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Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible

I'm standing six metres above the ground on a one-metre square piece of plywood attached to the top of a telephone pole planted somewhere in the Royal National Park. It's January, and I'm sweating like Microsoft's Bill Gates at a Janet Reno testimonial dinner under this silly helmet (like wearing it will do me any good) while a horsefly the size of a dog practises touch-and-gos on the back of my neck. Peering down while my fellow executives on the blessed ground yell encouragement, I'm expected to leap off this little platform and catch a trapeze-like bar suspended a few feet in front of me. If I miss, my "team-mates" hanging on to the tether rope will stop my fall and lower me slowly and gently to the ground. This metaphor for the workplace would be accurate only if the rope were around my neck.

Trying not to look aggravated with a huge vein popping out of my forehead is tough. I think the involuntary whimpering might also be a give-away. I wouldn't have agreed to climb up here except that my utterly tiresome male ego took over in the presence of the female executives. (Hey, I'm not proud of it!) If I weren't hooked to this rope, I'd jump off this platform and let the HR genius who thought up this nonsense break my fall.

Welcome to the world of artificial team building by crisis fabrication. (Like we don't have enough real crises to go around.) This fun-packed weekend is billed by the perky coordinators in cargo shorts as, among other things, an opportunity for us executives to "win together" in an informal, non-competitive environment. Further, it's supposed to help us break through the facades and "get to know the people behind the titles". How's that for an intellectual air ball? Fourteen type As, who by hook or by crook have made their way to senior management of a Fortune 500 company, will suddenly stop being competitive and behave like normal people. If companies were serious about having their executives drop their pretensions and start playing nice, they'd have them bring their mothers to work, because most of them wouldn't dare behave the way they do at work in front of their mums.

If your company is like mine, it spends a fortune every year on this kind of nonsense. It's part of an attempt to repair all the damage we did to the cultural fabric of our companies during the last 10 or 15 years of re-engineering/downsizing (one of the silliest, most pointless management fads since the directive to issue helmets to kamikazes). Before academics and consultants sprayed perfume on it and declared it re-engineering, there were already thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of targeted, internally driven, cross-functional process improvement projects going on in companies all over the world, successfully reducing costs and improving quality and customer service. Sure, they didn't have complicated "change models", legions of $400-per-hour experts to explain the change models or downsizing hit men cruising the hallways, but they did get results, and they managed to do it without destroying any lives or the soul of the company.

In an era when corporations are unashamed and often hailed by stockholders for laying off thousands of employees, the euphemism "team member" can fall pretty flat, even with the people left standing. Most cases of massive layoffs are a mystery to me in that, as often as not, those exhibiting the most astonishing levels of incompetence are handsomely rewarded while the intellectual assets of the company are being pushed out the door. Instead of applauding senior management's decisive cost-cutting action, why aren't they the first to be fired? An organisation's need for such layoffs should raise a red flag the size of my great uncle's boxer shorts that top management is either incompetent for hiring more people than the company needed or insane for letting productive, valuable workers go for some short-term improvement on the expense line. Couldn't better forecasting of business trends or normal employee turnover and retirements get them where they wanted to go?

And if all these layoffs weren't penance enough, here I am standing on the top of this pole.

Tomorrow's indoor activities include four hours set aside to write a new mission statement for the company. Most of the mission statements I've read, those odes to corporate joy, aren't worth the frame they are mounted in. What makes them so bad is their inability to state the company's reason for being and clarify for their employees what management believes is really important. I sent a note to our meeting coordinator suggesting an easier (cheaper) way to do this. The Internet now has Web sites featuring mission statement generators complete with a standard offering of insufferably trite phrases and seamlessly interchangeable verbs and adverbs to produce truly motivational gems without the bother of lengthy retreats or expensive consultants. My favourite generator can be found at www.dilbertzone.com. Here's a statement I produced last night:

It is our mission to assertively supply unique solutions while continuing to enthusiastically administrate world-class materials and quickly leverage others' value-added benefits so that we may endeavour to competently integrate scalable paradigms for 100 per cent customer satisfaction.

Sadly, this is far better than our current mission statement.

Now, I wouldn't want to leave anyone with the impression that I think mission statements, especially for IT departments, are a bad idea. In fact, a statement that is written in English without the new-age gobbledegook, that is brutally accurate and short enough for everyone to memorise, can actually be pretty motivational or, at the very least, win you some points with your folks for honesty. For instance, how about this for an IT department:

Our mission is to be left alone to create and run systems that our company can use to beat the competition bloody.

Terrific, isn't it? Simple, upbeat, true, with the company's best interests at heart, and there isn't a chance in hell I'll be able to make it fly in tomorrow's session.

I think it's time we held a nationwide search for the best IT department mission statement - a statement that features all of the aforementioned virtues and can be used by any IT department in any industry. Those wishing to participate should send their entries to the e-mail address or Web site at the end of this column in, say, the next 30 days.

The rules, like the statement itself, will be simple. Selection of the best entry will be by a panel of judges consisting of me, my therapist and the next person to walk through my door to ask for a favour. All decisions are final and potentially in error. Mission statements containing world class, value added or paradigm will be immediately disqualified without consideration.

The people who submit the best entries will get the satisfaction of having their mission statements (and bylines) printed in a future issue of CIO. If for some reason you wish to remain anonymous, I will completely understand.

A moist, hot wind moves through the trees in front of me, and the pole begins to sway. As much as I hate to admit it, this exercise may turn out to be more instructive than I gave it credit for. It's a strange team-building exercise that has me up on the pole alone and everybody else on the ground. Nobody's going to climb up here and give me a push or a hand down. As always, I leap on my own.

IT has always been about just that very thing.

Got a great mission statement for IT? Share it with the editor at linda_kennedy@idg.com.au. Let us know if we may publish it, along with your name, title and company. Anonymous, who welcomes mail from corporate survivalists, can be contacted at confidential@cio.com

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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