Maturity Models: A Framework for Organizational Improvement

Originally published in the PMI IT & Telecom SIG Newsletter


So What Is Maturity, Anyway?

Much has been written about maturity models as a tool for organizational improvement, yet there persist a number of challenges, half-truths and misunderstandings – about how they work, and what they are used for.

First, let’s start with an understanding of what we mean by maturity. If we look at the Oxford Concise Dictionary for an answer, it suggests “developed fully” and “duly careful and adequate”. The intersection of these two meanings represents perfectly what a project management maturity model should do for an organization: “Define the means by which project management is developed fully enough for projects to be managed adequately and with due care.”

Fundamentally, a maturity model’s purpose is to identify a path forward in being able to attain this goal. Any organization should be able to identify those capabilities and approaches that will allow them to manage successfully and reliably. A maturity model should provide them with the support and guidance necessary to evaluate their performance today and identify the next steps forward in realizing these capabilities.

At their heart, maturity models are means of understanding how organizations approach project management. They are ‘road maps’ that define a path forward from the place we find ourselves today to our desired future – whatever that might be. And they are means of objectively being able to compare the performance of one organization to another.

And Just Where Did They Come From?

Most maturity models owe their existence to the work of the Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. Beginning in the late 1980s, SEI began the development of an assessment framework to evaluate vendors of software solutions for the US Department of Defence. What is generally referred to as the ‘Capability Maturity Model’ (CMM) actually consists of five different maturity models plus an integration framework, which provides a means of evaluating various different aspects of the software production process.

Since the original development of the CMM for software, a number of other organizations have developed maturity frameworks to support different industries and disciplines, not least of which is project management. While it is true that the CMM includes project management as one of the capability areas that it evaluates, it addresses only a subset of the project management discipline. The majority of independent project management maturity models are designed to be on some level transparent with respect to industry and the underlying technical disciplines being managed.

What is common to most maturity frameworks, however, are these features:

  • They describe a number of discrete stages, or levels. Each level represents a progression of overall maturity of the organization. The CMM, and many other models, are comprised of five levels, from an ad hoc, non-repeatable process (level 1) to an exceedingly mature, robust and tightly strictured capability (level 5).
  • They are comprised of a number of capability areas. They explore a set of practices that together collectively define how the overall discipline of project management should be performed.
  • They tend to be organizationally focussed. Because by definition a maturity model describes a continuum from an ad hoc, non-repeatable approach to one of rigid consistency, maturity models typically are focussed on organizations or an organizational unit, rather than individual projects.
  • While not processes or process frameworks, they are prescriptive of the processes that an organization should adopt. Maturity models will not tell you how to accomplish a specific activity or task, but they will define the activities that should be performed at each discrete level.

What’s In It For Me?

The biggest challenge for many organizations is defining how – or why – they should use them. Enough has been written and spoken about them for there to exist a strong undercurrent recommending their adoption or use. As with any management theory that borders on being a fad, however, there is a strong risk that someone somewhere will say ‘we need to get us some of that maturity model stuff’ without a clear understanding of what they are used for, why they have value, or just what the implications of a statement like that really are.

In the final analysis, organizations will utilize maturity models for at least one of the following reasons (and sometimes all four):

  • As a tool to understand their current capabilities. One of the most common applications of maturity models is simply defining where along the continuum of development a particular organization lies. The majority of models have some form of assessment framework associated with them that enables an organization to formally identify where it is along the continuum the model describes, and to identify their current strengths and weaknesses.
  • As a means of defining those practices they wish to adopt to be successful. Because of their very nature, maturity models lend themselves well to establishing what capabilities a company can or should adopt that will have the greatest impact on how they manage today. Once they know their current strengths and weaknesses, they are in a position to be able to articulate where they want to get to as an organization, and the discrete steps that will take them there.
  • As a method of benchmarking their performance against other organizations. So you assessed yourself and you’re a level 2. Just what does that mean, and should you care? Because maturity models provide an objective framework of assessment, they become a means of benchmarking and comparison. Some organizations will assess themselves to use the results as a marketing tool, on the assumption that a higher level of maturity will differentiate them in the marketplace. Others simply want to know where others in their industry stand, in order to be at least competitive.
  • As a framework for supplier assessment and qualification. In fact, this is the original purpose for which the CMM was designed. Just like some large organizations will require their suppliers to be certified to ISO 9000 or some other quality standard, a maturity model can be used as a form of supplier qualification. Research has demonstrated that the most likely predictor of a quality project outcome is the quality of the process. A number of enlightened organizations have teams in place that not only assess their suppliers, but actually provide consulting in order to support their continued improvement, investing in their suppliers in order to improve both productivity and quality.

A Prescription For A Project Management Maturity Model

The problem with several frameworks that claim to be maturity models today is that they have no recognition that what is appropriate for one company may be completely inappropriate for another. These models define a single goal for all organizations, with a single pathway to get there; a pathway that in some instances suspiciously resembles the consulting offerings that their proponents would really like you to buy from them. In essence, they have taken a page from Henry Ford’s marketing handbook for the Model T: “You can have any colour car you like, as long as it’s black.”

So what should an effective maturity model look like, and what will it do for you as a result? The following is a brief summary of what at a minimum they should be able to offer:

  • An objective assessment of your current performance against not just a static model, but against other organizations in your industry or that undertake similar types of projects.
  • A clear recognition of where today’s best-in-class capabilities rank against the maturity model, and what this means in terms of the reliability and performance of projects managed based upon these practices.
  • An understanding of process capabilities that recognizes that all solutions, and all capabilities, are not appropriate for all companies. You should be able to objectively define your goals based upon your own unique priorities and needs, and that reflect the scope, size and types of projects that you manage.
  • An indication of the required next steps to support the attainment of your specific goals. What are the capabilities that will deliver the greatest bang for the buck, and what are the actual implementation steps that are necessary to support their adoption and effective use?
  • An articulation of the return that you should realize as a result of investing in your project management capabilities. By investing in building my project management capabilities, what is the bottom line impact to my company? What is the benefit of good project management, and what is our current performance costing us in lost opportunity?

Defining A Pathway Forward

Clearly, this is a tall order. Few maturity models deliver on even some of these claims. The consequence of not meeting these goals, however, is that project management maturity models run the risk of being the next management fad that fails to produce results.

As project managers, we are constantly trying to improve our abilities and our skills. For many of us, what holds us back today is not our individual abilities, however, but the lack of support and consistency within our organizations. Defined properly and used objectively, project management maturity models provide the objectivity and insight necessary to be able to raise the bar for the entire company. Used incorrectly, and the bar becomes just another stick to beat people over the head with.


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