The key insight (Anna Karenina principle) which drives Maturity Models is that all successful companies in a given field have to surmount the same obstacles. A good maturity model will clearly group and articulate these obstacles (normally termed dimensions) along with understandable levels. The resulting two-dimensional matrix should be summarised in a single graphic and easily comprehensive to a person working in the field.
These dimensions and levels provide the framework against which a company can benchmark itself and its competitors, formulate action plans. and track progress over time. Thus, maturity models may be understood as artefacts which serve to solve the problems of determining a company’s status quo of its capabilities and deriving measures for improvement. (Becker J., 2009) In brief, the Maturity Model becomes a key strategic tool for driving progress.
The Anna Karenina principle originally expounded in Tolstoy’s famous quote “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. (Tolstoy, 1873) This means that families while having different circumstances and dynamics must all manage certain obstacles. A family Maturity Model we could speculate as having dimensions of Money, Parenting, Sex, In-Laws & Religion. For a family to be happy, it must have a certain ability (or maturity) to handles each and every one of these five dimensions. Failure in any one dimension will lead to unhappiness. Aristotle makes the same point when he says: “For men are good in but one way, but bad in many”. (Aristotle, n.d.) A more up to date wording is “It seems that in good situations a number of requirements must hold simultaneously, while to call a situation bad, even one failure suffices” (Arnold, 1984)
These dimensions, the high-level structure or the “buckets” of capabilities that are being evaluated are the key to any Maturity Model. The dimensions frame the discussion and trigger the right (or wrong) questions which is half of a Maturity Model’s job. A key principle when evaluating dimensions is are they MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive).
On the surface, these multiple dimensions might be thought of as contradicting the Hedgehog principle (Collins, 2017) where mastery of a single skill is key to success. But a little bit of reflection shows that this may not be so black and white. In corporations, many people are used to balancing conflicting demands. “Do more with less” is one frequently heard articulation of conflicting demands. This formulation drives many managers nuts, as it fails to provide any helpful guidance. Similarly, when one asks a company to specify an ambition level per dimension, the answer starts with a bland “best in class” or “top of the range”. It is only when we look at the detail behind the model at the steps and investments required to move up a maturity ladder the trade-offs become clearer and choices can be made. The exact balance between conflicting demands can be captured in the prioritisation which the company gives to move from one level to the next.
Typically there are 5 levels in any model. More than five and the distinctions between levels becomes arbitrary, below 5 the detail is lost. Usually Level 0 is some variation of missing or ad hoc while level 5 is usually a self-adapting and optimized process. The names vary from model to model, in Quality Management Maturity Grid the five levels are wonderfully named: Uncertainty, Awakening, Enlightenment, Wisdom, and Certainty (Crosby, 1997). Whereas the Public Sector Internal Audit Capability Maturity Model is far more prosaic with Initial, Infrastructure, Integrated, Managed, and Optimizing. (IIARF, 2009)
What is important is that practitioners don’t automatically assume that the highest level is the best one for them. The organisations strategy is key to guiding the correct target level.
Level 5 may not be an organization’s goal, as the cost to achieve level 5 may at times exceed the benefits. In other words, management’s risk tolerance may be high enough to allow for the process to be less exact or consistent, or it may not be strategically important enough to invest in certain processes to consistently achieve level 5.
When a company agrees on a baseline and a target level, there is a natural gap analysis from which a maturity development plan emerges. Some practitioners try to go directly to the target level ignoring the intermediate steps. This is normally unsuccessful as company needs to evolve through the levels: “Some do it faster than others and with fewer detours, but fast or slow, every company that gets to world class must evolve through these stages to get there. There are no shortcuts.” (Shapiro, 1996)
The key usage of a maturity model assessment isn’t what level you are, but the actions, vocabulary and plan required to improve.
Maturity Models stand apart from the suite of diagnostic tools developed over the years to help identify problem areas: SWOT, benchmarking, McKinsey 7S, BCG growth matrix are widely used examples. These tools are not in themselves solution to any problem, they are diagnostic tools, which help to pin point the pathology. Maturity Models have the advantage that they both highlight the current situation and sketch out a road map to evolve.
However, Maturity Models, like any model are approximations of the real world. They can be dismissed as oversimplified, missing key ingredients just plain wrong. Used wisely they can be useful, even a crude model can help you figure out what the next step is to take. If an organisation has trouble understanding and articulating what is exactly wrong and what they want done. For example, if they know about symptoms; flat revenues or dropping margins, but not the root causes then any actions will be scatter gun and ineffective. Maturity Models can help isolate the root cause(s), frame the solution and provide targeted actions.
Using a maturity model measure one group against another is counterproductive. This is a text book example of ruining an informational metric by incentivizing it. However it is a typical to benchmark ourselves against others and this needs to be guarded against. When showing an organisation’s results from multiple groups avoid showing any comparisons between groups.
Maturity models have two key properties Dimensions and Levels. Dimensions represent the buckets of capabilities required and Levels are a measure effectiveness in Dimensions. When appropriately designed these models provide:
- A framework for envisioning and communicating the desired state, and the associated change initiatives.
- Benchmarks the organization against other organisations.
- A roadmap from an immature to a mature process.
- A disciplined, repeatable method that is easy to understand and implement.
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