Business and marketing has a tendency to focus on deliverables. A deliverable may be a poster, video, webpage, tweet or an interactive-in-store-gaming-experience. Regardless of the specific example, you’ll notice that people talk a lot more about what than how.
Why shouldn’t they? Great deliverables increase sales and everyone gets to have a party! What tends to be ignored is the fact that great deliverables rest atop a supporting structure of building blocks made of capabilities.
Capabilities clearly receive less of the spotlight. Even if the deliverable is garbage, we usually try to fix it at that level — perhaps because we’re more comfortable with its tangibility. We often fail to acknowledge that problems start much earlier in a production process.
Strong capabilities reduce micromanagement and breed confidence. Operators know what to do and stakeholders know it is right, because both base their decisions on a strong foundation of capabilities.
This supporting structure can be thought of as a pyramid with the deliverable on top. Capability building blocks in the pyramid can be swapped out depending on the needs of a specific deliverable or industry.
The Capability Pyramid
Building strong capabilities is hard. It’s easy to have opinions on outputs¹. It’s much harder to build and maintain a system that supports the creation of great deliverables.
There are usually two key challenges to building strong capabilities.
Firstly, the further down the pyramid you go (moving away from the deliverable), the more people are required to deal in abstracts, unknowns and be exposed to technical details. A source of weakness can be easily obscured. For example, old and clunky database software can mask the fact that the data itself is disorganised. Soft-type problems are even harder to unravel. For instance, a lack of documentation or communication often goes unnoticed but enables the data manager to delay addressing the real issue.
The second challenge is what separates good work from great work. It’s the last 5% of effort, quality or focus poured into developing a capability. It’s the same definition that motivates Olympic sprinters to train for months just to shave a few hundredths of a second of their already astonishing time. They certainly don’t do this by just running. Think of their supporting blocks as nutrition, sleep, gym, mental focus etc.
Unfortunately, unlike the Olympics, business sometimes rewards mediocre work or makes the price of failure so low that there’s little incentive to improve. True capability is not achieved by simply ticking a box. Traditional business structures, such as IT departments, are fond of delivering capabilities on paper. These capabilities do tick functional boxes, but fail to meet the non-functional and human requirements needed to actually make the capability a reality.
Because capability is a combination of people, rules and technology (all which are constantly changing), it’s best to think of capability blocks as living things. The question is not ‘do we have this capability?’ but ‘how healthy is the capability?’. Capabilities have a health bar.
An unhealthy building block is a weakness in the support structure of the pyramid. It has the potential to collapse the whole pyramid and prevent the deliverable at top from reaching its full potential.
“A small hole will sink a great ship”.
Capability health check
Building capabilities may be less glamorous than popping the champagne to launch the latest deliverable, but it is essential to getting that party started in first place.
Asses your organisation’s capabilities with a quick health check.
To do this simply print out the Capability Pyramid, write a common type of deliverable at the top then score each support block out of 10. Ensure you write down any key issues for each area.
The capability triangle can be used by any organisation that delivers things to people. Blocks can be rearranged and changed as needed. Blocks can encapsulate a number of related capabilities, just make sure you note down what these are.
Once complete you should have something like the below which is a great starting point to setup transformation projects and patch holes.
Designers do not have the same version of software
Last customer survey is three years old
Data extraction process is confusing and unreliable. Database organisation is not standardised.
Planning process is often cut short due to time constraints causing problems later on.
Download the template
Download a copy of the Capability Pyramid health check template.
Article first published on 25 July 2014 on dermotholmes.com