In his 2016 book ‘The Open Organization’, then-Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst tells a tale about an executive who carried a $50 bill whenever they visited other companies. The executive would offer the cash to anyone who could recite their company’s mission statement. Despite years of visits, they never parted with their money.
Mission statements have a mixed reputation. In his book ‘Digital Uncovered’ (edited by this article’s author), Gartner analyst and former IT director Ian Cox writes that while some believe in having a clearly defined mission statement of an organisation’s purpose, others see them as worthless. The worst offenders, full of impenetrable strategic management speak, can be literally meaningless, “something that gets published on the company’s website and used in PR activity but which has little or no relevance to the organisation’s employees or other stakeholders”, he writes.
But a well-crafted mission statement, used correctly, can be an empowering tool for technology leaders and IT departments. It can guide decision-making, work as a prompt or provocation for innovation, motivate staff to play their part in fulfilling an organisation’s purpose, and can even provide the tools for more junior employees to challenge those more senior when the organisation is veering off course.
Lending purpose to technology initiatives
Some organisations have an evident and motivating mission. The aim of blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, for example, is to save the lives of people with blood cancer who need a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. This mission binds the organisation together and provides a sense of purpose to digital and IT teams, said chief digital and information officer Danny Attias at our Tech Monitor Live virtual forum in June 2021. Whatever their role within digital and IT, nobody ever questions “what’s the point; is it worth it?”, he said.
But not all organisations have such a clear purpose, said Debbie Forster, CEO at the Tech Talent Charter, at the event. Nevertheless, offering meaningful work is increasingly important for recruiting and engaging technology talent. “For some organisations it’s easy, while others need to get to know their teams and give an exciting ‘why’,” she said.
Forster warned against a haughty mission statement that is difficult to live up to. “An amazing mission statement which doesn’t actually reflect the day-to-day can haunt you and come back to bite you. It needs to feel authentic, it needs to be grounded in reality, and connected to its people,” she said.
The mark of a great CIO or tech leader is to make sure everyone on that tech team feels connected into [the] mission. Debbie Forster, Tech Talent Charter
The most effective CIOs, CTOs and other technology leaders, she added, bridge the gap between the overall mission of an organisation and its technology initiatives. “You can have a great company mission statement, but the technology team can feel really isolated from that down in the basement,” Forster explained. “The mark of a great CIO or tech leader is to make sure everyone on that tech team feels connected into that mission – and see how their piece of the puzzle is a really important part of the jigsaw. But that doesn’t happen by accident.”
Do technology departments need a mission statement?
In a bid to inspire and galvanise their teams, IT leaders might be tempted to forge their own department-specific missions statements. This is not advisable, says Paul Coby, CIO at FTSE 100 sustainable technologies company Johnson Matthey.
At Johnson Matthey, the world’s biggest manufacturer of auto and industrial catalysts with a “vision for a world that’s cleaner and healthier, for today and for future generations”, the IT function’s purpose is to support the missions of the overall company. “Johnson Matthey is all about sustainability, and we have to stand up for that as the IT function,” Coby says.
With IT-business alignment still a work in progress in many organisations, having to explains to a board why IT needs its own mission would not be an enviable position to be in, says Coby. And if a tech function feels the need to define its own mission statement, he adds, it suggests their organisation is one that is not fit for purpose.