By: Shan Riku, Chief Product Officer at BillionToOne
In the ever-demanding world of product management, immediate tasks and short-term goals often consume our attention. The urgency of daily demands and quarterly deliverables can overshadow the bigger picture, leaving the long-term vision neglected. This is a familiar struggle that resonates across all industries and roles.
With underlying technologies and consumer trends changing faster than ever, how do we manage the constant curveballs thrown our way while still guiding the organization toward our North Star—the ultimate product vision?
In this guide, I’ll share five practical tips to keep up with the technology and user trends and steer your organization toward its long-term product vision.
1. Start Talking About the Product Vision Early
Before we talk about trends, what is the product vision for your product/product line? What does your product aspire to achieve in the long run? Why is it valuable and how will it fulfill the particular needs of your customer?
If you already have a defined product vision that your organization is aligned with, that’s great! You should share and re-share it repeatedly so everyone in the organization understands the vision.
If you’re creating one, or feel the need to tweak the product vision, I believe the first step is to say it out loud, even if the vision is still forming. The idea may still be very high-level, and you may not have answers to some basic questions. But it’s worth speaking out at that stage so others know which way you’re headed, and they can help you refine the idea as you go along.
Earlier this year, we launched a new product line in a new therapeutic area. When I started the product concept work two and a half years ago, I had very little sense of which sub-market we were going after, what our differentiators would be, or what customer problems we would be solving. Yet, one month into the market research work, I presented my earliest product vision to the technical group. In the session, I shared the most fundamental needs and aspirations of our customer base (“What do they care most about?”; “What keeps them up at night?”), some concrete customer pains that our technology could solve, and possible ways to differentiate/create a moat. Those initial insights became the building blocks for that product line’s long-term product vision.
The thought of coming up with a product vision sounds daunting, but the building blocks of the product vision are something we uncover and tell others all day long (what customers want, what are we good at, how do we make economics work). Don’t be afraid to start sharing early. It is far better to have a product vision that is 80% finalized than not to have a product vision (or keep it to yourself until it’s 100% perfect).
2. Use a “Journal Club” to brainstorm long-term strategies with your technical team
A journal club is a meeting where a group of people get together and critically evaluate an article (usually peer-reviewed journal articles in academic journals). At my company, we inherited the culture of journal clubs from the academic lab environment (where our scientists all graduated from) and we do it on an ad hoc basis. I have come to truly appreciate the format as an excellent way to talk about long-term product strategy with the technical team.
Going back to the previous product vision example, in the second half of the meeting after the product vision presentation, our CTO ran a mini journal club presenting the latest findings from the literature, discussing a novel way to solve the customer problem I presented. That ended up becoming the foundational approach to our new product line.
Whenever I have an idea for a brand new product, the first thing I do is to suggest a journal club on the topic with the technical team. The technical and product teams usually co-lead the discussion:
- The technical team reviews the technical journal with the group
- The product team presents the product implications from the technology
The CEO and CTO join the discussion, leading to a collaborative brainstorming session about possible product concepts and technical strategies to build it. And because it’s in the form of a journal club, where the setting is about critically reviewing the article that someone else wrote, we have a psychologically safe environment to openly discuss the potential of the new technology and the new product.
Often, the conclusion was that we were not ready for the new product development. Sometimes the technology is not yet there. Sometimes, the product concept is not strong enough (it’s not solving the “hair-on-fire” problem for our customers). Sometimes, the economics doesn’t make sense. Still, the discussion is always informative and everyone loves the meeting. (Who doesn’t like talking about new products?!)
The “journal club” may look different at your company. It could be a “book club” or a “product review club”. What the journal club allowed us to do is:
- Provide a forcing mechanism to review new technology trends
- Provide a safe environment to critically discuss new product ideas and how to build them.
3. Go to Conferences
Although it might seem counterintuitive, attending conferences can be a highly efficient way of getting yourself to step back from daily tasks and focus on longer-term thinking. At every conference I go to, I find the ROI to be enormous.
In January this year, there was a mid-size conference in San Francisco that I was debating about going to. On the first day, a member of my team went and reported there was nothing much to see. As he was flying out, he gave me his conference badge, and I used it to check out the conference the next day. In contrast to his experience, I found the conference to be hugely insightful. I gained a crucial customer insight that eventually shifted our product strategy. (We were planning to build 2 separate products for two separate use cases. During the conference, I learned that the two products are viewed so interchangeably that we are better off building the two features into one product.)
Clear your calendar and go to conferences. I find conferences that are directly in my field and those that are in the peripheral fields are both super helpful. At the conference, spend conscious time thinking about the longer-term product strategy. As long as you have clear intent in your mind, you will find at least one valuable insight at every conference.
4. Collaborate and Refine Longer-Term Product Strategy with Others
Say, you’ve solidified your product vision and gained invaluable long-term insights from journal clubs and conferences. What’s the next step for steering the organization toward that long-term vision? Over-collaborate.
First and foremost, alignment with your CEO is crucial. I cannot stress enough the importance of being in sync with the CEO on all product directions, especially when it comes to long-term vision. All good CEOs are visionaries, so take the time to understand their perspective. Engage with other leaders in the company to gather their thoughts on longer-term business strategies for their respective departments. Being influenced by their visions and strategies is a positive thing; after all, your product vision and strategy should be in harmony with the overarching vision and goals of the company. To achieve those long-term product objectives, you’ll need the support and alignment of all departments.
In this process, try not to be “consensus-driven”. If you find any fundamental differences in direction among departments, it’s imperative to call out these discrepancies. From there, you’ll need to either choose one path over another or identify a new, more viable path. Avoid making a compromise that sits somewhere in the middle—or worse, ignoring the differences and continuing down your original path.
5. Allow Room in the Roadmap for Execution
At the end of the day, what ultimately matters is what gets shipped. So, how do we reconcile a jam-packed quarterly roadmap with our broader, long-term vision? It’s essential that each quarter’s product plan aligns with and makes strides toward the long-term vision. If you’ve successfully implemented steps one through four, your CEO, the leadership team, and the technical team should all be on the same page regarding your product vision and the strategy to achieve it. During quarterly roadmap planning, ensure that short-term goals and deliverables are directionally consistent with the long-term vision.
In addition, to make progress on long-term goals that aren’t directly tied to immediate needs, consider including one to two longer-term initiatives in each quarter’s planning.
For instance, this quarter at my company, we have one OKR goal related to a new product idea that is a few years away from a commercial launch. (Our goal is to find one to two customers willing to conduct research with us on this new product. We won’t even begin development until we secure a partner.) Outside of the OKRs, we’ve held two journal clubs—one focused on a new disease area I’m considering entering and the other on the use of generative AI in clinical decision support software. This is on top of an extremely busy quarter with numerous product launches. Adding these initiatives is not easy but is critical for the long-term success of both the product and the company.
So there you have it—five real-world, actionable tips to drive your organization toward a longer-term product vision, all while juggling the never-ending demands of the immediate. It’s no cakewalk, but it’s far from impossible. Get the conversation going early about your product vision, whether it’s a polished pitch or just an inkling. Leverage the power of “Journal Clubs” or their equivalent to create a safe environment to brainstorm new product ideas and emerging technologies.
Don’t shy away from conferences; the return on investment in terms of insights is often massive. Make sure you’re in lockstep with your CEO and other leaders, and don’t hesitate to confront differences in vision. And finally, always carve out a little room in your quarterly plans for those future-focused initiatives. Because, when all is said and done, it’s not just about what gets out the door now; it’s also about laying the groundwork for what you’ll ship in the years to come.
About the author
Shan oversees clinical and software product management, marketing, clinical affairs, and medical affairs at BillionToOne, a precision diagnostics company based in Menlo Park, CA. One of her proudest achievements is the launch of a COVID-19 test in April 2020, after 6 weeks of Dev work (while sheltering in place with 2 toddlers at home!).