brad dickason
PM at Facebook
home / about

Don't set a vision, set direction

Bad leaders think that a catchy mission and vision statement are enough to guide their organization. They hire expensive branding agencies and prepare fancy presentations with lofty phrases like 'maximize our synergies.' Then they're puzzled when employees feel lost and ask questions like, "What is our strategy?" or "Who are we building for?"

These leaders failed to provide enough information for employees to operate autonomously.

There are three things a team needs to be successful:

  1. Vision: Where are we headed?
  2. Strategy: How do we get there?
  3. Goal: How do we know we've arrived?

Picture yourself in the age of exploration. You've got a ship and a crew and you need to work together to get to your destination. Before you answer the above questions, you have a group of people standing around or even worse, doing random stuff.

First step: Vision. Tell them what the destination is, in enough detail that they can visualize it. You can't (and shouldn't) define every minute detail. If someone squints, they should be able to see what you're describing.

Microsoft's famous vision

A PC on every desk and in every home.

Our crew now has a sense of where we're headed but they have no idea how to get there. Are we taking a boat? Heading straight west? Bouncing from island to island?

Next Step: Strategy. Tell them how we get to that destination. Describe the audience you are building for, and in what order. Share the problems that you need to solve. List the key levers to solve them. Once you have this written down, squeeze it until it's as simple as possible.

Tesla's famous "Secret Master Plan (Just Between You and Me)"

  1. Build sports car
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car

Your crew is starting to get excited. They know where we're headed and they know how we'll get there. They probably even have ideas about how they can contribute. But they are still confused about the destination.

Next Step: Goal. Tell them how we know we've arrived. A good goal is simple and easy to measure. It can be easily understood by everyone on the team. If you find yourself inventing complex metrics to describe your destination, it's probably not a good goal.

The Gates Foundation's goal

Reach a day when no human being has malaria and no mosquito on earth is carrying it.

Congratulations, you've set a direction! Your crewmates have a clear idea of where you're headed, how to get there, and what success looks like. Now you just have to execute (ha!)

These three components sound obvious but I'm always surprised how few teams actually have these answers clarified, written down, and socialized so that every leaf node (employee) can remember and act on them. It takes time and energy but it's worth it because clarity flows downstream.

You'll know your direction is working when you see others using it as an effective decision making razor to resolve conflicts.

Note: You may find that in this process, you start writing the vision and get stuck. Don't be afraid to jump to the Strategy or Goal section and flesh that out, then come back. Each section is interconnected. It's ok to start in the middle.

Does your team struggle with direction? Have you tried to implement a vision and failed? I'd love to help: @bdickason

Get my newsletter. It features simple improvements you can make to improve your day-to-day PM life. From Product Vision/Strategy to Goals and Metrics to Roadmaps and everything in between.


Post last updated: Mar 19, 2021