Capability-Based Planning vs. Traditional Project Planning Approaches

Written by

Chuen Seet

When you have a strategic objective, it can be easy to jump into a familiar, traditional program/project planning approach — especially if traditional is the de facto in your organisation.

Capability-based planning (capability modelling) opens the door to an alternative way of thinking by flipping aspects of traditional planning and answering deeper questions.

The distinction can seem nebulous. So in this article, we’ll look at how capability-based planning rewires a traditional approach to project planning, and how the two approaches can work together.

What is the traditional program/project planning approach?

Traditional program/project planning is primarily a top-down approach, focused on decomposing a problem or scope into a set of outcomes or deliverables. This feeds into a list of projects, which are then further decomposed into a set of tasks and subtasks.

The pyramid diagram below shows this concept.

Decompositional Project Planning Approach

When decomposing a program scope or problem, planners often hold brainstorming workshops to elicit and elaborate a collection of required projects or initiatives. They may also apply a prioritization filter over the list of projects, based on any one of the many techniques available, such as business value and risk assessment, or just a forced list ranking.

With a list of prioritized projects in hand, the planners proceed to formulate tasks and subtasks by using a proven work breakdown structure. Some typical work breakdown structures have phases or stages at the top level, for example:

  • Initiation, planning, execution, control, close
  • Requirements, design, build, test, implement, support, close
  • Plan, build, run
A diagram with example of a work breakdown structure with 5 stages: initiation, planning, execution, control and close.
Example of a work breakdown structure with 5 stages: initiation, planning, execution, control and close.

Don’t get me wrong; a work breakdown structure is a proven approach that is applied almost everywhere. It’s excellent for deriving a list of actions when there is a known scope of work.

The critical question, however, is this: how do you determine the scope of work in the first place? Given a goal or challenge to address, on what basis are the projects derived? How does the planner know whether the list of projects and actions are complete or necessary?

It’s worth noting here that such questions also apply to agile project planning approaches. But in the case of agile, you create, prioritize and schedule a backlog of items. On what basis are the backlog items derived?

For now, though, we’ll focus on traditional program/project planning and how this approach can be improved upon by capability-based planning in order to answer those critical questions.

How does capability-based planning compare?

Capability-based planning (capability modelling) is another approach that complements traditional (and agile) program/project planning approaches. It focuses on understanding the capabilities that exist; the capabilities that need to change; and the capabilities that must be established to meet the organisation’s objectives.

There are 3 key differentiators with a capability-based planning approach:

  1. Avoids jumping into solutions by formulating projects or initiatives without first understanding which capabilities need to change.
  2. Takes a holistic view by mapping the capabilities of the organisation or business area, to ensure that nothing is missed.
  3. Targets only the capabilities with change required to meet specific objectives, i.e. doesn’t waste time elaborating actions for capabilities (or areas) that do not need change or are not required.

Similar to traditional program/project planning, capability-based planning also starts with a decomposition approach to identify the problem or scope, objectives, capabilities, and list of actions.

Decompositional Capability-Based Planning Approach

Combining capability-based planning and program/project planning

Is it possible to fast-track the creation of a roadmap by bringing together the best of capability-based planning and program/project planning (i.e. initiative formulation and prioritization)?

We think so.

How? Take the top-down decomposition approach in capability-based planning and use this as a structured approach for identifying change and deriving actions. Now, combine this with a traditional program/project planning approach, but applied from a bottom-up compositional manner to formulate and prioritize the initiatives on a roadmap (see diagram below).

Combining capability-based planning approach with traditional project planning approach
How a decompositional capability-based planning approach feeds into a flipped (i.e. compositional) traditional program/project planning approach.

Fundamentally, starting with a capability-based planning approach ensures that the derived actions and projects are based on a systematic and substantiated assessment of the capability changes required to meet the objectives. No actions and projects are formulated randomly or subjectively.


A hybrid planning methodology: The Jibility Steps®

The combination of a capability-based and program/project planning approach is essentially the basis of the Jibility Steps®. This is a simple six-step method that we have implemented in the Jibility roadmapping tool. The six steps are Challenges, Objectives, Capabilities, Actions, Initiatives and Roadmap. They align with the hybrid of capability-based planning and traditional project planning as depicted below:


Aligning the Jibility Steps with a hybrid capability-based planning and project planning approach


Taking a more detailed look in the next diagram, you can see that Challenges, Objectives, Capabilities and Actions have a decompositional, capability-based focus. Actions mark the transition to a compositional approach, which encompasses Initiatives and has a program/project focus. The end result is a roadmap that bridges the gap between strategy and execution.


Jibility Steps breakdown


More capability-based planning resources

Shifting from a traditional program/project planning mindset to capability-based planning approach isn’t necessarily easy, but the value of a capability-based approach shouldn’t be underestimated.

For more in-depth information on capability-based planning’s origins, concepts, and application in enterprise architecture and project/portfolio management, we recommend visiting The Open Group’s TOGAF® resources or the Business Architecture Guild’s BIZBOK® Guide.

For more information about capability-based planning in the context of the Jibility Steps® and strategic roadmaps, a great resource is the free Jibility e-book.

Your tool for capability-based planning

The Jibility tool makes it simple to apply a capability-based approach when planning how to achieve your strategic objectives.

With pre-loaded libraries of content, a simple drag-and-drop capability map, an interactive prioritization matrix, and more, Jibility makes it simple to focus and stay on track.