Make Your Mission Possible

Copyright 2008 Johanna Rothman, originally published in Better Software

Janice strode down the hall and made a sharp right at a cubicle decorated with dragons. “Hey, Steve, got a minute? I need your help with a problem.”

“Janice, the last time you asked me for my help, I got stuck in that installation mess. I appreciate being one of your team leads, but I get worried when you ask for help with problems. What’s going on now?”

“We have a problem with customizations for Big Customer2. The good news is that we do these customizations, right?” Steve nodded. “But the bad news is that we have to port them from release to release.”

“We did that last month.”

“Well, you did. Then tech support decided to add the extra piece of the reports we discussed last month.”

“What? Why did they do that? Not to this product-they can’t.”

“Well, Big Customer2 paid us a pile of money for not too much work. And that’s where you come in. I need you to add that new report to the point release you’re working on now.”

“How much money? I bet tech support has no idea how much this piece of the report will cost us to support or how much time it will take away from our next release. We can’t just think of this report as a pile of money; it’s a headache. We were never going to put that functionality into the product. We were going to put it in the new reporting system, remember? Now we’re going to have to support that report forever. Big Customer2 is never going to want to change.”

Steve put his head in his hands. Finally, he looked up and said, “OK. I’ll do it. But on one condition: We decide what we’re doing as a development group once and for all. You asked me to be a team lead, right?” Janice nodded. “Well, I don’t know what I’m leading. Let’s decide what our mission is-whether it’s to support any crazy thing our customers want, or make products, or support installations, or what. Let’s define our mission and write our mission statement. Then we’ll have a basis on which to say no to new work if it doesn’t support our mission. From now on, we will have a reason for the work.”

A week later, Steve and Janice met to develop their mission. “Steve, I invited Chris so we have all you technical leads in one room. Since you prompted me to think about the mission for our group, I decided to ask my boss for his mission, as well. He doesn’t have one yet, so we may have to revise ours later. But at least we’ll know where we’re going.”

Janice placed two lists on the table. “Here’s all the work we’re doing in development. One list is a month-by-month portfolio of all of our projects and all the extra things I’m supposed to do as a manager. This other list is the work other people would like us to do that we’re not doing. Now, do you two have work you’d like to be doing that’s not on this list?”

Chris and Steve nodded.

Janice handed them a stack of index cards and said, “OK, let’s write all the work we’re doing and the work we’d like to be doing, one project to a card. We’ll organize them on the table into these buckets: work that seems to make sense for our group; work that needs to get done, but maybe not by us; and work that we are doing but we don’t understand why.”

After a few minutes, Janice, Chris, and Steve had their cards sorted. Chris said, “Wait a minute. Why are we looking at the work? Why don’t we decide on our mission first and then manage the work?”

“Good question,” Janice said. “Since my manager doesn’t know his mission, yet, I’m not sure we can finalize ours beyond the work we do. Clearly someone in the company values our work, so we have to make sure we continue to do work the company values but that also makes sense for us to do. By starting with an analysis of our work, we’ll have a basis for our decisions-especially when we start looking at the work we’d like to be doing that we never have time to start.”

Janice, Chris, and Steve discussed their work, bucket by bucket, starting with work it made sense for them to do.

Next, they discussed the work that they thought the company needed to have done-but not necessarily by them-and put a sticky on the card with the name of the group that they thought should do the work.

Finally, the trio discussed the work they didn’t understand why they were doing. Janice wrote a sticky with the name of the person she was going to talk to about those projects.

“Now that we understand our work and the reasons why we have it, let’s discuss our mission. A good mission explains what we do and don’t do. It establishes the boundaries of our work and explains how our development group fits into the organization. A great mission will provide reasonable and measurable objectives for our work so other groups can see what we are responsible for-and not responsible for,” Janice explained.

“Oh, so I don’t have to add something impossible such as, ‘Respond to all requests in twenty-four-hours’?” Chris asked.

“No, that’s how we got into trouble with Big Customer1 last quarter, remember?” Steve said.

“You know, if we were a custom development group, responding to all requests in twenty-four hours might make sense. But we’re not!” Janice said. “Let’s develop a mission that makes sense for us, and I’ll talk it over with my boss. I’ll convince him our mission is on target.” Janice grinned. “But if he doesn’t agree, at least I’ll understand what he wants us to do differently.”

The three of them worked for a while, until they were satisfied. Janice said, “Read the mission out loud, Steve so we can hear it.”

“We will enable our customers to organize and see their data by creating products that our company can sell. We will continue to extend each product and family of products so the products provide a cost-effective solution to our customers’ needs.”

“OK, with this emphasis on products and product families, as well as cost-effectiveness, I now have ammunition to say no to more of these customizations,” Janice said. “Maybe my boss will think about his mission instead of just saying yes to everything that he sees. But if not, we can use our mission to set some boundaries for what we do and what the company does. Thanks, guys.”

Story Lines

  1. Without a mission, you can’t define the work that belongs in your group and the work that doesn’t belong.
  2. A mission should say what you will do and help you explain what you won’t do.
  3. Beware of missions that promise immediate response or continuous response to the organization unless you do have a 24/7/365 organization and the staff to support that service level.
  4. It’s easier if your manager has a mission, but if your manager doesn’t, start with the work you do (and want to do) to generate your mission. Be ready to revise your mission when your manager develops his.


I thank Dwayne Phillips and Esther Derby for their review.

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