Monday, November 11, 2013

How to read the CMMI book (without falling asleep?)

Hey, CMMI Appraiser, we’re a Maryland-based systems engineering company getting ready for our first CMMI appraisal. Our Lead Appraiser said he wants us to memorize the Generic Practices frontwards and backwards, but the CMMI book is so boring! Any tips on how to read this thing without falling asleep? ~ Peter A

Hey, Peter, you may be falling asleep, but your Lead Appraiser is dreaming if he thinks it is somehow worth your time to be memorizing the Generic Practices frontwards and backwards. We all need to wake up to the fact that the real value of the CMMI is that it’s not about memorizing, following rules or being compliant. With the proper adoption, the real value of the CMMI is about putting your company on the path to greatness.

So it’s a good thing you came here for help. It's important to know how to read the CMMI book.  With the right approach, it can work magic.

How to read the CMMI book

Since you’re new to the CMMI, Peter, let’s start by asking, what is the CMMI? Simply stated, the CMMI is a Model to help us learn what a great company looks like. Its practices were designed to help us prioritize our behaviors, so that we, too, can see a great company when we look in the mirror.

How do we get there? How do we become that company? Part of it includes taking the right approach to reading the CMMI book.

So let’s get started. The CMMI book, as you’ve found, consists of a set of statements, or “Practices.” They say things like, “Do this. Do that. Have estimates. Have peer reviews.”

Here’s how to turn on the magic. Instead of memorizing the Practices, as your LA suggested, turn those statements into questions. For example, take the statement, “Have estimates,” and turn it into a question, as follows: “How do we estimate?”

Here’s another example. Take the statement, “Have peer reviews,” and make it into a question: “How do we peer review our code?”

These are good questions. You will learn a lot from your answers. The way you answer should be based on how you want to run your business.

Try it! By turning the practices in the CMMI book into what I call “CMMI questions,” your reading of the book will be far more interesting to you, because it will help you discover what’s most important to you. This information, in turn, will help you prioritize the way you run your business.

Reading the CMMI book as a set of questions gives you gain tremendous insights about what kind of company you want to be, because the issues that most affect performance improvement will stay front and center. How can it be otherwise? You will be regularly asking questions such as, “Well, how DO we want to run our business? How DO we want to have these types of design reviews?”

Here are more questions distilled from the guidance offered in the CMMI book:

“What’s our plan for rolling this out? What methods are we supporting, and why are we supporting that? What’s the plan for getting everyone trained and up to speed? Which projects use which methods, and how do we choose that?”

In the CMMI, we call that tailoring. You are custom designing the CMMI to work the way you work. For example, if you’re a Scrum shop, you ask the CMMI questions about the way you want to be agile:

“How long are our sprints going to be? How many sprints in each release? When do we do backlog grooming? When do all these things happen?”

Keep in mind, I’m not saying that the CMMI book is useless as written. Far from it. You can read about the CMMI practices, and get tons of valuable detail, with pages and pages of background material, examples and ideas for how you might apply their lessons in your company. The CMMI book is excellent reference material.

But the magic happens when you turn those statements into questions. You’ll develop a crisp definition for your company about how your work gets done, which helps you manage your work.

And if part of your work is to replace your Lead Appraiser because he just won’t wake up to the value of the CMMI – well, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that.

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

Jeff Dalton is a Certified SCAMPI Lead Appraiser, Certified CMMI Instructor, ScrumMaster, author, and consultant with years of real-world experience with the CMMI in all types of organizations. Jeff pioneered agileCMMI, the leading methodology for incremental and iterative process improvement. He 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 engineering strategy, performance innovation , software process improvement and running a successful CMMI program.

To download eBooks about CMMI, including the complete “CMMU Users Stories,” visit Jeff’s Author Page on Amazon.

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