IT mission, vision and values statements: Foundations for success

Compelling vision, mission, and value statements provide brief but powerful descriptions of an enterprise’s purpose and method of operating.

IT mission, vision and values statements: Foundations for success
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Compelling vision, mission and value statements are an anchor for the enterprise and for IT. They help create a powerful picture of the future by increasing clarity of purpose, organizational effectiveness, and employee motivation. All too often, organizations fail to craft effective vision, mission and values statements to the detriment of organizational drive, direction and results.

Five to ten years ago many vision, mission and value statements fell prey to platitudes and generalities. Orlando airport’s 2011 mission, “Provide safe, secure, customer friendly, affordable transportation services and facilities that promote the Orlando Experience,” could have applied to virtually any airport, shipping port or rail station by removing the city name.

In the past few years, most enterprises whose mission or vision statements appeared on a “worst list” removed the offending statements and migrated to “About” statements to describe aspirations, operating approach, history, etc., on their websites. These convey useful information, but are not subjected to the same scrutiny as a vision or mission statement and they seldom establish meaningful organizational culture in the way that well-crafted vision, mission and value statements do.

Following is a guide on how to craft effective vision, mission and value statements to the benefit of organizational results.

Vision, mission and value statements explained

The difference between a vision statement and a mission statement can be confusing. Some enterprise vision statements are actually missions and vice versa.

A good vision paints a picture of a desired future state. It appeals to the heart inspiring employees, customers, and other stakeholders to do their best. A good vision rarely changes, remaining constant through different leaders, economic circumstances, and challenges.

A mission describes how the enterprise will get to the desired future state. It appeals to the head and is an anchor against which departments and programs can be measured to determine how well they support the enterprise. Missions evolve to reflect new challenges as intermediate goals are attained.

The Alzheimer’s Association provides a good example of the distinction. Their vision, “A world without Alzheimer's" attracts everyone who has watched a loved one slip away. Their mission, “To eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected, and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health,” describes specific activities the Association undertakes or supports, to help achieve their vision.

Value statements describe the principles, beliefs and operating philosophy that shape culture. Strong values serve as a moral compass, guiding interactions among employees and providing a standard against which behaviors can be assessed.

Passion, teamwork, integrity, diversity and quality are found in many enterprise value statements. Asana, a producer of project management software, has moved beyond commonly used values to create a collaborative and mindful culture based on the carefully crafted values below:

  • Focus on our mission
  • Embrace mindfulness and equanimity
  • Practice balance in all things, including balance
  • Clarify who’s doing what by when, how, and why
  • Take and give full responsibility
  • Be real with yourself and others
  • Create and play together

Asana supports the culture with a series of articles on teamwork, coaching, authority, communications, etc., which describe how they work together. They believe that their values guide employee actions and further their mission.

Characteristics of effective vision, mission and value statements

An effective vision or mission statement should accomplish several things:

Inspire: President Kennedy established the space program with one sentence: "This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” NASA adopted this as its mission statement for the Apollo project.

Differentiate market position: Tesla’s mission, "to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” stakes out unique market niches in transportation and clean energy.

Pull the corporation into the future: When Bill Gates and Paul Allen created Microsoft their dream was "a computer on every desk and in every home.” In1985, that was a brash, some would say audacious target, but eventually it became an excellent (and prophetic) vision for the young company.

Enable trade-offs: In 1980, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) was close to bankruptcy. Its new vision, "To become the best airline in the world for the frequent business traveler" provided the leverage to eliminate everything, including the tourist travel department, not directly supporting business travelers. Other airlines acquired larger, more fuel-efficient planes, reducing the number of flights they could offer. SAS met the business travelers’ need for more flight choice by continuing to use smaller DC-9s. In 1983, SAS was named "Airline of the Year"; Fortune magazine declared it the "best airline for business travelers." Even better, it became highly profitable.

Guide daily behavior: The Ritz-Carlton credo states that “The Ritz-Carlton is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.” Front line employees are authorized to spend up to $2,000 per incident to solve customer problems without supervisory permission. Stories abound about Ritz-Carlton staff giving guests coats, ties, shoes and other clothing. The hotel won two Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Awards by focusing on customer service.

Help recruiting: Engaging visions, missions, and values (VMV) attract people who support the core purpose or who embrace the culture. Non-profits, in particular, attract many employees who believe in the organization’s goals. Employees, particularly millennials, are more likely to remain in a position for longer periods of time when there is a strong sense of purpose.

How to craft effective vision, mission, and values statements

Well-crafted VMV statements share the following characteristics. They are:

Brief: The best are so short and to the point they can be printed on the back of a business card. Any required clarifying information can be offered elsewhere.

Memorable: Statements should be short enough to remember, without sacrificing the substance. Googles’ eleven words: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” is very clear. Even if a customer or competitor does not remember the exact statement, the individual will probably remember key elements.

Unique: It’s easy to write generic statements that could apply to any enterprise in the same industry. Good VMV statements distinguish the enterprise from competitors.

Realistic: While VMV statements should be aspirational, employees need to believe that at least some parts can be achieved. Staff may be demotivated by missions or values that are too far from the present.

Current: Although VMVs should not change regularly, they need to be reexamined periodically as the enterprise achieves goals and as competitors, regulation, and technological breakthroughs cause priorities to shift.

Resistance to new vision, mission or value statements

Everybody likes change… for other people. New VMV statements can generate resistance when the staff realizes that daily operations will change. In addition to the change resistance reasons discussed in CIO.com’s tutorial on organization change management, a new VMV statement can raise other concerns.

The effort can be viewed as a waste of time, particularly when VMV statements are created during multi-day meetings by senior executives. Highly technical individuals rarely appreciate that the give and take required to settle on short, precise statements helps executives understand each other’s challenges and improves working relationships.

Low visibility can minimize this concern. Two, maybe three thought leaders can draft the statements and seek informal consensus from other stakeholders. Frequently, new VMV statements emerge with little drama and without requiring the CEO to create the entire package.

If employees believe the change is too great, they may worry that enterprise ideals will go out the window when management is faced with an angry customer or a major deadline.

Small but visible changes help convince employees that management is serious about the new VMVs. One enterprise’s new value statements included personal accountability. It was reinforced with new meeting management rules requiring that meeting objectives and background material be distributed in advance and that action items be distributed within 48 hours. Meeting organizers who failed to follow the new requirements were reprimanded politely, but publically.

Linking enterprise and IT vision, mission and values

It can be difficult to create compelling IT VMVs statements that directly support the enterprise VMVs while clearly delineating IT’s role. It is easy to write banal statements that don’t describe IT efforts.  

One IT department created a powerful IT mission, when the U.S. retailer decided on a major global expansion. IT’s mission “Deliver IT services globally” succinctly described the essence of the company transformation. "Deliver" acknowledged the shift from in-house development and operations to a mixture of internal and outsourced IT. "IT services" described the migration from IT applications supporting store operations to a broad array of IT-enabled tools and services throughout the enterprise. "Globally" highlighted availability of IT services outside the U.S.

Creating an IT VMV in the absence of the enterprise VMV can be quite difficult since neither the IT staff nor the executives are likely to see the merits of IT vision, mission, or value statements. If you decide to pursue the effort, develop strawman versions of the enterprise VMV statements as a way to limit the scope of the IT VMV. Keep the team small and the effort low key. If compelling statements emerge, solicit feedback from the rest of the IT leadership team until consensus emerges. If no compelling ideas appear for several months, cancel the effort.

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