When I teach IT strategy, one of the first things I emphasize on, is that the mission is a more abstract, long term concept, and anything that changes the mission with changes to the market, competitors, collaborators, and other forces is probably not the mission to begin with. The mission is supposed to be like a lighthouse, guiding the ship through troubled waters and fog. Imagine your lighthouse changing coordinates every time the seas got rough! Your mission needs to be stable, so that you can hope to achieve it! If your “mission” changes that often, it ain’t mission; it’s just operational fidgeting. You’d be surprised how often organizations have trouble getting the operational mixed up with the strategic. Don’t believe me? Check out what Prof. Michael Porter has to say!
I use a simple tool in my class to describe driving towards a strategic goal, and how one can get derailed. The Mission and Core Competencies (MCC) matrix was published in the mid-nineties. It’s a comparison between the mission and core competencies of an organization. For simplicity’s sake, the author has divided the “mission” and “core competencies” scales into poor and good. This results in a 2×2 matrix, giving us four possible places we can be. We should be in a drive position, where the fit with both mission and core competencies is good. However, that’s not always the case. The organization can be in a drain, dilution, or distraction quadrant. While MCC was created as a tool for strategic management in organizations, it’s also a good approach for making decisions about everyday situations.
For instance, if the project at hand is a good fit with the mission, but we lack the competencies to get the job done, it becomes a dilution. In such a case, we usually hire new talent to improve competencies (long-term), or we outsource to an external agency. Working with open source software gives outsourcing a whole new meaning. Think about how much of the work at OLPC is “outsourced” (in a sense) to Sugarlabs, where volunteers build, test, debug and produce software for all the XO laptops worldwide. It’s a fascinating mechanism, but more on that some other time.
Of course, nobody wants to be in the drain quadrant. It’s a whole lot of fiddling and fidgeting, usually fuelled by hubris and/or groupthink. Once again, open source plays interesting angles here. Because open source encourages tinkering, (scratch an itch), getting focus can be hard, and hobbyist tinkering can do more harm than good, especially for getting the project out of the drain box. The early stages of XSCE comes to mind, when I think of this quadrant. Things have gotten much better, but we aren’t drive‘ing yet.
If the competencies are there, but it does not fulfil the mission, many organizations will take on the project to earn revenue (with a promise/commitment of doing so short term, until things get better), and then they slide down to modifying their mission to make it all fit. The dreaded distraction quadrant! This works short-term, but the trouble with this approach is that you end up solving the wrong problem. Lowering the bar (or raising it, if you are into limbo) makes it easier to “succeed”, but you may end up cheering the wrong kind of success.
Perhaps it’s simpler to think of it as a tale my grandmother used to tell us (aka streetlight effect). In short:
Once upon a time, a man got home late at night, and lost his keys while trying to open the door. It was quite dark there. So, he went searching for the keys by the lamp post. When asked why, he said “I know I lost my keys by the door, but the light is better here.”
For us, in the Bhagmalpur project, the mission is for the children to learn. The ways are via critical thinking and problem-solving, hence the focus on Sugar. The computers double up as information delivery channels, hence our focus on offline servers and Internet access. That’s a plus, but it’s more of a consequence. If the critical thinking and problem solving parts go well, the community will be better at using the newly-acquired information to make better, informed decisions. Thus far, Sugar and XO laptops have been the most viable for us. Therefore, that’s the way forward. We are not really grounded/concerned directly about cheap tablets or Android, or next newfangled thingamajig, or even about “what Santa may bring for Christmas”. What we are concerned with, is that the upcoming generation learn to solve their problems locally and thrive.
Searching for these keys in the dark is going to be very difficult, but unless we get the correct set of keys, we can’t really open the door!
Onward and upward into 2014.