One of the most common pitfalls of product development is too many ideas.
Some investors are dead set on how it will look. Some builders fall in love with a product philosophy. Some want to build exactly what the customer is asking for. And still others think they already know exactly what the result will be like, and they call it their vision.
It is difficult for a product pulled in so many directions to succeed.
You need less ideas anchoring the product, not more. A product must solve a problem. Everything else is a distraction.
The mission is how you want to solve the problem. The mission can remain as abstract as needed, to allow for exploration and iteration.
The difference between the problem and the mission is that when you state your mission, you are taking a clear stance on how the problem is best solved. Providing a pathway, no matter how abstract, is inspiring.
Inspiration is fuel to product development. Many people think building software is a technical, precise process. This is not true. It is emotional – we build, design, and ideate better when our work nourishes us with inspiration.
Before you figure out your mission, you need to obsess over your problem. Here are three simple questions to ask.
Questions for your problem
- Is it really a problem? Some problems appear only when people start looking for or measuring them. Take a critical look at the impact of your problem.
- Who is being impacted by this problem? This a trick question. Identify these people, talk to them and practice some active listening. You need to understand their story. If you have the problem, find someone else. Elevate their story above your own.
- What does it look like when the problem is solved? I recommend timed brainstorming for this question. Keep in mind that there is no right answer. Pay attention to how you react to each answer you come up with.
Once you understand your problem pretty well, you will start getting ideas on how to solve it.
Questions for your mission
- What are common themes in solutions or ideas that make you feel something? I recommend timed brainstorming for this – list out everything you can in a few separate 10 minute sessions.
- Who are you helping? What inspires us even more than solutions and ideas is people. Get specific with who you want to help.
- Are you trying to make it sound good? One of the best mission statements I used was grammatically clunky and a mouthful. An effective mission doesn’t need to sound poetic or balanced. It does need to be accurate and meaningful.
It’s easy to know when a mission is polished – it motivates you. It doesn’t make you question the approach and the motivation doesn’t fade. A mission inspires even during the tiring mundane tasks needed for success.
Sometimes, what inspires you sounds crazy. It’s too wild, too unorthodox. Or like I said before, it doesn’t sound good grammatically. Let marketing redo a version for the public-facing product if needed. For the builders, they’re going to need the truth.
The mission will serve as the test during the entire building process. Every prototype, experiment and idea will be judged against the mission. Does it support the mission? Or does it distract from it?
Which brings me back to the beginning. The CEOs and investors who think they already have the solution don’t understand where solutions come from. Solutions are the result of a process. We can call it the creative process, we can call it experimentation, we can call it “data driven product development.” Whatever you call it, it’s the creation, testing and adjustment of solutions until your problem is solved.
Creativity is a dynamic process that requires boundaries to solve a problem. The mission is that boundary, gently nudging us to be critical of our own work, and energizing us to try again.