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1.2 The Four Principal Functions of Assessments

Assessments have four principal functions: They analyze how an organization really works, they (often through shock) help motivate it toward positive change, their procedures establish precedents that help organizations begin to transform themselves even before the assessment is finished, and they educate organizations by exposing them to best practices worldwide.

These four functions are of course not independent, nor do they always work the same way. Different assessment experiences can affect companies in different ways. Less mature organizations should prepare for the shock that accompanies realizing you aren't as good as you thought you were. They will be in for a strenuous educational procedure. On the other end of the scale, highly mature organizations (many of which will have already undergone previous assessments) usually experience assessments as moments of concentration and careful self-analysis. But one never knows. No two assessments are quite the same in their impact or in their outcomes.

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Example: During a follow-on assessment, two groups within Organization A reacted very differently to the assessment experience. One group had long been with the organization and had been through several previous assessments. They had once responded defensively to questions and judgments, but they had also seen the progress that the first assessments enabled (in scheduling, the quality of their products, and customer satisfaction) and a corresponding improvement in their own work situations. During the current assessment, therefore, they were eager to assist the assessment team and take on new suggestions, even probing ones. A second group, however, which had recently been merged into the organization, had never experienced an assessment and did what first-time assessees usually do—cover their weaknesses and put the best possible face on everything. They tried to keep knowledgeable people from being interviewed, and they bridled when the draft findings suggested that the organization still had work to do to achieve the maturity level it expected. (Certain managers so feared the results that they found excuses not to attend the draft findings meeting.) Finally, senior managers associated with the first group stepped in. They did their best to explain to the newcomers that their reaction was counterproductive, and they also urged the Lead Assessor to make the final findings as clear and objective as possible—telling him, "Don't hold anything back." Both groups survived, but the first group experienced a very different assessment than the second.

An assessment's success, moreover, depends as much on the understanding and skill of the assessors as on the methods they employ. Analyzing a company depends on knowing enough about technical and managerial attitudes to ask the right questions at the right times while building confidence in the assessment process and in the future of the organization. Motivating an organization toward improvement means emphasizing the positive effects of change. Educating an organization involves knowing the internal and often unspoken logic of process improvement methodologies and the international best practices out of which they grew.

1.2.1 Function 1: Assessments Serve as Analytical Tools

Assessments do not reflect the way the members of an organization think things work or the way the organization's paperwork says things theoretically ought to work. Based on separate interviews with staff at every level, they represent the way things really do work.

Assessments have taken the place of audits in the engineering community because audits have traditionally relied on a company's paper records of how things ought to work, whereas assessments rely on in-depth and cross-referencing interviews with practitioners that (whether or not the practitioners are happy to disclose it) get at how things really happen.

Assessments do not simply tell you the way one part of an organization works on its own. Instead they explain the way a part of the organization works within an organizational structure and an organizational culture, based on a sophisticated understanding of how the software development cycle works in the most successful companies around the world. An assessment's account of how an organization works is thus not merely descriptive. Assessment analysis depends on criteria established by a reference model.

Nobody likes the idea of being compared to a theoretical model. However, the models used by assessments are integrated global descriptions of how many good practices fit together, and assessments need to have a picture of the whole enterprise in mind, not just a catalogue of individual good practices. Assessment methodologies are never perfect, and they can sometimes even seem incomprehensible or perverse. But they remain the best available means of facilitating more productive, more reliable, and more profitable organizations. People apply assessments best when they understand their limitations, their logic, and their practical payoff.

1.2.2 Function 2: Assessments Function as Fulcrums of Positive Change

Assessments stimulate technical and organizational cultures to evolve. Seeing your organization as it really is can feel a little like being punched in the stomach. Managers always think their companies are better than they really are. No one is ever prepared for cold truth. But the shock of an assessment has priceless value because it can initiate momentum toward positive change. It dissolves complacency and enables staff to take a fresh look at how a company can be improved.

Shock alone, however, can lead to defensiveness and paralysis. Along with the shock, assessments put in place a group of mechanisms that help organizations survive the shock and work toward improvement in an open and energized way. Assessments convey the message that management is interested enough in making things better to take real action, bringing out the best in people who had become permanently discouraged. Assessments enable self-analysis to take place in a relatively penalty-free zone. Requiring broad participation, they distribute and limit exposure. Stressing that processes, not people, should be the focus of change, they diminish defensiveness. Providing a voice for change agents, they release energies that had been previously bottled up. Finally, assessments prioritize follow-on activities in an encouraging and logical way, making it easier to take the first steps toward new patterns of work.

1.2.3 Function 3: Assessments Transform Organizations by the Way They Work

When assessments work properly, the medium becomes the message and becomes self-sustaining. Assessments train and habituate organizations in continuing non-defensive self-criticism. The higher levels of maturity in assessment methodology represent nothing more than institutionalized and ongoing self-analysis. Assessments cannot work in a blame culture; therefore, for an intense moment, they condition the members of an organization to think about the pros and cons of what they do in a non-threatening way. Assessments also change people's perspective on their immediate environment and on the larger environment in which they work, and these new perspectives have a way of becoming self-perpetuating. Finally, assessments require senior management to become actively involved in the improvement process, and this involvement almost always lasts beyond the end of the assessment.

1.2.4 Function 4: Assessments Educate Organizations in Worldwide Best Practices

By exposing a large segment of an organization's personnel to the best practices embodied in an assessment's capability maturity model, assessments not only motivate companies to improve, but they also teach them how to improve at a time when they are most receptive to learning new techniques.

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