Developing Capabilities Takes Practice
In my previous blog, “What’s the Measure of a Maturity Model?”, I discussed the idea that a maturity model may be inherently flawed in its focus, which measures the qualitative characteristics of the process against an idealized model of maturity instead of measuring the outcome and value of the process itself. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean we should not try to mature our business processes or apply the guidance that the maturity model provides as a starting point for improving our capabilities.
Why Should We Practice?
Consistent capability delivery depends on the quality of the fundamental practices we incorporate into the process. In many cases, we tend to trust people to know their role in process execution and assume that a specific methodology will be used. As a result, many processes are defined in terms of who and what but less often in terms of how a process should be executed. It’s very true that a particular capability could be delivered in multiple ways and with equally effective but differing methodologies. Still, it’s also true that such variation is likely to have a heavy impact on the consistency of the process.
How we do things as an organization matters greatly in terms of our client experience; if we simply assign resources to a task without governing our practices we’re very likely to give our customers widely differing experiences that are deeply dependent on the specific perspective and capability of the resource that we assign. Instead of providing a customer experience that feels cohesive and consistent between engagements, we will deliver unpredictable and unfamiliar experiences. Further, our capabilities will be equally inconsistent in the outcome; each engagement will have its own challenges, and each assigned resource will bring individual strengths and weaknesses to the table.
How Should We Practice?
Here are two excellent reasons to create a proper methodology for practice development in an organization. Our approach to maturity dictates that we should iterate over a process to continuously improve the value and consistency of our outcomes, and our customer experience will benefit at the same time, providing a consistent franchise experience that sets and meets their expectations. Creating this consistency of outcome is all about how we practice and employ techniques.
In the same way that practicing technique improves our personal capability in any skill, such as sport or music, by building muscle memory, practicing our business technique improves our capability as an organization and brings consistency to the result by building a similar sort of memory and repeatability into the process. Only through consistent shared practice can we develop iterative improvement in our group-based capabilities. In the same way that inconsistent practice of skill will result in a lack of progress in our personal development, inconsistent practice of our business techniques will result in a lack of progress and maturity in the development of our process, leading to unpredictable outcomes between executions.
What Should We Practice?
What sorts of things should we practice to develop and mature our capability? We must adopt a similar approach to our personal skill development and focus on the fundamentals. This may mean that we need to step back from tackling our customer’s requirements directly and think instead about applying fundamental business practices such as strategy, analytics, planning, resourcing, risk management, automation, communication, measurement, and prioritization. No matter what the target outcome and capability is being targeted, the process will invariably be composed of such elements.
Why does this matter? Well, we could say that our business process measures its outcome in terms of some success criteria. However, if we don’t agree on a consistent set of criteria and a consistent approach to measuring the outcome, our measured result may vary widely between executions. We could say that we analyze our requirements and prioritize our activities to maximize our alignment with objectives and return on investment. Still, without a consistent method of analysis or criteria against which to evaluate our priorities, again, we will end up with widely varying results that depend more on who executed the process than which process was executed.
Focusing on Fundamentals…
It’s important to note that by abstracting our processes back to fundamental components and creating consistency at this level of our practice, we actually end up with more consistency across our catalog of capabilities than if we had tried to independently mature each capability in terms of its end-to-end process. This translates into an increased ability to meet diverse customer requirements within a particular process or capability, for example, to incorporate customer-specific technical requirements into a solution design project or align the communication plan with customer standards and tools.
To use the analogy of music practice, when we master our scales and arpeggios, we can consistently adapt them to any song we wish to play. New songs become much easier to learn and play consistently. In the same way, if we focus on developing and consistently applying practices such as continuous integration and unit testing across all of our deployment projects, then all of those projects will benefit from the repetition and maturity of these patterns, including lessons learned and enhancements incorporated into the underlying practice from other projects.
…Improves All of Our Capabilities
Ultimately, following this process of fundamental skill development, we end up with processes that can independently absorb the benefits of iterative improvement to their component practices. The result is that our capabilities mature en masse instead of developing independently of each other. The focus on practice fundamentals translates into increasingly accurate scoping, habitually high-value outcomes, and a high organizational velocity, including the ability to quickly absorb new capabilities and achieve rapid growth. We can apply our fundamental skills to a wide range of processes and capabilities, with the expectation that our practice of those fundamental skills will result in muscle memory that pays dividends in terms of consistency across our entire portfolio of capabilities.