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What Is the Mission of Your Project?

20/03/2009

Goal-matsukawa1971-32851645
In my previous blog post I claimed that software projects have no intrinsic goals. They simply exist. The stakeholders in a project can have lots of different goals, but a software project is more than just the sum of its parts. Still, that doesn't mean you can't give a project an extrinsic goal. You can. In fact, I think you should!

Software projects are like a military operation. As a commander (manager) you have to take care of the movements of your troops, or else your soldiers will be crawling all over the place. That's the whole point of giving a software project a goal: you give self-organization a proper direction, without getting on your knees and building all the roads yourself.

In the book Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about the concept of Commander's Intent:

Commander's Intent is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan's goal, the desired end-state of an operation. [...] Commander's Intent manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leaders.

Answers.com defines it like this:

[Commander's Intent is] a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired end state that serves as the initial impetus for the planning process.

The commander specifies the goal, and then he allows self-organization to take over, because teams are smart enough to figure out for themselves how to arrive where they are needed. In organizations the equivalent of Commander's Intent is the vision statement and the mission statement. The vision and the mission are two different but closely related ways of specifying goal and purpose. Here are the definitions from Wikipedia:

  • A Mission statement tells you the fundamental purpose of the organization. It concentrates on the present. It defines the customer and the critical processes. It informs you of the desired level of performance.
  • A Vision statement outlines what the organization wants to be. It concentrates on the future [goal]. It is a source of inspiration. It provides clear decision-making criteria.

Looking back at the earlier definitions for Commander's Intent it becomes clear that Commander's Intent is used to specify both purpose and goal, mission and vision. It explains the purpose of the operation, and the goal it wants to achieve. This is understandable, as handing out separate mission statements and vision statements for the same operation is probably just confusing for everyone. Take a look at the mission page of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, for example. Both the words vision and mission are used to convey just one idea:

"…to empower the children of developing countries to learn by providing one connected laptop to every school-age child".

Purpose and goal… Mission and a vision…

Unfortunately, to make matters even more confusing, I advise managers of software projects not to use the term "vision statement". You see, a vision statement is often already written by one of the stakeholders. This is what the Scrum Alliance says:

The Product Owner starts the meeting by introducing the product vision statement, product road map, or epic that is driving the exercise.

Aha! So the Product Owner introduces a vision statement! But what about the other stakeholders in the project? Are they not allowed to present their own vision statements too? Well, in my opinion they are. Each stakeholder has a goal, and they can plaster their vision statements all over the office floor as far as I'm concerned. But, as I explained in my previous post, it does not mean that the Product Owner (or any other stakeholder) gets to say what the purpose of the software project itself is. The project is a system with emergent properties. It is more than just the sum of the stakeholders. It would be the same terrible mistake as shareholders trying to impose their "shareholder value" goal on entire organizations.

So, in order to prevent confusion with multiple vision statements from various stakeholders floating around the office, I suggest that, as a manager, you use the term "mission statement" to specify the purpose of your software projects. But… how?

Well, let us first review some bad examples of company mission statements:

"FedEx is committed to our People-Service-Profit Philosophy. We will produce outstanding financial returns by providing totally reliable, competitively superior, global, air-ground transportation of high-priority goods and documents that require rapid, time-certain delivery." (Federal Express)

"As a company, and as individuals, we value integrity, honesty, openness, personal excellence, constructive self-criticism, continual self-improvement, and mutual respect. We are committed to our customers and partners and have a passion for technology. We take on big challenges, and pride ourselves on seeing them through. We hold ourselves accountable to our customers, shareholders, partners, and employees by honoring our commitments, providing results, and striving for the highest quality." (Microsoft)

Yuck…

Commander-aheram-2330781728

The whole idea of Commander's Intent, or a mission statement, is that it is A) concise, B) plain, C) inspiring, D) useful, and E) memorable. If people cannot learn your mission statement by head, then how are you directing them in their every day decisions? Think of a Microsoft employee who has to make a quick decision between either releasing something useless on-time, versus releasing something useful too late. Then what can she do? Her product is out-of-date before she has finished digging up and reading such a mission statement.

Here are some good examples of company mission statements:

"To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same thing as rich people." (Wal-Mart)

"Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." (Google)

Imagine a Google employee who needs to make a similar quick decision. What does he do? Well, I don't know for sure. But I believe this mission statement can certainly help him decide much quicker. Google's mission statement is concise, plain, inspiring, useful, and memorable. Sure, it doesn't answer all questions, and it's not supposed to. But it gives people a clear direction, so they can answer questions for themselves.

And now I'm giving all of you a task…

I want you to be the commander (manager) of your organization and to write the mission statement for the team that's working on your most important project. Your mission statement must be concise, plain, inspiring, useful, and memorable. And most important: it should not represent the goal/vision of just one stakeholder! Instead, it should transcend all individual goals. And if you have many projects in your organization, then it is very well possible to give all your projects the same mission. It's like giving all your troops the order to reach the same goal. A good mission statement will guide your people in making decisions every day. Think like a commander. Think Google.

Your mission statement describes the purpose of your project(s). Why do they exist?

Add your mission statement to the comments section and I will publish the best ones (with credits) in the book I'm writing.

I will now try to devise my own mission statement. Let's inspire each other!

(pictures by matsukawa1971 and Jayel Aheram)

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This article is written by on in Management & Leadership. Jurgen Appelo is at Happy Melly. Connect with Jurgen Appelo on .

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  • http://blog.dhananjaynene.com Dhananjay Nene

    Make Money. Probably the least impressive answer, but also likely to be the most dominant unspoken answer.

  • Gaston Rommens

    Hi Jurgen,
    Great post.
    I think that the presentation by Guy Kawasaki from 2006 sums it up perfectly:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3755718939216161559

  • http://ryan.kohn.ca Ryan Kohn

    A good rule of thumb for make a mission statement: make it the one question your CEO is going to ask when you bring forward your idea.
    And in most cases, what Dhananjay Nene said is probably it.

  • Peter

    Mission, vision, strategy, goal, objective, … are so often (conf)used with different meaning. It is impossible even to state these are misused, as it is hard to find the “right” or “correct” meaning: it would only lead to another semantic discussion. By the way, wasn’t it the purpose to avoid misunderstanding? Amazing: these terms are explained differently by Prince2, PMI, in Outcome mapping and planning (one of my initial project mgt trainings) and appearantly it is also explained differently by Wikipedia. Most likely it is different for every person assuming project leadership.
    That is while, indeed as you state, it is so important to give focus to your self organizing team. And to keep having focus yourself! What I didn’t find back in this article is that you may do it at different levels in a project: on project level, release level, sprint level (eg if you use Scrum), and not to forget: to give focus on every user story. How else will it be sure to develop the right solution, and only that one?
    My way of dealing with it?
    - I avoid the word “vision” or “mission”. Instead I try to use the words everyone understands: “goal”, the “why”, the “how”, the “what”. I might also use “the objective” that I mix up with the “goal” or “purpose”. The “why” is a special one: once the answer is found, you may ask it again to find a superior motivation, and so over and over. Another reason is that the “why” for one person is not as valuable than for another one. That is most likely what you mentioned in the stakeholders
    - I recognize very much your need to externalize the goal of any project, I even try to do it for every user story. Using the word “solution” as much as possible, instead of using “software” or “application” helps here triggering another mind set. At the same time it avoids the assumption that software is the only answer to any questions, requirement or user story.
    Thanks, Jurgen!

  • http://www.yusufarslan.net Yusuf

    Einstein has already solved this problem for us :)
    http://litemind.com/problem-definition/
    Einstein said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.
    10 Strategies to define a problem:
    1. Rephrase the Problem
    2. Expose and Challenge Assumptions
    3. Chunk Up
    4. Chunk Down
    5. Find Multiple Perspectives
    6. Use Effective Language Constructs
    7. Make It Engaging
    8. Reverse the Problem
    9. Gather Facts
    10. Problem-Solve Your Problem Statement
    If you have found your problem, (which is the most difficult part according Einstein) then it must be easy to define a useful mission.