10:55 AM
Mike Bohlmann
Mike Bohlmann

Best Practices: Are Your Company's Processes Mature?

The Capability Immaturity Model can help smaller businesses understand what is preventing their organization from establishing effective processes

The Capability Maturity Model (CMM) is a well-known process that's frequently used to determine the "maturity" level of an area or department within an organization. Within the IT world, the model is employed to help companies measure their ability to create, manage, and refine good processes for software development and other process-oriented work on a scale of 1 through 5.

For instance, companies that are creating processes on the fly with success only coming through the heroic efforts of its IT staff are in the initial, or first, phase of the model. Companies with processes that are well-established and are being followed are in the defined, or third, phase of the CMM. The core of CMM is the establishment of processes, following them, and refining them.

Critics of the CMM say that it does not encompass all the other areas that can impact the ability of an organization to establish and manage IT processes. One attempt to correct that is the Capability Immaturity Model (CIMM), conceived by Capt. Tom Schorsch. While it is a bit cynical and written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, everyone has probably experienced, at one time or another, individuals within their organization who matched one of these descriptions.

In the CIMM, there are four levels in which an organization can fail at establishing processes both passively and actively. These may help you in identifying and communicating just what keeps your organization from establishing and following good processes:

  • 0: Negligent
  • -1: Obstructive
  • -2: Contemptuous
  • -3: Undermining

In a negligent organization, the desire is stated to do better, but the follow through is lacking. Multiple attempts are made at introducing established processes, but each equally impressive announcement is met with an equally impressive lack of follow-through. Has your organization decided to implement something like ITIL, Six Sigma or COBIT, only to abandon it later because no one is following it? Then your organization is negligent in its ability to improve processes. When there are no actions to meet stated desire, the stated desire is usually not actually a desire. Correcting this sort of behavior requires serious leadership ability and discipline. If possible, leading by example is the best way to demonstrate necessity and how improvements can pay off. Sometimes incentives need to be put in place to make actually following a new policy or process worthwhile.

"We've always done it that way." How often does change get met with that sort of response? It can happen often, especially when you have change-averse employees or someone who has been doing a specific task for a long time. This is difficult to overcome because the people blocking implementation have usually convinced themselves that the way things are working is fine and that any change could risk breaking things needlessly. Since the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind here, the best course of action is going to be to find areas of the current process (or lack of process) that could be improved incrementally. With some incremental steps, it can be demonstrated that just because the current way is what has been done for years, it does not mean it is the best way.

In an organization at the contemptuous level, management really believes that it's already following best practices no matter how blatant the signs are that something is wrong. If management thinks everything is fine and ignores hard facts that things are not as they should be, then that is clearly a contemptuous environment. New employees are just expected to know what the best practices are and to follow them. Every excuse is made for why there are problems except for the fact that the processes being used are wrong. If enough people band together saying that processes need to be improved, management will quash it on the grounds that people should spend time "working." Official processes do not need to be established because they serve no purpose in an organization where the workers are skilled at what they do. In this type of organization, an employee not in a management position –- where he or she can try to change the culture -– has only one option: Get out!

An undermining organization directly sabotages itself. The completion of any project seems even more impressive considering the struggles faced to get there. Whenever examples of how another organization was successful are brought forward, counter examples are presented as to how they failed in some regard. By doing this, implementing and following better processes internally can be met with derision and as serving no purpose. A project that goes smoothly and meets schedule, scope, and budget goals will receive little or no recognition next to the project that fails to meet any of those goals and has only marginal success. Projects and team members are praised where some form of success can be identified while the rest can be seen as a failure. A response of "Way to go team! We delivered the software on time and on budget!" for a project that does not match the originally stated feature requirements might be heard in an undermining organization. Like a contemptuous organization, this type of status is cultural and is not likely to change. Again, for the employee not in a position to effect real change, it's best to leave rather than burn out.

Now, for those of you reading this who are leaders of your organization, I doubt you've made it this far if your organization is at the contemptuous or undermining levels. If you're still reading, you can likely remember a job where you faced these issues or you want some more ideas on how to bring about real change. While negligent and obstructive organizations can be overcome through leadership and relationship management, contemptuous and undermining organizations are very much a part of the organizational culture at all levels. People in those types of organizations are taking active steps to ensure that things stay the same.

Is that the kind of struggle you want to have? It might take sitting down with each member of the organization individually, talking about the issues, and asking whether they are willing to be a part of real change. If not, then they need to be told to find another job. Otherwise, they will simply continue to sabotage any potential success you may have.

Mike Bohlmann has more than 10 years' experience as a Web developer and an IT manager. He's currently an IT manager at the University of Illinois where he is in the process of completing work toward his master's degree. Mike's research is focused on IT management, leadership, and services.

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