Monday, November 02, 2015

The illusive mission statement

Can you remember the mission statement of your place of work? If you do, then you truly are a special one. When I started my career, mission statements stood out like this carefully stitched up collection of words that emits its grandeur nature to all around us. It didn’t take too much time for that grandeur mission statements to pale into useless set of empty words that doesn’t convey anything objective to anyone in the organization. Except of course for the for handful of people who actually come up with it, because that’s the sort of things they get paid for.

But how do you measure the value of such inspirational one liners? Can they be useful in lining up a team towards a certain goal? It’s well known fact that when you know what you are working towards, chances of you actually getting there significantly increase. So how do you as a leader of a team (Could be your team at work, your family or your sons’ football team) assist your teammates to collectively work towards the same goal, by getting these one liners into their subconscious?

In his book ‘Essentialism’ Greg Mckeown nicely put these kind of statements into a simple diagram of 4 quarters.

The first quarter is not worth discussing about. 

The mission statement you see in 99% of big enterprise falls into the second quarter of ‘Inspirational’ but way too vague to be of any use to anyone. 

Your day to day goals and KPIs could well fall into the fourth quarter where they are very very clear and concrete, but mundane and doesn’t carry a lot of inspiration. True - they have their place, but it’s not when you want to inspire a bunch of people towards a goal.

The third quarter is where the magic is. It’s where you get inspirational yet concrete enough goals. These inspire people as well as giving them a sense of how their everyday tasks can relate to it. One example Mckeown comes up in his book is a mission statement by a government agency in UK.  In a  project to improve the government IT initiative, after the lead of the project came up with a  mission statement that was both inspirational yet resonated with both the project team as well as the citizens in general. It was  “To Get everyone in UK online by 2017”. Clear, concrete yet still inspirational. These sort of statements can be an essential tool for project people to gauge their everyday tasks against the end goal of the project.

Now extending this idea to the software development world, I think any project substantial enough can actually benefit from having such a clear, concise yet inspirational statement. You don’t have to call it a mission statement. But it should be communicated to team members early and clearly, and may be repeatedly. There’s always the risk of ending up with a watered down statement which ends up in the second quarter - which can actually do more harm than having none at all. But it may well be worth the risk, especially if you know the pitfalls as we do now.

When you are stuck with making tough decision that doesn’t have the necessary data behind it to make a highly objective decision, the statement could be your guiding light. I remember once a customer (CEO of a small business having around 20 staff) telling me that the goal of the project was to get rid of 2-3 staff members each year. Not that I call it a truly inspirational goal (specially if you are one of his staff members), but for a shareholder or the external consultant like I was - it could well be. It gave me clear idea about what this customer is after and the feeling that this project could really make a big difference to this company. Those are the kind of feelings and thoughts that needs to be nurtured so that they fuel your team during the tough times.
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