Why Mapping Maturity?

During a discussion of an early incarnation of Maturity Mapping in 2018, Jabe Bloom put these three stickies on a wall. They symbolise in a nutshell why we’re pursuing a better understanding of practice theory by exploring how to map (social) practices. 

Jabe introduced Chris McDermott and me to Social Practice Theory (SPT) a little earlier, but we needed that little nudge of motivation. Practice theory is exploring culture through investigation of its practices. SPT is a specific model of practice theory created by Elizabeth Shove that postulates that a practice is socially shared and integrates elements that can be grouped into three categories: meaning, material and competence (or skill). The repeatability of such integrations and sharing them is what makes a social practice. (We started learning about SPT here.)

Jabe explained that while common Wardley maps have a bias towards material, Maturity Maps have a bias towards skill (competences) – they are complementary and can be aligned by sharing meaning. Jabe emphasised in those stickies that the evolution of material is of particular importance, because it can accelerate the evolution of a practice, but that also implies it can wreck it. 

A little story ~~

The Chief Operating Officer (COO) comes back from the Galatic Transfabulation Leadership Summit and announces to his staff that we’re going full throttle with The-Greek-Company’s Soothsayer Cloud-DB service and abandon that pesky FrontFrame Enterprise-DB systems, because all the unicorns are using Soothsayer now. He is about to sign an Enterprise License agreement for the next 3 years. His architect produced a Wardley Map that shows how we have to transition all the necessary components. “Easy peasy, all established technologies.” 

Meaning maps COO.png

After about two months of exploration, his managers report.

“We’re way behind the roadmap. We have not enough people who understand mesh services. We discovered that we need to massively advance our resilience engineering and we need to rewrite our data dictionaries to get the benefits from having a mesh. Additionally, our salary bands don’t match the market rate for people with those skills, so we need to train up our existing staff, which takes more time. “ 

COO: “But, when I asked you 6 weeks ago, before signing the agreement, you were all excited?” 

Manager: “We still are. It is the right technology for the future. We just will need considerably more time to get there.” 

COO: “How much time?” 

Manager:  “We don’t know really. We decided that, rather than attacking it at all levels, we would start with one data service, but quickly discovered this has impacts in the entire value chain that service is used in and, with all the waivers we’ve handed out, all of the high utilisation applications need updated. So now we’re focusing on a couple of value chains where we’re more likely to see quick wins. We’ll gain the experience we need to then attack the rest efficiently.” 

COO: “And how long will that take?” 

Manager: “We hope to have the first product using Soothsayer up in another 3 months and a second a month or so later. We’ll have a better idea of the further roll out then. Some of the analysis for the other data services is underway, so hopefully we can then move quickly.” 

COO: “OK. I can still claim we did get it going in the new Financial Year. Not quite what I promised, but it’ll do. Keep going.” 

Two years later, we migrated about two thirds of services to Soothsayer, when Palmist disrupted the market and six months on from that, we’re now operating three database regimes and the COO is under pressure, because of the associated growing costs. 

~~ End of story

I changed the labels, but I have experienced this scenario of technology adoption too many times, as, I’m sure, have you. I absolutely concede that in the example, they obviously apply Simon Wardley’s advice only superficially. Simon is very clear about having to pay attention to culture and capabilities, but we (whose thinking is shaped by Western philosophy especially) have a desire for the material – the promise of the tool to make things easier – and an equal propensity to overlook the significance of competence. Even more so, if we think about competences of others, of competences we (who make the roadmaps) lack. 

Now, imagine an organisation that approaches “satisfying a need” based on applying its existing competences to leverage its strengths. It is less likely that they will choose a material (e.g. a database system) that doesn’t fit into its existing practices. 

Meaning maps SPT.png

Maturity Mapping is not an alternative (not a competing model) of Wardley Mapping. It is an application of the principles of mapping underlying Wardley maps (e.g. anchor, position, movement). In that sense, every Maturity Map should aspire to be a Wardley map. However, commonly, Wardley maps focus on strategy and components. Simon has already pointed out that his maps can be used for practices and how practices can be integrated in his maps. Maturity Mapping is a practice that focuses on learning how we can improve social practices (e.g. ways of working). 

Take the above described ambition of adopting a new technology. If Soothsayer could have shared their maturity maps from their experiences with the unicorns and the COO had been able to compare them with his own, he would have seen how much inertia he would inject into the system by forcing in Soothsayer. Maybe he could have discovered the lacking competences, if he’d explored this with his staff? 

If we accept the value in mapping practices as explicitly as mapping technology, it provokes the question: how is evolution articulated for practices? As far as Chris and I are concerned, this (and, hence, all the following) is WIP. Maturity Mapping is an emerging practice. 

SPT suggests that practices evolve in a dance of the three elements. Each leads or pulls the practice forward at a different time – but each also influences (constrains) the evolution of the others. Then, dancing becomes the art of the integration of meaning, material and competence and the evolution of the art is an increasing sophistication in integrating. However, this only shifts the problem of evolution into a different frame: how do we qualify that we have become more sophisticated? 

In a Wardley map, we improve our ability to create value as things evolve. I believe the same must be true for practices: evolution of a practice can be qualified as a system’s ability to create more value from the practice. Consequently, optimising just the material (parachuting in a new technology for a core capability) becomes an obvious fallacy: an organisation can only gain value from a technology (a material in SPT) if the necessary competences and meaning (purpose and needs, why are we doing this) are, in terms of their evolution, in sufficient proximity of the material. If you don’t have the right competences and/or only few people in the organisation share the value in the meaning of the practice, adopting the practice will result in a lot of friction. 

Markus Andrezak suspects that we might discover patterns in the configuration of connected practices (complexes, in SPT language) on a map that could be discernible, for example as healthy or unhealthy, without needing to understand what practices are shown on the map. 

That still leaves us with the problem of how to position the elements of a practice – meaning, competence and material – independently on a map. For material, we can happily refer to Simon’s work and his suggestions for practices make a good starting point for what STP calls competences. (BTW. If you think about applying the four competences model as axis for evolution of competences, I suggest you only put the last three onto a map. In Unconscious Incompetence, you don’t see the value of the thing, which means that stage is just the space under the visibility-axis line.) 

Chris pointed out before how, once you adopt the Social Practice Theory lens, you immediately start to see the value of mapping Meaning. An obvious application is to map Meaning across multi-silo value networks in the organisation that require alignment. It can facilitate peer level (horizontal) communication where this commonly only happens in close proximity (e.g. within the silo) and where, because of that limited view, we misunderstand what others do. We lack understanding of the meaning of their practices and we usually only discover this when our mutual misunderstanding (as a consequence of missing information) creates a problem for the organisation and somebody further up the hierarchy calls it out and forces us to talk directly to resolve the problem. But by that time, we have – lacking connection – invested into local optimas that cannot be easily made coherent again and in that conversation, we will be biased to protect the investment and promises we already made.  If we can map meaning together, ideally from the outset, we no longer have to depend on empathy to have authentic conversations. The map allows us to have rational compassion for each other and we can start to apply what Kahane says about conflict resolution for complex problems: progress is only made when we stop thinking about what others need to do to make things better for ourselves and start to think about what we can do to make things better for all. 

Chris Matts suggests that the maturity of Meaning can be assessed by looking at who (or how many) is (are) getting value from having the practice in the organisation. 

At first, a practice starts maybe in a single team as a coping tactic to deal with a problem and the practice has only value to a few people. Over time, they get better at the practice and find it also helps with other problems, at which stage other teams are getting interested. As the practice spreads, the organisation increasingly gets value from the practice and will start to ensure the spread of the practice, at which point it becomes “how we do things around here”: part of the organisation’s culture. In order for this to happen, the meaning has to change and its focus moves away from the needs of those early individuals to the organisation’s needs. You could map that too to show friction and conflict of interests. 

Another dimension to apply for Meaning is risk behaviour. When we talk about the practice, are we risk averse or do we manage the risk and, if we manage it, do we have appetite to take some risks? Risk averse means we don’t want to deal with it and we will give it to someone else to deal with. That would indicate a low visibility. Managing it well would mean it has high visibility. How much effort we spend on managing the risk (or on making it someone else’s problem) is an indicator for how much value we attach (evolution). Another possibility is to reflect risk taking against requisite variety as visibility. You probably can have bigger risk appetite with an emerging practice than with one your core business depends on. Risk, as Matts has taught us, is also a good proxy to uncertainty reduction. 

As I said, this is work in progress and I didn’t even touch on the whys for things like team retrospectives or mentor-mentee explorations or how you could use Hofstede’s power index. There is also more to say about mapping competences… some other time. 

As a final thought, again something Jabe pointed out: if you look at the SAFe big picture, what you see are all the practices that remotely can be associated to Agile and that have had some value for some organisations, but the SAFe picture is not a map. It does not inform you, which practices are suitable for you in your context (never mind that it inherently misconstrues the problem of scaling – although I think that’s intentional). It also suggests having the competence is a binary thing: just attend their course programmes, all of them, of course. The big picture is not a map. Though even if they map it (and I expect they will), what they show is some idealised state of an organisation and wasn’t that the problem we started to dig into with Agile in the first place?