Four criteria for a good vision

A vision can ignite and align an organization. Here are four criteria by which to evaluate a vision statement:

  1. Does it inspire? A good vision activates people. It’s something that, on Day 1 and Day 1000, can be called into mind to generate motivation to continue.
  2. Does it guide? A good vision has a perspective. On key decisions, a people turn to the vision and say “which option better satisfies the vision?” As a corollary, a good vision aligns: if everyone in an org is turning to the same vision to guide their decisions, they’ll be making decisions that are aligned with one another.
  3. Is it used? A good vision doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. Employees don’t need to look up the vision statement to remember what it is. A good vision is remembered and used.
  4. Is it accurate? A good vision, when accomplished, leaves you happy. A bad vision, when accomplished, makes you wish you’d aimed somewhere else.

Steve Jobs: You get told not to bash into the walls too much

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. You can poke life and something will pop out the other side. You can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing — to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live it. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Steve Jobs, 1994 interview

Ken Blanchard’s personal vision framework

Ken Blanchard is a big believer in the power of the vision to activate and align members of an organization. He also believes that vision is important for individuals in their personal lives. In this video (which is a bit heavy on the Christian) he offers a framework for developing a personal vision. He says:

What is your own personal vision? Who do you want to really be in the world?

There are three parts of a compelling vision.

  1. Purpose. What is your purpose in life? If you were a business, what business would you be in? Three aspects to this:
    1. Come up with two to three nouns that describe aspects that are unique to you. Strengths of yours. Eg, for Ken, it’s: Teacher and Example.
    2. Come up with two to three verbs that say how you like to influence other people. Eg, for Ken, it’s: Help and Motivate.
    3. Come up with a statement that describes what you’re gonna do in the world. Eg, for Ken, it’s: “I want to be a loving teacher and example of simple truths that helps and motivates others to awaken to the presence of God in our lives.”
  2. Legacy. What is your picture of the future? What will happen if you live according to your purpose? How will people describe you? Exercise: write your own obituary. Story: Alfred Nobel had a brother who died, but the newspaper got it wrong and thought Alfred wrong, so he got to read his own obituary. They described him as a merchant of death. He was devastated. So he set out to change his obituary. What’s the opposite of death? Peace.
  3. Values. What are the values that are going to guide your journey? Come up with values in these three categories:
    1. Spiritual. Eg, for Ken: Peace.
    2. Relationship. Eg, for Ken: Love and Integrity.
    3. Self. What are you doing for yourself. Eg, for Ken: Learning.

Ken Blanchard on why vision matters and how to deploy it in an organization

Ken Blanchard, author of the classic management book The One-Minute Manager, had a few things to say on episode 11 of Dennis Miller’s Storybrand podcast about creating and propagating the vision.

Why does vision matter?

The first thing is that all leadership is about going somewhere. So you’ve got to really be clear with people where you want them to go.

what happens is if nobody knows what the vision and direction and goals are, then they have nothing to serve but themselves.

For example, take Walt Disney. He got this even before anybody else did. What business is it? He said, we’re in the happiness business.

The picture of the future that he had is that every guest leaving the park would have the same smile on their face leaving the park as when they entered 6, 8, 10, 12 hours ago. If we’re in the happiness business we want to keep them smiling. So then they have four values, that everybody knows. Number one, safety. Because Walt said if people get carried out of here in a stretcher, they’re not going to have the same smile on their face leaving the park as when they entered. And then the second value is really service. Which is how do we take care of your needs and all that. The third value is the show, which is you’re either onstage or offstage. If you’re onstage you’re playing Mickey Mouse or ticket taker and they have a description about what that job is all about. And then the last value interestingly is efficiency. R,unning a profitable, well run organization. Well why is that number four? Well it’s four because you don’t want somebody trying to save money by at the compromise of safety and all that kind of thing.

One of his mentors recommended a book:

And the book was a miracle at Philadelphia. And he said, the reason I want you to read it, is because here you had all these ego maniacs, you know, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, George Washington and all. But they had a vision for the country. They wanted those 13 states to be united. So because they had a vision. They took their egos and pushed them aside to work together.

The first thing is you need to be able to articulate your vision. How do you do that?

The two didn’t talk much about this in the discussion, but Blanchard did talk about how he refreshes vision when it needs updating.

Well, you know, one of the things I think that we don’t take enough time is alone time.

stop the train and get off.

have some time to think and walk and all, where it’s not just 10 minutes. But say, you know, where are we now? Where do we want to go?

Then you need to get buy-in. How do you do that?

Well, what I always say is that the initial draft of vision and a set of goals ought to come from the top of the hierarchy. But then rather than sort of laying it on people, say, “here’s our first draft.” What I’d like to do is set up focus groups around the organization and say, “How do you feel about this? What’s missing? Is there anything you want to wordsmith” and all and get their feedback.

And you take that, and then you go to them and say okay, here’s the second draft, based on your feedback. How is this? Til you get to the point that they say, Boy, I’m ready to go on that. But so many people don’t want to take that time. They want to come up with something and then just jam it on everybody.

And then you have to repeat it.

I had lunch one time with Max Dupree, who is legendary chairman of Herman Miller, he wrote a wonderful book about organizations and culture and all that kind of thing. And I said, What’s your job as chairman of this great company? And he said Ken I have to be like a third grade teacher. I said, what do you mean? He said, I have to say the vision and values over and over and over again, till people get it right, right, right.

Do you like LinkedIn’s endorsements feature?

I’m preparing for product management interviews. I’ll publish some of my case practice here on the blog.

The following is based on a practice question given by Lewis Lin in his book Decode and Conquer.

For this exercise, let’s assume that:
— I’m applying for a senior-level (equivalent to Google’s L6) product management role at a growth-stage startup like Snowflake.
— This is a first-round interview taking place over the phone without video.
— The interviewer is a UX designer. Random gender generator says it’s a “she”.

Interviewer: Now I’d like to give you a case and hear how you work through it.

Me: Sounds good — let’s do it.

What I’m thinking: I have two goals at the outset of any case.

First, I want to understand what type of question I’m getting. Most questions that show up in PM interviews can be classified as one of a small number of types. As soon as I know which type I’m dealing with, I’ll know a lot about how to approach it.

Second, I want to understand the context in which the question is arising. Who am I? Who are you? What’s happened to give rise to this question? If the context is undefined, the problem will be hard to grapple with. If the scenario is clear, I’ll be able to use my actual experience to ground my decisions.

As I listen to the question, this is what I’ll be thinking about.

Interviewer: This is a design critique question. It’s meant to give you a chance to show how you think about design and giving feedback. The question is: what do you think of LinkedIn’s endorsement feature?

What I’m thinking: What’s the question type? She said “design critique”, which is a term of art for designers — it’s a conversation in which a designer presents work in order to receive feedback for the purpose of improving the work. It’s also a common type of question for product managers. I’m pretty sure that’s what this is, but I’ll want to double-check.

What’s the scenario? She didn’t give much context, but knowing that it’s a design critique gives me enough to assume and confirm: rather than asking open-ended questions to get information, I’m going to invent a scenario and ask her if we can assume that that’s what’s going on. This tactic has two benefits: first, it’s fast and efficient. Second, it decreases the chance we’ll wind up in an area that’s unfamiliar to me.

Me: Great. Let me see if I understand the question. You said “design critique”, so I’m assuming that this is a feature someone on the team is working on. I’m imagining that we both work at LinkedIn — let’s say you’re a designer and I’m a PM. And you’re asking me for informal feedback on a feature that you’re working on. Is that a fair assumption?

Interviewer: Sure, let’s go with that.

What I’m thinking: Now that I know what kind of question I’m dealing with, I want to make sure I understand the feature we’re talking about. Even though I’m pretty sure I know what she means by “LinkedIn’s endorsement feature”, I’ll double check. This might turn up some useful information, and if I’ve made the wrong assumption, it could save me from a major confusion.

Me: Great. And let me check whether I understand the feature that we’re talking about. Is this the feature that lives on someone’s profile page and says things like “SEO — 18 people have endorsed Matt for this skill”?

Interviewer: Exactly — that’s the one.

What I’m thinking: Now I have all of the context I need to start answering the question. If I’m not immediately sure where to go next, this would be a good time to ask for a moment to think.

Me: Got it. And the question is: let’s do a design critique on that feature. Do you mind if I take a minute or so to gather my thoughts?

Interviewer: Absolutely — go ahead.

What I’m thinking: So how am I going to approach this? Since we’re dealing with a design problem, I’ll want to make sense of who it’s for and what their needs are. For that, I’ll use the SSUN framework. And since I’m giving feedback on an existing solution, I’ll use the Design Scorecard method to structure my critique. That’s going to be my approach: SSUN and Design Scorecard.

Me: Okay. That’s a huge feature — very central to the product. I’d like to do two things. First, since it’s such a central feature, I’d like to walk through an exercise to get a clear user and use case in mind. Then, I’d propose we make a scorecard with two or three design goals and see how it does against those goals. How does that sound?

Interviewer: Sounds good.

What I’m thinking: I’ll work through the SSUN framework starting with Stakeholders. For each section I’ll first brainstorm a number of options, and then I’ll select one. To keep things moving and to stay attuned to the interviewer, I’ll use the ‘assume and confirm’ tactic at each step.

Me: Okay. To make sense of users and needs, I like to use a framework called SSUN — it stands for Stakeholders, Segments, Use cases, and Needs.

Starting with Stakeholders, let’s brainstorm a few. We’ve got:

  • Users
  • LinkedIn people — employees on various teams, executives, board, etc
  • Other parties on the platform like advertisers

We could brainstorm more, but those seem like the big ones.

As far as which one to focus on here, we’re probably most interested in the users, so I’m going to set aside the others for now, and just focus in on the users. Does that sound good?

Interviewer: Yeah, that sounds good.

Me: Okay. Then on to Segments. Within the user stakeholder group, we can sub-divide into a few segments.

LinkedIn is a career marketplace, so the main user segments are going to be:

  • People who are trying to show off their skills, and
  • People who are trying to find people that have certain skills.

Let’s for now call them “job-seekers” and “employers”.

We could brainstorm more segments, but I think these are the main ones.

Between these, my first thought is that we should focus on the employer side. The reason is that if employers trust and use endorsements, then job-seekers have a strong reason to get and to give endorsements. But if employers are ignoring the feature, then job-seekers are probably going to ignore it too. So in that sense, employers are the linchpin.

Does that sound okay?

Interviewer: Yep, that sounds good.

Me: Great. So next is use cases.

Let’s brainstorm a couple. As an employer, I’ve personally used LinkedIn in two ways:

  • One is to search for people.
  • The other is to evaluate a candidate who’s applied.

Let’s call those “outbound” and “inbound”.

There are definitely more use cases that we could brainstorm, but those are big ones. Let’s go with those two for now.

Of those, the one that seems most important here is the one where the employer is trying to evaluate an inbound candidate.

Shall we focus on that one?

Interviewer: Why does that one seem most important?

Me: Well, I think that one gives us the cleanest view of the need we talked about a minute ago. We identified this relationship where if the employer trusts the feature and uses it, then job-seekers will too. The inbound use case will put that trust front and center. The outbound case would touch on that, but it would also bring in additional things related to the mechanics of search.

Interviewer: Makes sense. Let’s go with that.

Me: Great. Then, the last thing is needs. What goals does the user have in this situation? Let’s brainstorm.

  • The first thing that comes to mind is something like accuracy of the signal, or trust. Basically, if I’m the employer, I want to know if this candidate is going to be successful in this role. I’m looking for information I can rely on.
  • Another thing is speed. I’m looking at lots of candidates, so the faster I can get a signal, the better.

Again we could brainstorm more needs but that feels good for now.

I think the one we want to focus on here is the first one: credibility of the signal. As we said earlier, that one feels like the linchpin.

Does that sound good?

Interviewer: Yeah, that makes sense.

What I’m thinking: Now I want to package all that work up with a neat user story. That’ll help us to remember what we’re working with in the next stage.

Me: Great. So if we put all of that into a user story, we have something like, “As an employer evaluating a candidate for a role, I want credible signals about this person’s skills.”

We could obviously go down different branches of that tree to make stories for the other segments et cetera. But for now let’s just focus on that one.

What I’m thinking: Now I’ve completed the SSUN framework, so I have a clear idea of who we’re designing for and what their problem is. My next goal is to set up the context for a good, disambiguated conversation about design — one that might result in useful feedback, and that will give us lots of footholds for a well-structured discussion.

Me: With that user story in mind, let’s talk about what’s working and not working for this feature.

I’d propose we start by making a scorecard. It’s hard to talk about whether something is successful if you haven’t said what the goals are.

Sound good?

Interviewer: Sure, sounds good.

Me: So to make a scorecard, let’s agree on 2-3 design criteria, and then for each criterion we’ll give three responses:

  • A 1-5 rating (basically a Likert scale rating. This gives us an apples-to-apples comparable.)
  • One or two things that are working well.
  • And one or two things that aren’t working well.

We can pick any design goals we want, but I’ve found it useful to say that good design is useful, easy, and honest. How do those three sound?

Interviewer: Sure, sounds good.

Me: Great. If this was real life I’d suggest that we both make a scorecard and fill it out, and then discuss. But since I’m in the hot seat here I’ll just do one and talk aloud as I go.

Interviewer: Sounds good.

Me: Okay.

Is it useful. I’d give it a 2 out of 5 on this. What’s working well is that it’s super easy to use. What’s not working well is that I don’t trust the information — I think it’s too easy to game.

Next, is it easy. On this one I’d give it a 5 out of 5. What’s working well is that it’s structured and consistent — it’s really easy to pick up at a glance. If I had to stretch and name something that’s not working well, maybe I’d point out that it still requires me to make some kind of inference to figure out how much of an expert it’s saying this person is. What does it mean that 12 people endorsed him for that skill?

Last, is it honest. On this one I’d give it a 2 out of 5. This goes back to what we said before. What’s working well is that it leaves the endorsement up to real people — so it’s as honest as those people are. What’s not working as well is that it projects a level of confidence about these endorsements that I’m not sure is warranted. There’s too much incentive, for too little cost, to game the system.

So it looks like that’s a 9 out of 15. Overall I think this feature has a lot of potential — but the trust issue is the main holdup for me right now.

Interviewer: Awesome! Thanks. Now let’s move on to…

Design Scorecard: a framework for giving feedback

This is a framework to use when you’re looking at a proposed solution to a well-defined design problem, and your goal is to provide feedback so that the solution can be improved. A typical scenario would be a design critique meeting in which the designer in charge of a problem is showing recent work and asking for feedback.

Best practices

Giving effective design feedback is an art. This method will help you with three best practices:

  • Identify design goals. If you don’t have clear goals, it’s very hard to evaluate whether a design is successful. Successful at what?
  • Get clear on the goals before you begin to evaluate the solution. This will make the process feel more objective and the ensuing conversation more productive.
  • Name what is working in addition to what isn’t. On a practical level, this will help to ensure that good stuff doesn’t get forgotten in the next iteration. On an emotional level, this positive reinforcement is like wind in the sail for the people doing the hard work of improving the feature.

First, select your design criteria.

Two or three is typically a good number. Less than two, and you’ll tend to lump everything into one bucket. More than three, and the process will tend to become unwieldy.

Industrial designer Dieter Rams has a famous list of ten design principles that you might choose from. According to Rams, good design is:

  1. Innovative
  2. Useful
  3. Aesthetic
  4. Makes a product understandable
  5. Unobtrusive
  6. Honest
  7. Long-lasting
  8. Thorough down to the last detail
  9. Environmentally friendly
  10. As little design as possible.

Second, evaluate the design.

For each of your agreed-upon criteria, give three responses:

  • A numerical rating on a 1-5 Likert Scale. This forces you to quantify your feedback and gives designers an apples-to-apples comparison.
  • One or two things that are working. This gives the designer some positive reinforcement and ideas for what to build on.
  • One or two things that could be improved. Since the goal is to improve, this is the meat of the critique.

Visualized, your score card will look like this:

CriterionLikert ratingWhat’s workingWhat could be improved
Useful2Gives me an at-a-glance picture of this person’s skillsI’m not sure that I can trust the information
Easy5Fits really easily with pre-existing mental models: one person endorsing another… and many people endorsing one person.I can see how many people endorsed, but I still have to make an inference about what that means. Can we give a takeaway metric?

How to frame a product design problem: the SSUN framework

I’m preparing for product management interviews. Like all PMs I love frameworks, and a fun thing about interview prep is that I get to quickly try out lots of frameworks and even invent new ones where what’s out there isn’t working for me.

A popular framework for product design cases is Lewis Lin’s CIRCLES Method. In my experience it’s been helpful as a starting point, but for a few reasons I’ve found it hard to use.

So I’ve been tinkering. I’m attracted to the idea of more modular frameworks that can be recombined as needed for a variety of cases. SSUN has a narrower scope than CIRCLES, and I’ve been finding it quite useful for its intended scope.

Here’s the idea.

When you’re facing a product design problem (either in an interview or on the job) you need to separate the problem from solutions. First get clear on exactly what the problem is — who you’re solving for, what their needs are, who else is affected and what their needs are, and who you’re ignoring (for now). Get that clear in mind before attempting to create or evaluate solutions. .

SSUN is designed to systematically make sense of problem space. It stands for Stakeholders, Segments, Use cases, Needs.

The way to approach it is from left to right.

If you do the whole thing you’ll form a tree that looks something like this:

But in an interview, you won’t have time to flesh out the whole tree. You’ll need to focus. The way to do that is to make each of the four steps a two-stage process: first brainstorm a list (diverge), then prioritize and select one (converge).

You’ll wind up with a tree that looks more like this:

“Need 1” is both well-defined enough and narrow enough to tackle in the space of a single interview question.

As an example, let’s say you’re faced with a product design prompt like this:

How would you improve LinkedIn’s endorsements feature?

After you’ve confirmed with the interviewer that you know what the endorsements feature is, you can apply the SSUN framework to get clear on who you’re designing for and what their goal is. That might look like this:

Now you’re clear on the problem, and you can move into solutions.