How I think about: Organisational Maturity
This is the third post in my ‘How I think about…’ series. In this article I hope to illustrate what the concept of organisation maturity means to me, why it matters, what antipatterns I often observe and how growing maturity translates into superior business outcomes.
In the business (and especially IT) context, over the last 20 years a lot has been written on the topic of maturity. CMMI was (Anyone still using it?) one of the ‘foundational’ maturity models many organisations adopted during the 1990s. Many agile ‘frameworks’ these days come with some kind of maturity model (including Kanban which, as a community, resisted the idea of a maturity model for a long time) and, of course, there’s a myriad of de-facto proprietary (agile) maturity frameworks and models developed by various organisations, consulting firms and communities. Some are helpful, some are useless, some are effectively harmful.
This post is not about any specific model or framework, or a specific implementation of a given maturity model, its pros and cons. Instead, I will focus on the concept of maturity as such (more precisely growing maturity) and how the way maturity growth is approached influences the overall outcomes at a team and organisational level. Going forward, I will use the term maturity as a generic term for both team and organisational maturity.
What is maturity?
There are, of course, many ways how one can define and think about maturity. In the context of this article I define maturity as follows:
Organisational maturity is a measure of organisation’s ability to attain complex objectives optimally.
I appreciate this may not be how you think about maturity but please bear with me. The key word in this definition is optimally. And by achieving objectives optimally I mean achieving them in the best possible way which integrates a range of organisational priorities and considerations both in the short- and the long-term. There are naturally many aspects that matter, but a couple of examples to bring this to life — an organisation that launches a new product in a record time, but with a series of major security flaws is not mature. Similarly, an organisation whose overly rigid controls and processes prevent it from innovating and create customer and business value at pace is not very mature either.
We can see that, on this definition, maturity requires holistic thinking. And that’s because achieving outcomes optimally requires a good understanding of what factors influence success, what matters to us, what is the hierarchy of these factors, which of them are specific to us and which pertain to the world around us and how we intend to balance them when we are facing tough choices. Only with this in mind, we can start thinking about how we ought to structure our maturity approach, what dimensions it should have, what qualities and factors we optimise for and how this relates to our understanding of success. At this point, using one of the existing models is a good way to stimulate the conversation about all these aspects and examine them from different perspective but be wary on converging on a specific model/framework too soon.
Finally, we ought to recognise that the term (organisational) maturity integrates a range of areas some of which are independent while others are deeply intertwined. Therefore, when we speak about maturity, I really refer to a collection of components including technical (software engineering, architecture etc) maturity, operational maturity, product delivery maturity, financial, governance and process maturity etc.
Crucial point to note — please note that ‘mature’ on my definition does not automatically imply comprehensive, complex, or all-encompassing. Instead, being mature really refers to the overall level of a set of organisational capabilities and as needed (their fitness for purpose) to succeed in the relevant context and market.
Organisational vs. Team Maturity
Organisations usually contain a set of smaller sub-units. Some sub-units can be fairly large (division, department), others can be smaller (team) and others smaller still (individual). When thinking about maturity, we need to carefully consider the remit of our efforts and understand which elements are best tackled at team-level and which are really a departmental or organisational concern. Failing to recognise this difference leads to one or more of the antipatterns listed later.
Why maturity matters
So why is maturity relevant? Why should we really care? And to what extent is focusing on growing maturity justified? A lot of the answers are, of course, related to what we care about. Your approach to growing maturity is, at its heart, about your approach to continuous improvement. Increasing maturity is about investing in continuous improvement across (typically) several dimensions and on multiple levels. How mature is ‘mature enough’ really depends on your definition of optimal and success.
What are the consequences of creating a highly mature organisation? As the definition I suggested above implies, it means such organisation will be really good at attaining its goals optimally. In practice, any highly mature organisation will be very effective in things like:
- creating value for its employees, shareholders, and customers in a sustainable way
- balancing short-term needs and long-term strategic priorities
- responding and adapting to change (externally and internally induced) rapidly
- developing services and products that solve real-world problems and/or create new markets and opportunities
- maintaining healthy balance sheet and profitability
These are all highly desirable traits that most organisations care about and that is why growing maturity (as one of the core elements of a continuous improvement mindset) is such a critical element of creating success.
Antipatterns seen way too often
Too much or too little
As with most things, there’s a range of antipatterns that organisations and teams can (mostly unknowingly) fall into. One that probably happens most often is a failure to balance investment in maturity wisely. In most cases this has the form of dedicating too little time and effort to growing maturity. This usually stems from a lack of understanding of the current level of maturity (typically due to being overly optimistic or outright deluded) and tends to be coupled with a culture that is big on hubris and small on introspection and open feedback. This is especially lethal as it tends to produce a gradual and hard-to-revert organisational decline. Usually, such organisations realise there’s a major problem only when it’s too late to do something about it without drastic and painful measures. In extreme cases this leads to the organisation going out of business due to lack of competitiveness and failures in operational capability.
The other variant of this antipattern (i.e., ‘doing too much’) tends to be quite rare and usually has a form of trying to grow maturity in places where only marginal impact on overall org performance can be achieved. It basically means chasing more and more improvement in some capability even though such an improvement cannot translate to a correspondingly large business advantage.
The ‘We will do it later’ fallacy
This antipattern is different from the first one in that the organisation is (largely) aware of the need to grow maturity in one or more areas or disciplines but is unable or unwilling to commit the time, effort and investment needed to do so. Usually, the reasoning behind this stance goes as roughly follows: We recognise that we have major deficiencies in area X, but addressing these would divert capacity, attention, and resources away from delivering our project/service/product/feature. We cannot afford to do this now as delivering on time is essential. We will, however, invest in improvement at a later stage once this project/service/product/feature is delivered. Then we will have more time and breathing space to focus on improving maturity.
This is typically a fallacy and that’s due to several factors. Here are some of the main ones:
- As long as the org exists and as long as it aims to remain competitive, there will always be another project/product/feature to deliver. Therefore, there will never be an ‘optimal’ time to start focusing on growing maturity as the ‘We will do it later’ argument can always be invoked.
- Things almost always take longer than we hope. As a result, what may seem like only few weeks/months until our project/product/feature is done can very easily turn into a much longer period. This then creates more pressure to ‘catch up’ which, in turn, makes it even less likely to find time to grow maturity.
- Growing maturity is, by the very definition, about increasing the organisation’s ability to succeed — to attain its objectives optimally. The lower the maturity, the harder it is to succeed. Delaying focus on maturity improvements means that whatever we are doing now is going to be progressing more slowly, with greater risk and less optimally than it could. And whist this may indeed be justified in some scenarios (e.g., when completion of some business-critical initiative is less than few weeks away), in most cases it only means that the thing (project, product, feature etc.) we care about and we have been working so hard on continues to be affected by our immaturity for longer and longer.
Tools and frameworks over outcomes
When thinking about maturity, it is tempting to just pick one of the ready-made maturity models (typically linked to and packed-with specific agile, lean or software delivery and digital ‘frameworks’) and use it as a complete and optimal source of truth and wisdom. Plus, people love check lists. Working towards a set of clearly defined criteria seems like a sensible strategy to grow maturity.
There are real dangers in adopting a maturity model of any kind blindly though. When the model we choose to follow does not match our organisational context, we will not get good outcomes. When we don’t understand what our maturity is today and where we are starting from, we will likely pick the wrong model, focus on the wrong things, and end up in a place that’s far from optimal. When we focus on driving adherence to a specific model and measure success predominantly in terms of model/framework adoption, what we will get is indeed a superficial adoption of a chosen model but usually without the business outcomes we were hoping for.
If we choose to use a specific maturity framework/model, we can’t allow it to dominate the conversation. Instead, it should act as a sort of a guide to enable, encourage, and focus our conversations on things that really matter and that will make a difference to our team and organisational maturity in our context and given our ambitions.
Local optimisation is a well-known phenomenon from many disciplines from Lean to Systems Thinking. In the context of our discussion here it takes the form of focusing our maturity growth initiatives only on specific, often fairly narrow areas and failing to recognise that we need to look at a system as whole.
A typically example is an over-emphasis on growing team level maturity and obsessing about specific elements of team performance (also see How I think about: Productivity) without noticing that the end-to-end organisational performance may much more be determined by factors that happen ‘outside’ of a team, for instance how work is prioritised, how funding is allocated, how governance works, what controls are used and how, how are incentives aligned etc.
Another example is a situation when organisations focus on growing maturity in areas where they feel they can do so most easily, rather than in areas what they ought to do it most urgently. This may not be an entirely unreasonable position to take, but it does mean that we are giving up on a much larger opportunity to make an impact.
Whilst very common, of the four antipatterns covered in this section, Local Optimisation is arguably the one that ought to be easiest to correct. After all, an organisation that focuses a lot on local optimisation must, at least to some degree, have a continuous improvement mindset and a willingness to invest in maturity. A correction in this context therefore means directing more of organisation’s resources to areas and aspects where maturity growth will yield greatest benefit. This needs to start with establishing a shared understanding of the end-to-end challenges and constraints the organisation is dealing with. Value Stream Mapping is only one of the techniques that can help identify such constraints and then inform where and how maturity growth efforts should be directed.
So, what’s the catch?
If increasing maturity is such a good deal, why don’t all organisations invest more in it? In fact, why don’t we spend most of our effort on growing maturity all the time? As many things in life and in business it comes down to trade-offs. On one hand, as we have seen above, we have strong incentives to want to grow org and team maturity. On the other hand, we often do not have the time to wait until some high level of maturity is reached as we need to act (or deliver something) now. We want to get better, but we have deadlines to meet and products to deliver. And some of the maturity improvements will take months (if not years) to achieve which means we need to find a balance.
How do we resolve this conundrum? The best way to think about it is in terms of Polarities. I find Polarity Thinking (you can read a simple primer e.g., on the Sloww website) quite helpful in situations like this. In a nutshell, growing maturity (or continuous improvement) and ‘getting things done now’ is not a problem to solve, but a polarity to manage. We need to try to get stuff done AND, at the same time, grow our maturity. And we need to do it without continuously flip-flopping between positive and negative sides of both ‘poles’. Doing this well means that growth in maturity enables, supports, and accelerates the product/service/value creation efforts of the organisation without unwanted side effects.
How to grow maturity in practice
If you managed to make it all the way to this point, I hope that by now I managed to make a strong case for focusing on team and organisational maturity growth as a key component of running a successful business. So how do we do this well? What are some of the ways to avoid the common antipatterns? What can we specifically do in practice to enable a sustained maturity growth? How can we manage this polarity effectively?
Step 1: Know where you (really) are
As is often the case, the first step is to ground our thinking in empiricism. We need to be confident that we understand our current condition well enough.
Questions we ought to be asking ourselves are:
- Do we really understand what level of maturity exists in our organisation today? How do we know this this?
- How do we guard against hubris, organisational delusion, reality distortion bubbles and other biases driven by past decision, political influences, power dynamics etc?
- How do we ensure we have an open, honest and safe conversation about status quo?
- What data can we use to corroborate or challenge our qualitative understanding?
Step 2: Decide what you are aiming for
Assuming we do have a decent understanding of where we are now, we now need to determine what good looks like in our context (perhaps with a help of one or more existing models) and which elements of the ‘organisational landscape’ we will focus on and why. This is not trivial as it is tempting to try to boil the ocean and spread ourselves way too thinly. Not everything can be a priority. Not everything matters in the same way, at the same time and to the same degree. Tough choices need to be made.
At this point we need to be able to link the anticipated growth in maturity to a set of outcomes we are hoping to achieve and a set of indicators that will give us confidence that we are on the right path.
Some questions we should be asking here are:
- Which areas do we need to focus on and why?
- What outcomes do we hope to achieve?
- What level of change/improvement/maturity growth do we feel we need and why?
- How will we measure success?
- What is the first step we can take in each area?
- What are the main organisational, cultural, structural, process and technical obstacles in our way? How do we eliminate them?
Step 3: Determine what’s needed to get there
The next step might then be determining the scale of investment, priority and focus our maturity growth strategy will require. This is, of course, context specific and the answer will be different in different parts of the organisation and when talking about different aspects of maturity. But being explicit about it and having a clear, ideally data-driven reasoning for our position is vital. It enables us to then tailor next steps accordingly and limit the risk of local optimisations.
Questions we might ask here are:
- What is the investment (time, money, people etc.) we ought to be prepared to make?
- How do we ensure this investment is available and will be sustained for as long as is needed?
- Where do we need a ‘short & sharp’ action and where do we need go ‘slow & steady’?
- Which elements of our maturity strategy are team-driven, and which require a broader change/focus/support?
- How will senior stakeholders actively support these efforts in practice?
Step 4: Make it happen
Finally, we need to take clear steps to enable maturity growth to happen. After all, execution really matters and if we can’t establish an environment within which our ambitions can realistically be achieved, our efforts will fail. In practice, this may mean many things including:
- changing how our backlogs look like and what our teams are focusing on
- changing our product roadmap
- stopping or delaying existing initiatives to create space of maturity-focused work
- changing existing and developing new incentives for people, teams, and leaders
- changing what and how we celebrate and recognise
- developing policies to ensure that an appropriate level of funding and focus on maturity growth is always in place
- reviewing what we measure, how and why
- making organisational and leadership changes
- tailored communication to establish visibility of our efforts and communicate progress
- changing what we measure and how
It is my strong belief that most organisations under-value the importance and the benefits of maturity growth and, as a result, do a rather poor job at it. Making trade-offs between value here and now and (much higher value) in the future is challenging. Saying ‘No’ to things we really want in order to create space to drive maturity growth can be painful. Yet, growing maturity in the right way is one of the most impactful organisational capabilities.
Being successful in this endeavour requires a strong alignment and commitment at a leadership level, strong cultural foundations, taking a longer-term outlook, adopting systems thinking mindset and, of course, passionate individuals throughout the organisation who are able and willing to drive maturity growth whilst maintaining balance between building new things and making things better at all times. Luckily, getting it right pays off handsomely in the form of great competitiveness in the market, ability to innovate at pace, operational excellence, engaged people and long-term viability and prosperity of the business. In my mind, these are good enough reasons to think very carefully and in depth about organisational maturity and build it into the fabric of the organisation and to be bold in directing organisational resources to drive maturity growth.