6 capability mapping strategies for real-world agility

6 capability mapping strategies
for real-world agility

In 2011, William Ulrich and Mike Rosen wrote an insightful article about the importance of a capability map (or graph according to Simon Wardley’s advice) in achieving alignment between business and IT.
Their publication has helped many architects use capability maps more effectively and evolving capability maps toward strategy alignment, portfolio investment decisions, application and technology rationalization, and more use cases.

Although it is possible to create a technically flawless capability map, it is often insufficient for achieving the desired impact. This is because many architects face challenges in effectively collaborating or influencing decision-making among organizational leaders, even with a perfect map at their disposal.

Consider implementing these six capability mapping strategies if you want more influence and change.

1. The map is not the product

Many people make the mistake of thinking that a map is the only thing that matters when it comes to organizational change. However, the actual value lies in the alignment the map creates within the company. This alignment is achieved by building a shared understanding of where the organization must evolve to achieve its goals and recognizing the consequences of that journey (good or bad).

Aligning various aspects of a business is crucial for its success. Neglecting this alignment can make it challenging to execute strategies effectively, as explained in Jeanne Ross's and Peter Weil's book, "Enterprise Architecture as a Strategy."
Norton and Kaplan also emphasize the importance of aligning intangible assets such as culture and employee knowledge with a company's strategy and representing this alignment visually.


We found that actual alignment (as measured by the linguistic overlap in the concepts and words listed) is, on average, just 23% - two to three times lower than the perceived alignment.
- Harvard Business Review -


Alignment between executives, management, and teams only occurs when all parties are actively involved in developing the map. Building the map with a limited set of people is not an option for fostering alignment.

2. Your capability map as a navigational beacon

Practice number one implies that the outcome is more than just a map; it is an instrument. As an instrumentit demands continuous updates and refinements based on evolving insights about the organization, market dynamics, customer preferences, partner collaborations, and other relevant factors.
Additionally, it is an instrument to be utilized in critical decision-making processes, such as developing transformation roadmaps, making investment decisions, prioritizing initiatives to change the organization, rationalizing the application portfolio, and more.

To ensure the effectiveness of your exercise, establish a practice where the map is consistently updated and actively applied in areas of the organization where strategic and transformative decisions are made. This often necessitates architects dedicating regular attention to the map, sometimes almost daily.

3. The perfect map is a myth

Architects often find themselves caught in the trap of striving to create the “perfect capability map” based on predefined definitions. While specific frameworks and guidelines exist for capability mapping, the effectiveness of these approaches can vary depending on each organization's particular needs and context.

It’s crucial not to fall into this trap. Remember, the map itself is not the ultimate goal! The accurate measure of success is whether the map fosters meaningful discussions and creates alignment about today’s and the organization's future state. If it facilitates such talks, it fulfills its purpose effectively. Sometimes, this may require compromising “correctness” in certain areas — what an impactful architect understands and embraces.

Being aware of common obstacles is essential when working on a capability map. One such obstacle is overcrowding the top level with too many capabilities, which can cause confusion and inefficiency. Another is using language that doesn't align with the organization's terminology, leading to misunderstandings and miscommunications. Additionally, being too strict about the rules according to a given framework can limit creativity and hinder progress.
Lastly, ensuring that all stakeholders have a voice in the conversation and that architects do not dominate the discussion is vital.

4. Beyond boxes: adding layers of meaning to your map

A capability map that fails to reveal insights about capabilities is just a drawing of boxes, offering no added value. Something more is needed to create a helpful decision-making tool!


The team “successfully” created a capability map over the past year, and now I can use it to decorate my office
- Anonymous, chief digital officer -


This is where overlays come in, as they provide essential visual information, making it easier to digest and to come to informed decisions. Having overlay(s) is an integral part of ensuring the success of any capability mapping exercise.

Choosing the correct overlay can be confusing. Different overlays are available, such as the target operating model, pace layering, capability gaps, investment in change per capability, and more. The most suitable ones depend on your stakeholders and the specific situation.
The approach to rationalizing a business application portfolio differs from incorporating a new acquisition, just as deciding where to invest varies from assessing the optimal information flow across capabilities.

To ensure that your exercise is successful, first address the immediate needs of your stakeholders. To do this, you should identify the relevant overlay(s), collect qualitative and quantitative data, and engage in stakeholder dialogue. Their feedback is crucial in determining the sufficiency and quality of the data.

Tip: Building overlays can be labor-intensive, often involving collecting quantitative and/or qualitative data. Contemporary tools such as LeanIX and Ardoq can help streamline this process and reduce your workload.

5. Turning skeptics into believers

As an architect, you may fully grasp the purpose and significance of a capability map. For stakeholders, it may be perceived as another deliverable without practical application. Educating the organization about the map's value and how it can empower stakeholders is essential to your success.
This process can be time-consuming and involve trial and error as you find the right opportunities and overlays to showcase its benefits.

To maximize the impact of your exercise, ensure that capability maps are consistently emphasized and kept top of mind. Introduce the map with a relevant overlay in situations where it can effectively enable stakeholders, such as guiding technology decisions for a team, identifying dependencies during team of team planning, assessing critical initiatives in a lean portfolio, and identifying synergies for an upcoming acquisition.

However, exercise caution not to oversell its capabilities. While it holds value in specific contexts, it may be less practical or applicable in others. Understanding the appropriate context and managing expectations is crucial.

6 The map is not your reality

The sixth practice serves as an essential cautionary reminder. By incorporating the five preceding strategies, you can foster an environment where capability mapping is embraced within your organization, empowering leaders to make improved and informed decisions.
However, it is crucial to recognize that even the most flawless capability map merely represents reality. It is “just” a model that is constructed to gain a comprehensive understanding of the complex system that an organization is.


All models are wrong. Some are useful.
- George E.P. Box -


Always remain mindful that the map is not the territory. It is crucial to frequently verify the correctness of the current thinking by conversing with people performing the work and observing work while updating the map with new insights to enhance accuracy. Adopt an approach by perpetually learning from real-world experiences and incorporating those learnings into the evolving depiction of the organization's capabilities.

Capability maps can greatly support strategy execution.

Would you like to improve your organization's decision-making process and align it better with your strategy? Capability maps can help you achieve this goal on all levels of the organization. Implementing the six strategies laid out here can significantly contribute to better alignment. It's essential to remember that the map itself is not the end goal but the alignment achieved throughout the organization. Happy cap mapping!

Want to gain more insights?

Stay tuned for upcoming articles in our — Navigating a New Paradigm: Agile Architecture and the Behavioural Side of Transformation — series, where we delve further into the practical and human aspects of agile architecture, enriched with case studies, scientific insights, and actionable strategies for success.

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In your organizational transformation journey, embracing an agile mindset — both in architecture and behavior — can be the game-changer. Keep learning, stay agile, and, most importantly, be ready to transform.

Written by Christophe Windelen, contributions by Erik Coopman