Articulating a Vision

January 17, 2017

In my book, I talk about making technical decisions and, in particular, understanding the priorities of everyone involved in the decision-making. A more powerful way to lead teams to execution is to clearly articulate a vision of what you are trying to achieve. It’s also much more difficult.

Imagine if you worked on the hardware team for the iPhone. One day, your manager says “OK, for iPhone 7, omit the headphone jack”. You’d be confused. Why would we remove the audio jack for a phone that doubles as a music player?!?!

Now, suppose this went down another way. Your manger instead says: “We believe the future of mobile audio is wireless. We further believe that wireless headphones can be an area of new product development—a new wearable computer. We feel the way to make that future a reality is to free ourselves from the legacy headphone port. We’re planning to introduce the first version of our vision for wireless headphones, and we think removing the headphone port in iPhone 7 is the way to ensure that product gets traction in the market. We feel this is the way to achieve the future we’re envisioning.”

What’s the difference here?

In the first scenario, the manager is handing down directives and projects with no context or explanation. In the later, the manager is articulating a vision and that vision helps the team understand what they are being asked to do and why it’s important.

Articulating a vision is crucial for product development, and vital for managing healthy teams.

Handing down directives makes the job of a manager more difficult. Without context, teams can’t make many decisions on their own, and require micromanagement, lest the deliver on the wrong thing. This lack of vision also sends the message that the manager either has no vision (making them a poor leader) or doesn’t trust the team to execute. Who wants to be on that team?

Even if you aren’t a manager, being able to articulate a vision is still a useful skill, as it allows you to clearly express ideas to others. For example, if you’re a junior developer faced with a bugfix that’s more complex than you initially thought, articulating a vision of how to fix that bug—as opposed to just writing some code—means you can give context and clarity about what you want to do. Instead of struggling to communicate your intent and context, you’ll become quickly aligned and can discuss the fitness of your proposal more directly.

How can we learn to do this?

Have a Vision in the First Place

Developing a vision is much easier than articulating it. You merely imagine the world in some future state based on what you’d like to achieve.

Think about what you want to do. What are your goals? What needs to exist that doesn’t? What should happen that isn’t?

Think about your life, system, or team in this future state. What is it like? What sorts of things become possible? What becomes difficult?

I like to imagine giving a keynote presentation, and think about all the exciting stuff I’m announcing.

However you do it, you next need to find a way to articulate it to others.

Articulate Your Vision to Others

When others already share your vision—or helped you develop it—articulating that vision is easy. You have shared context and opinions that allow almost everything to go unsaid. But, as you bring in people with less context, it’s harder to get them to understand. They weren’t there with you developing the vision and are coming in cold, possibly with their own vision or opinions about the matter at hand.

Your primary goal is to get others to really understand your vision at the level you do. With that understanding, you can get feedback to refine that vision, get help in further articulating it, and, most importantly, get others to help you execute on it.

A simple way to do this is to start with the specific things you want done or want to exist. Ask yourself why it’s important? Keep asking “why”. These explanations give context and lead others through your line of thinking. When you talk about what’s important, explicitly state what’s not important, or what you are willing to sacrifice to achieve your vision. Finally, outline pie-in-the-sky benefits that become possible only when your vision is achieved.

This should create a story that you can tell others that brings them from nothing to understanding your vision.

The grander your vision, the more work this is, but the more focused your vision, the easier. And it works for just about anything, from leading a massive organization to a simple bugfix.