Capability, or Competency?

June 7, 2019

 (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)


Maturity Models are terrific.

Very few things so efficiently bring together what has been learned about Success Factors. Naturally, when we see one, we want to become as capable as possible, as soon as we can.

But using a maturity model takes thinking, not just following. And here’s why.


First, consider the difference between an outcome and an output. We are always concerned about outputs because we are so focused and so trained to execute procedurally and in the mode of managed processes. If we don’t show the identifiable output, everything tends to grind to a halt… dogs run under the bed, children scatter, men cry.

But an output is not an outcome. Instead, when an output occurs somewhere, it has an impact, and the reaction to the impact is the actual outcome. By analogy: we can take a medication according to instructions. The medication acts in a way that causes a change to occur. The change is the output. The body adjusts to the change. The adjustment might be good, but it might NOT be good. Let’s say, however, that the adjustment is good; this puts us into a “recovery” mode, so at minimum the outcome is “improvement” if not yet “cure”.

It’s time to take a similar close look at capability maturity. Cutting to the chase, a capability is an output. Beyond the output, there is still the issue of how the capability affects the circumstances in which it occurs. The impact of the capability may have a different effect in one situation than it does in another.

Who cares…

Here is how that matters. In a situation where we are required to perform constructively or productively, there is a question of whether we are competent enough to meet the challenge. Competency here means that under the circumstances, we are able to call on the correct type and correct use of capability for the situation at hand. We know that is the effective definition: “incompetent” is the exact word we apply when a party is unable to use the appropriate capability and/or unable to call one up…

So, what does a capability maturity model give us with regard to competency?


Competency is not that tough to understand.

On a path between being untrained and being fully trained, precisely what gets developed is competency. At an earlier stage, we have a little competency, not a lot. Normally this means that there are cases where the scope and scale of the challenge is small enough for us to handle, at the time and on-demand. But as that scope or scale increases, we need more competency — the ability to appropriately detect and address more of the types and priorities of the situation’s requirements, at the time and on-demand.

An additional element of increased competency is consistency – the ability to predictably do the right thing most or even all of the time, not just some of the time, and not unpredictably.

Obviously, competency requires capability. But capability does not cause competency!

What this also means is that the best way for capability to become valuable is to have it dedicated to a competency.

In fact, one capability can be called upon by numerous different competencies, and each respective competency bestows a kind of value on the capability.

Because of that relationship, many “maturity” models are hybrids. Thinking about so-called capability maturity models should usually be done by thinking of two kinds of maturity.

Double Down

Capability maturity, per se, features developing the capabilities. Capabilities are simply coherent and complete functions that are available on demand. A function is an ability to convert something into something else by operating on it with a method and a technique. (It’s amazing how many key words it takes to define a capability, but there it is.) When something is “inoperable”, the capability does not exist. When something is “operable”, it can perform a function.

By the way, this has nothing to do with size or scale. There are tiny functions and tiny operations — or both could be huge. Most procedures and processes exist purely to prescribe rules of progression in operations.

Capability maturity winds up being mostly about having a well-designed way to precisely execute a function. In baseball, it would be said that a pitcher has great mechanics for throwing a perfect curve ball. But there are lots of pitchers who have lousy curve balls; they don’t have much of that capability.

Competency Maturity is different. It is about combining abilities to recognize, interpret, decide, and appropriately act, in real time and on demand, for the situation at hand.

How do we zero in on what “appropriate” means? That’s also easy: when we have an objective in a situation, the objective dictates what is appropriate. Often, the challenge of deciding the “best” objective means referring to either strategy or culture, but once an objective is decided, then it is the driver for better or worse.

In baseball, a pitcher is trying to get the batter out. The pitcher who throws curve balls at a great curve ball hitter is incompetent. The pitcher who repeatedly fools the batter with a great unexpected pitch is competent. Or, sometimes, to avoid risking a hit or to intentionally crowd the bases, the objective is actually to walk the batter. With that objective, throwing the pitch near home plate is inappropriate, even incompetent.

I’m a big fan of Perry Mason, the super-successful trial lawyer who was fond of crushing his capable courtroom adversary District Attorney Hamilton Berger. Often, in trials, Berger would accuse the defendant of something and Mason would erupt, “I object, on the grounds that the allegation is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!” Usually, the judge would agree with Mason. Berger’s capabilities were good enough to make him a District Attorney, but he still lacked the competency to get the job done versus Mason in a trial.

The Do Or Die

Many companies today are having the interesting experience of being forced by market competition to adopt a competency that is forcing them to develop new capabilities. Also, some have decided to use their current capabilities for a different or additional competency; they might even start a new business.

One special example of maturing competency is a case where a supplier becomes a provider, then a partner, then a sponsor. These different roles call for distinctive capabilities, but in this hypothetical progression, the company needs to mature the capabilities so that it can mature its competency in any target role — and then actually further mature its competency to take on additional, bigger, or more complex roles.

Greater competency can be a strong driver to mature the current capabilities, but capabilities will still only be prerequisites for the competencies. The thing to be aware of is that capability maturity affects how well you operate, but it is competency that determines how much that is worth.

Solve the Right Problem

It’s often thought that improving capabilities for a given role is going to improve “performance”. But that’s trying to skip from point A to point C. Instead, what actually needs to happen is that capabilities need to improve Competency, so that a good performance is then more likely to happen in future situations.

Punchline: remember to decide on a competency before you invest in capability. It seems obvious when we say it that way, but it’s scary how often it is forgotten. A capabiliy maturity model without a target competency is not worth much.