launch provides an example of what investors need – some idea of the business potential of your product and vision.  He showed a bar chart of the volume of units sold of different digital devices in 2006.  The mobile phone makers sold 957 million units in 2006 dwarfing other digital devices.

Steve modestly shared that he would be happy with first year sales of 1% of that market – 10 million iPhones at $500+ each.  It doesn’t take a calculator for an investor to see the business impact of the product AND the product vision.

Now it is your turn.

What is your product vision?

How will you quickly become an expert in your market domain?

How will you use influencers to develop and promote your product vision?

How will you help your customers adopt your product through an outcomes orientation?

How will you communicate the product vision to employees, to customers, and to investors?


The five parts of this series on how to create a product vision are:

  1. Understanding what a good one looks like
  2. Becoming an expert quickly in the knowledge domain of your product innovations
  3. Using an influencer centered design process to collaborate on your product vision
  4. Creating the product vision using service dominant logic and an outcomes orientation
  5. Communicating the Product vision – to employees, to customers, to investors
This entry was posted in Content with Context, Design, Entrepreneuring, Human Centered Design, Idealized Design, Innovation. Bookmark the permalink.

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