The Product Vision Statement – When the Vision Becomes Reality
You are embarking on a new software development project. Presumably, if it’s a Scrum project, a team is assembled, space and workstations for the team room are configured and the first sprint is right around the corner. The time has come for the initial gathering of project team members and stakeholders – the Project Kickoff. The Project Kickoff meeting can range from an hour to several days, and provides the opportunity for the project team, and any associated stakeholders, to come together and officially begin (i.e., ‘kick off’) a project. The ultimate goal is for everyone to leave this meeting on the same page, with a clear understanding of the project’s structure and goals.
One of the more common kickoff meeting agenda items for Scrum teams today is establishing the product vision, or the product vision statement. Many definitions and examples of product vision statements are available with a simple internet search; a solid summary of the product vision can be found here in a 2009 member article written by Roman Pichler for the Scrum Alliance:
‘The product vision paints a picture of the future that draws people in. It describes who the customers are, what customers need, and how these needs will be met. It captures the essence of the product – the critical information we must know to develop and launch a winning product.’
Here is where I have to come clean – I personally never thought much about the importance or impact of product vision statements until recently. It seemed to me that on many development projects, the product vision would simply exist as a feel-good placeholder or as a feeble attempt to energize the team: “We’re going to build this application and SAVE THE WORLD!”
I felt that the product vision statement was a guise for what seemed like the customary objective of a project which – in an admittedly negative opinion – was to provide a solid return on someone’s investment. Bluntly stated: “If we are successful, someone I’ve never met is going to make a lot of money on this product.” I observed that as a project ensued and the team became preoccupied with day to day tasks, reality would eventually kick in. At a certain point, the vision – which we were so excited about several weeks ago – usually becomes an afterthought.
Eventually, a point is reached several sprints into a project where the team’s project vision statement is scribbled on a large post-it sheet, taped to the wall in the team room, collecting dust – never to be spoken of again. In the past, my observation was that by the time our project wrapped up, we wouldn’t always take the time to measure project success against our original product vision statement. (In fact, many team members were probably already working towards achieving a new product vision on a completely new project.) We didn’t always ask the questions: Did we accomplish our mission? Did we meet all of our objectives? If not, why? (Some of these topics would assuredly be discussed in a Project Retrospective-type meeting, but in today’s reality, that isn’t always the case.)
Fortunately, times have changed. Several recent and personal discoveries (through complete happenstance) have improved my outlook; you could now say that I have a ‘newfound respect’ for the product vision statement. This inspiration is a result of successfully delivering on several development projects in the education research field. CC Pace has had the fortunate opportunity to partner with the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) on several of their software development initiatives since 2010. Our first project supported NSC’s Research Center, whose mission is defined as ‘providing educators and policymakers with accurate longitudinal data on student outcomes to enable informed decision making.’
In June of 2010, CC Pace began the journey with NSC to redesign the StudentTracker for High Schools application (STHS 2.0), which contributes to NSC’s aforementioned mission as ‘a unique program designed to help high schools and districts more accurately gauge the college success of their graduates’. We began the project with an informative and efficient Kickoff meeting and established our product vision statement. Truth be told, I didn’t put much thought into it. After all, I was working with a new client on a newly-formed team, and Sprint #1 was approaching fast.
With all of that in mind, the following is a high-level summary (i.e., not verbatim and with some information added for clarification) of our product vision statement for the StudentTracker for High Schools 2.0 project from June, 2010:
NSC’s business goal is to leverage its unique assets and capabilities to provide the secondary-postsecondary longitudinal information required to inform the secondary education system in its efforts to increase rates of college readiness.
Redesigning the STHS 2.0 application will enhance the capacity and scalability to provide integrated secondary-postsecondary education information – in a timely and efficient fashion – to the maximum number of secondary customers possible.
The objectives to meet this business goal are as follows:
- Enhance STHS reports to include more insightful and actionable data resulting in more valuable and accurate information available to secondary schools and districts
- Provide for a more efficient file management process, reducing the turnaround time for data collection, processing and report distribution
- Increase data collection and storage capacity, allowing for more robust reports
- Improve NSC matching algorithms to enhance data quality and add reliability
- Design, configure and implement a robust set of longitudinal reports stratified by school type, demographics, gender, academics and degree
So, there it was. Our product vision statement was posted on the wall for all to see. As anyone starting out on a new software development project can attest, I still had some questions: Where is all of this leading us? Will we succeed? Will this application – which we are completely redesigning from scratch – launch successfully a year from now?
Undoubtedly these were realistic questions and concerns. At the same time, however, I began to realize that I was working as a member of a team on a development project with a realistic, measurable and highly-motivational product vision statement. I thought at the time that if we truly achieve our vision and successfully implement STHS 2.0 in the next year, our product will have a profound impact on educational research and potentially improve the college success rates of millions of high school and college students for years to come.
Fast-forward to 2015 – I can proudly say that I have seen several firsthand accounts demonstrating that we did indeed achieve the product vision that we established several years ago. The intriguing element of this discovery is that I never personally set out to measure whether or not we achieved our vision as a result of successfully delivering STHS 2.0. After all, this was over five years ago and I have worked on many different projects in that time. Instead, I discovered the answer to that question completely by chance, and on more than one occasion. Five years later, I came to the realization that our team’s product vision had indeed become a reality, and it was a really great feeling.
Check back for a follow-up post for the recent chain of events validating that our project’s product vision statement truly became a reality – more than five years after it was established.
For the past 3 months we’ve had the pleasure of working with a charitable organization called the Ceca Foundation.
Ceca, which is derived from “celebrating caregivers”, was established in 2013 to celebrate caregiver excellence and “to promote high patient satisfaction by recognizing and rewarding outstanding caregivers”. They do this by providing employees of caregiving facilities with a platform for recognizing and nominating their peers for the Ceca Award – a cash reward given throughout the year. These facilities include rehabilitation centers, hospitals, assisted living centers and similar organizations.
CC Pace partnered with Ceca to build their next generation, customized nomination platform.
This was one of those projects that fills you with pride. First, for the obvious reason – Ceca’s worthwhile mission. Second, the not-so-obvious reason, which was the development process. It was a great example of why I enjoy helping customers build products.
For various reasons, Ceca was under a tight deadline to get the new platform up-and-running for several facilities. The Agile process turned out to be a great fit, as it allowed for frequent customer feedback and weekly deployments to a testable environment. We developed the platform using high-level feature stories, rather than detailed specifications. This allowed the team to concentrate on the desired outcome, rather than getting caught up in the technical details. At times, we had to forgo a software-based solution in favor of a manual process. When you have limited resources and time, you have to make these types of decisions.
In February, after about 3 weeks, the Ceca Foundation launched the new web platform for one facility and then quickly brought on several more. There was immediate gratification for the team as we watched the nominations flood in.
The “feel good” story
What made this project successful and enjoyable at the same time? I’m reminded of the first value in the Agile manifesto – individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Some factors were technical but most were not:
- a motivated and enthusiastic customer (Ceca)
- a set of agreed upon features to provide the Minimum Viable Product
- frequent collaboration with the customer
- a cloud-hosted environment to provide infrastructure on-demand for testing and live versions
- a software-as-a-service model that allowed us to quickly bring on new facilities
For me, it was Agile at its most fundamental: discuss the desired features; provide a cost estimate for those features; negotiate priority with the customer; provide frequent releases of working software.