IT Mission, Vision and Values Statements

By N. Dean Meyer
Tue, July 26, 2005

CIO — It’s taken at face value that mission-vision-values statements are worth doing. But talk to the rank-and-file and you’ll find that this artful prose and the beautiful posters that carry it have little impact on organizational performance.

They may even have engendered a degree of cynicism. “Is that all our leaders did in that retreat? They’re so out of touch. I bet they were playing golf rather than solving our problems.”

Why do mission-vision-values statements typically fail to do much good? And what does it take to do them right?

The typical mission statement: “To be a world-class supplier of IT products and services that help our clients make gobs of money.”

What kind of reactions from staff might leaders be hoping for? “Gee, boss, I didn’t know that. I guess I’ll stop writing HR policies and get back to systems programming.”

In fact, the typical mission statement does little more than state the obvious: We’re in the IT business. And that alone isn’t going to motivate anybody or tell them anything new. The problem with typical mission statements is that they define the business of the entire organization. Staff don’t relate to them because they’re too ethereal, vague and grandiose. (The one case where organization-level mission statements are worthwhile is to clarify the five roles of corporate IT vis-a-vis decentralized IT groups.)

Effective mission statements define the business of each small group within the organization. They give people a clear understanding of their own purpose. For example, one group may sell applications to clients. Another may sell logical data modeling to applications developers. Still another group may sell infrastructure-based services (like applications hosting) to clients, while a support group sells infrastructure engineering services (like upgrades and tuning) to the internal service operators.

When missions are defined group by group, they focus staff on their respective customers (be they clients or internal) and their products. They build customer focus, entrepreneurship, empowerment, a sense of identity with end results and pride in the value of one’s work. They also enhance teamwork by defining internal customer-supplier relationships.

Group-level mission statements (I call them “domains”) have some side benefits as well. They flush out gaps and overlaps, and help rationalize the structure.

Here’s the problem: Defining group-level domains is hard work.

First, leaders have to learn a common language for talking about domains—a framework of the various lines of business within organizations.

Then, they apply that clear language to their organization chart, deconstructing it into the lines of business under each manager. In this process, they learn to think about what people sell (whether or not money changes hands) rather than what they do.

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