Using Maturity Models to Guide Your Program

By Patricia Cogswell and Alyssa Deffenbaugh

Maturity models have been widely used for many years by organizations looking to bring on new capabilities that have widely recognized benchmarks, such as enterprise risk management, cyber, or agile in IT, or in commercial startup maturity, where levels are often tied to rounds of funding. 

We have found that maturity models can also be valuable program management tools, particularly for programs seeking to implement complex change over several years. Program management maturity models are designed around two dimensions—the vertical axis listing the key program capabilities or focus areas, and the horizonal axis providing the levels (e.g., Level 1 is initial, Level 3 is sustained/certification, Level 5 is strategic). Within the matrix are descriptions of benchmarks the organization needs to have completed in order to be assessed as reaching that level. 

These models are also useful because they allow an organization’s oversight and other stakeholders to understand where an organization currently is against a specific capability or focus area, and where they are headed with regards to that capability area. 

Why are maturity models so powerful? They enable organizations to:

1. Organize, collaborate, and execute multi-year plans. Major programmatic change requires the concerted efforts of a number of stakeholders. Without an organizing mechanism, those efforts can become disconnected and out of sync. Program maturity models can support collaboration and planning across entities involved in those changes. By first setting the parameters and levels within your maturity model—you’ve both agreed on the outcomes you’re trying to incentivize and drive, and, likely, talked through the roles and responsibilities of the entities that need to be involved to achieve it, across multiple budget and planning cycles. 

For example:  The US and our partners recognize the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) security and safety standards as the baseline for aviation. Say the US and an ally are both looking to assist a partner nation as they seek to meet ICAO compliance.  ICAO compliance is not easy to achieve. There are multiple requirements. A maturity model enables all these entities to agree on:

  • Grouping the requirements into areas of focus (e.g., countering insider threats might be one of 10).
  • What accomplishments serve as “evidence” that the partner nation is progressing from one maturity level to the next (e.g., establishing a country policy or regulatory requirement may be Level 2).
  • Integrated plans and budgets to jointly achieve the agreed-upon next stages of development.

2. Change the conversation from “pass/fail” to multi-dimensional action. When assessing progress or effectiveness, organizations often focus on just one or two big changes, often the most difficult or visible, as evidence that they’ve “passed” or “failed.”  This can lead to significant disconnects amongst stakeholders, and loss of political will to invest in the other aspects needed to mature the program. By using the program maturity model, the organization can recognize and take credit for progress against individual program focus areas or capability, driving momentum and building political will for the various entities involved, within the context of the wider set of activities underway to reach maturity. 

As an example: Say the U.S. or an ally is seeking to support another country to enhance their maritime security.  Upgrading the technology used to detect threats is important, something that can rapidly contribute to improvements in security and be a visible success. But maritime security is about more than just deploying and using a new piece of technology. Controlling access to secure areas, countering insider threats through such efforts as information-based screening of employees, using counterfeit-resistant credentials, and building a culture of security within the maritime community, are critical. A program maturity model enables you to show progress for deploying the new technology, while setting expectations across stakeholders and oversight for where you will next focus.


Maturity models are powerful, when done well, because of their ability to rapidly communicate key stages and priorities—internally, as well as with oversight and stakeholders.

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