Thursday, December 13, 2012

What does the CMMI look like for an agile shop?

Hey, CMMI Appraiser, we're Agile and we want to be CMMI Level 3 by 2014. From what I understand, the CMMI is a set of 346 practices that we must adhere to. Is there a simpler way to think and talk about this journey we are about to embark on? ~ Michael H.

Hey, Michael, how right you are to be thinking of your adoption of the CMMI as a journey. That’s exactly what the CMMI is meant to be: an ongoing adventure to learn about the way your company works, and to learn new techniques that can put you on the path to being a great company, using CMMI as one of your tools.

So, instead of referring to the CMMI as a set of 346 practices that you must adhere to in order to achieve CMMI Level 3, I suggest a different construct. Think of the CMMI as a set of questions that you need to ask yourself about in order to be successful, and prioritize their level of importance. Those questions can be organized into a mental model that looks like this:

I call this model the Agile Resilience Architecture - "ARA" (we wouldn't technology geeks if we didn't have a TLA for it, would we now?)  The architecture helps you put into context not only what Agile really is, but also how you might go about improving it using a tool like CMMI.

Why does this model work?

You may not have ever heard a Lead Appraiser say this, Michael, but not all practices in the Capability Maturity Model Integration are as important as other practices in your particular context. Some practices are more important to you than others. And every company has its own set of priorities, which is one of the reasons that CMMI appraisals can be quite difficult. Context means everything.

The Agile Resilience Architecture is contextual in nature.  It keeps you focused on what's most important to your business and your process, and ultimately, your product.  It includes the following categories:


Start with Agile values and think of them as guiding your work. When you tie everything back to your Agile values, you are able to ask questions such as: Does the process we’re going to adopt include things like failing fast, iterative and incremental ways of running the project, and collaboration between teams? Does it include using information radiators and all of these things that we know are true about all Agile methods?

This level of Agile Resilience is your foundation.  It reminds you to let Agile values guide your work. For instance, if someone is saying to you, “We need to implement this process,” the first thing you should do is say, "Does it comply with our Agile values?"


On the second level of the architecture is the method or framework for managing the work of Scrum. The CMMI is an excellent task-management system that takes into consideration a way to sequence things, a way to prioritize things. Over time, it helps you transform your company culture, and manage the change.


The third level, techniques, describes doing the work. This includes Planning Poker, Continuous Builds, Story Time, Backlog Grooming, Retrospectives, etc.

And so we have our three layers: our values, our methods and our techniques. As we’re building this resiliency model, it is important to clearly separate these things out and get a clear mental picture of each. We really can’t improve ourselves to make our Agile methodology resilient if we don’t have this information.

Instead of trying to replicate the CMMI in a Waterfall-type of methodology, and rather than looking for 346 practices to check-off, take a look at your Agile methodology through the perspective of the Resilient Agile Three-Tiered Architecture.  Not only will you be able to focus clearly on your values, methods, techniques -- but you’ll be on your way to a highly rewarding journey of continuous improvement.

Like this blog? Forward to your nearest engineering or software exec!

Jeff Dalton is a Certified SCAMPI Lead Appraiser, Certified CMMI Instructor, author, and consultant with years of real-world experience with the CMMI in all types of organizations. Jeff has taught thousands of students in CMMI trainings and has received an aggregate satisfaction score of 4.97 out of 5 from his students.

Visit for more information about running a successful CMMI program.

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