What Is a Capability Map?

Written by

Chris Benthien

Consider a simple street map. Fundamentally, it's a visual representation of the physical streets, intersections and surrounding features; it's a scaled-down model that helps us understand the overall picture, find places of interest and plan a route.

Now consider your organization. We tend to think about mapping or visualizing organizations in terms of the core building blocks:

  • structure (people)
  • functions (process)
  • assets (physical)

However — there's an alternative way.

Organizational capabilities

The alternative way to visualize an organization is in terms of its capabilities, where each capability is a building block describing a unique combination of the people, process and physical things that enable the organization to do what it does.

A capability map is a visual representation of the organization's capability building blocks; their relationship to each other; and state of change required. By state of change, we include the need to create or retire capabilities, as well as the need to change existing ones.

The ability to visualize the state of change of each capability in a map is particularly useful for planning the route to achieving your strategic objectives. This is known as capability-based planning, which is an approach embodied in industry frameworks such as The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF®).

Just like a street map, a capability map helps you understand how to get to your final destination.

Do I need a visual capability map?

No; you can always maintain a named list of capabilities in a spreadsheet. However, once you have more than 20 capabilities (which will be the case for most organizations) it becomes difficult to understand the relationships between them and even harder to communicate this to your colleagues.

When done properly, a well-structured visualization serves as a clear model of your organization and helps you home in on which capabilities need to be improved, replaced or established. Check out our in-depth guide to business capability mapping to learn more about the benefits of this technique, plus gain insights to the best methods for creating a capability map.

What does a capability map look like?

Relationships between capabilities can be indicated with a layering structure, i.e. a high-level capability can be broken down into numerous sub-capabilities, some of which may also have sub-capabilities.

Keeping your capability map simple is best. Going beyond two or three levels of sub-capabilities is rarely required and keeping it succinct means that you're more likely to stay focused.

Diagram of capabilities and sub-capabilities

Do I need to include every single capability?

You usually create your list of capabilities within the context of your strategy. It isn't necessary to construct the capability map for your entire organization (though you may need to if your strategy impacts the whole organization).

For example, if you are creating the strategy roadmap for the IT function of an organization, you would typically only need to identify the capabilities managed by IT.

How does capability mapping help identify what needs to change?

Your capability map shows your organization's current state. You then need to indicate what changes are required to turn it into an articulation of your target future state.

One way of doing this is to turn it into a heatmap, where capabilities needing a high level of change are 'hot' and capabilities needing no change are 'cold'.

Using traditional colour coding, capabilities needing a great deal of change would be coloured red; a medium level of change would be orange; a low level of change would be yellow; and no change would be blue. Of course, you can expand your legend as suits you.

Example of capability states in a visual capability map

The definition of high, medium or low change can be whatever you need it to be. Generally, in the context of business strategy, it means the level of change in business processes or methods; in people or human capital; or in physical assets such as systems, facilities and equipment.

The quantum of change is subjective. Sometimes the change can be big, for example building a new factory; but on the other hand, it can be small, like hiring two additional sales people.

Of course, context is also essential: the latter could be a high level of change if your organization is a start-up and you only have a small founding team.

No doubt almost every capability in your organization could be improved in some shape or form, so always make sure you only focus on those capabilities that will have the biggest impact on your strategy execution.

Free capability mapping tool

Jibility is a free app which enables you to easily apply capability-based planning techniques as you develop a strategy roadmap: the essential link between a strategy and execution.

Jibility is a cloud-based drag-and-drop tool, which provides the user with pre-defined building blocks for more agile delivery and maintenance of strategy roadmaps.