Mission Critical Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Does

Mission Critical Doesn't Mean What You Think it Does

GUEST POST from Geoffrey A. Moore

God bless NASA for giving us the phrase “mission critical,” and God bless The Princess Bride for teaching us that not all words mean what we think they do.

In the case of mission-critical, specifically, the term has two distinct connotations, each of which leads to a distinctively different management priority.

1. Must achieve this outcome to succeed. This is what most people first think of when they hear the phrase. We will put a man on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade. Anything that is on the critical path to that objective is mission critical.

2. Must not fall below this standard or we will be disqualified. This refers to a host of other things that, if not done properly, could have catastrophic consequences for the mission. Securing adequate funding, managing finances carefully, acquiring and maintaining proper facilities, and complying with pertinent regulations all come under this heading. You get no prize for doing any of these things right, but there can be a whopping penalty for getting them wrong.

When mission-critical equates to achieving success, the goal is to allocate the maximum amount of resources to the activity in question because it is the source of highest return. Indeed, it is your whole reason to be. Often in this situation there is no fixed upper boundary as to how much success can be achieved, so more is always going to be better here. That is why managers seeking budget for their efforts like to position them as mission-critical.

When mission-critical equates to disqualification risk, however, this approach backfires. That’s because there is a natural human tendency in risk-bearing situations to over-allocate resources as a hedge against what potentially could be a catastrophic failure. No one wants to get blamed for anything like this. Thus there is almost always an unproductive use of resources associated with these workloads and processes.

The proper goal for managing disqualification risk is to deploy the least amount of resources needed to achieve an acceptable level of risk, understanding that risk itself can never be eliminated entirely. To do this requires investing both in governance systems and in cultural discipline—the better the systems, the more disciplined the culture, the fewer the resources will be required.

Entrepreneurial cultures who grew up with the mantra “We don’t need no stinkin’ systems” will find it hard to execute this playbook, but until they do, they will be unable to scale. Conversely, risk-averse cultures who are unwilling to even approach the efficient frontier of risk will also fail here as well. You cannot compete effectively if a host of your best players are tied up on the sidelines. In short, there is no substitute for getting disqualification risk right, and successful organizations will testify this is always a work in progress.

So the next time you hear the word mission-critical, perk your ears up and apply this filter. Whatever is under discussion, for sure you are going to want to do this thing right. But before that, make sure you are doing the right thing.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

Image Credit: Pixabay

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One thought on “Mission Critical Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Does

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Human-Centered Change & Innovation Articles of June 2023 | Human-Centered Change and Innovation

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