Steps to develop a plan for incremental capability improvement

A guide for application delivery teams from the Rational Specialty Architects

This article describes the process that Rational Specialty Architects use in a complimentary workshop about ways to improve capabilities in an IT organization. We use the term application delivery to include all types of software development and delivery, whether that be COTS or complete custom development to fit your business requirements.


Lee Reid (, Rational Specialty Architect, IBM

Author photoLee Reid has been with IBM since 2003 and is a Rational Specialty Architect in the IBM Great Northeast business unit. He works with Rational customers to help introduce best practices, solutions, and enablement to application delivery teams. Lee has multiple professional and product certifications from IBM, the Open Group, and Rational software. He holds a BME degree in Mechanical Engineering from the General Motors Institute and an MSE in Computer Information and Control Engineering from the University of Michigan. Lee lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he likes to bike, swim, and run along the Chicago lakefront when the weather permits. He attempts triathlons and long-distance running events, with the longer-term goal of being the only one left in his age group to finally win.

Sanjeev Sharma (, Rational Specialty Architect, IBM

Author photoSanjeev Sharma joined Rational software in 1995 and became part of IBM when IBM acquired Rational. He is a Rational Specialty Architect in the IBM Mid-Atlantic business unit. He works with Rational customers to help introduce best practices, solutions, and enablement to application delivery teams. Sanjeev is an inventor and IBM has filed for U.S. patents for four of his inventions. He has certifications from IBM and The Open Group and holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from NIT Kurukshetra, India, and an MS in Computer Science from Villanova University. He has also taken coursework toward a PhD degree in Computer Science from George Washington University in Washington, DC. Sanjeev lives in northern Virginia, where he spends his time with his wife and two very active children. He loves listening to music, watching movies, and reading.

Joel Sundman (, Rational Brand Enablement Leader , IBM

author photoJoel Sundman has been at IBM since 1995 and manages the field enablement program for the Rational brand in North America. He oversees the planning and budgeting operations for enabling all of the Rational sales representatives and Rational client technical professionals in North America. . He is also responsible for leading the Rational brand Specialty Architect team in North America, whose members consult with executive customers to solve complex problems within IT by promoting industry best practices for process and tools. Joel has published several developerWorks articles and taught at Western Michigan University, where he sits on the advisory board for the Business Information Systems department. Joel has multiple professional and product certifications from IBM, Sun, and the Open Group. He holds a bachelors degree in Computer Information Systems from Western Michigan University, an MS degree in Information Systems from Northeastern University, and an MBA degree from Michigan State University. He lives in Portage, Michigan, and enjoys watching his two sons play hockey, soccer, and baseball.

10 May 2011

Also available in Chinese

Today, the success rate of IT application delivery projects in the industry is less than 50%. We at IBM® Rational® software have spent decades working with customers across many industries applying processes, tools, and enablement strategies. We have contributed a great deal to customer success, while also synthesizing a set of proven industry best practices for application delivery.

This article is a summary of the knowledge that we have gained from helping many customers create visions and roadmaps for their application delivery organizations. We hope it has given you several ideas about how you can look at your own organization and adopt best practices to help you act on business directives and IT initiatives and ways to overcome obstacles within your organization

The need to establish a vision and roadmap

Through our experiences with many organizations that have adopted Rational software, we have found that the most successful are those that develop a long-term vision and a roadmap to achieve that vision, with incremental improvements. This article is about helping you craft a vision and roadmap.

As in any significant undertaking, there are many options that might appear to have equal merit in terms of value to the organization. However, with guidance from the Rational Specialty Architect, who can help you apply your knowledge and intuition for your organization, IBM Rational customers usually determine a clear set of priorities for which practices to adopt.

For instance, consider this analogy:

Upon approaching your 40th birthday, you might have a goal to complete a marathon. You get excited. You can see yourself crossing that finish line, wearing the race number, having your family there as spectators, establishing bragging rights at the next reunion with your college buddies, and feeling good about your physical state.

That is your vision. That is your North Star and driving light. You need that vision to stay focused, because there's a lot of work ahead.

Now, how are you going to get ready to complete that marathon? You will have to begin running, but what is the best way to get ready? You will have many questions: Should I train in those new natural running shoes or standard running shoes? What nutrition changes do I need to make? Do I take supplements? What complementary exercises do I need to include? What training distances should I get to and by when?

There are many options, and it's not always clear what to do first and how it will all lead to achieving your goal. That's why you need a roadmap, a plan, and a way forward.

Finally, to complete the analogy, because your 40th birthday comes around only once, you need to make sure that you achieve this goal by then. Given that you have only one chance to get it right, you'd be wise to get help from somebody who has helped others in circumstances similar to yours. So you might hire a personal trainer who has proven experience working with people who wanted to prepare for a marathon. The trainer will ask a lot of questions and try to understand what drives you, in particular, so you can craft the best plan together, with incremental milestones, such as 10k and half marathon runs along the way to ensure that you will achieve your goal.

Like the marathon analogy, your team needs to define the vision and roadmap of capability improvements for your organization. A Rational Specialty Architect can act as your personal trainer to help you understand the options and the software engineering best practices that apply to your vision. Rational Specialty Architects are specialists in Rational tools and solutions, so they are sometimes called Solution Architects. Together, using your insights about the goals of your business, your IT initiatives, and the constraints of your organization (inhibitors), the workshop participants will define the vision and roadmap that will enable your organization to confidently move forward and realize that vision.

The importance of balance

Just as a potential marathon runner needs to balance running mileage with proper nutrition and recovery techniques, an organization that plans to introduce application delivery capability improvements needs to balance process, tools, and enablement. We use the following symbol in the workshop and in the resulting roadmap to remind ourselves of the importance of maintaining the balance.

Figure 1. Balance of process, tools, and enablement to support application delivery
Three areas for improvement in an IT organization

Balance is very important to success. For example, if an organization puts most of the improvement emphasis on tools, without a balance for corresponding process changes and training of staff, that usually results in an unbalanced introduction of change and lead to failure of adoption. In contrast, when an organization introduces incremental improvements in all three areas -- process, tools, and enablement -- there is usually a high degree of adoption, followed by success.

Incremental improvements

When we work with customers, we strive to develop a roadmap with small incremental and balanced improvements. We use the following diagram to help describe the type of roadmap that this workshop produces.

Figure 2. Roadmap of incremental application delivery improvements
Roadmap for incremental capability improvement

In this roadmap, each step is assigned an incremental goal, metric, and timeline for when each incremental improvement is to be achieved.

Who needs to be involved in creating the vision and roadmap

We suggest that the executives who are responsible for your application delivery organization lead this process. Your CIO, directors, and program managers can all play roles. Even executives from the lines of business that you support can be involved when developing the vision and roadmap for your application delivery organization. It is better to have people with this mix of experience and responsibilities look at your organization, as a group.

Baseline of understanding: current processes

The first step is to draw out from the participants a description of the as-is state of your application delivery process, work flow, and artifacts. Map your software development lifecycle from how projects get initiated and approved through the various steps that your teams use for the application delivery project types (maintenance, new development, COTS, and so forth) to help everyone understand the current state at a glance.

This is very useful to help everybody understand the way things work from a big picture perspective. Some people might be responsible for parts of the application delivery process, but not know the nuances of the workflow overall. This is also extremely valuable information to help craft the roadmap.

After the group has mapped the current practices, everyone should have a good understanding of the way things work currently.

Business drivers

We ask that you to identify the business drivers that affect application delivery for your organization. These include internal initiatives and external drivers. The goal of this exercise is to look at what drives your organization. For any application delivery organization, the business is your customer (or the line or lines of business, in some cases). Therefore, all of your organization's efforts should address the business needs of your company or lines of business. Other than that, there are external factors that impact the way your application delivery organization operates. These include government regulations, internal and external compliance needs, vendor- or partner-driven initiatives, and so on.

We suggest that you make a list of your top five to ten business drivers and rank them. This exercise helps the group to step back and look at the bigger picture from the perspective of the business priorities. It allows the group to look at the problems and needs that they are working to address for the business, without being constrained by the day-to-day operational challenges of the application delivery efforts, specifically. This exercise also serves to repurpose the context that exists for this work from being a conversation about tools and technologies, to being a session dedicated help you address your business needs,

IT initiatives, obstacles, and inhibitors

During this phase, we suggest that you look at two related topics.

  • The first is to identify internal IT initiatives that are underway or have been planned by the application delivery organization. The goal is to look at what your organization is currently working on or is planning to work on as an IT initiative. Again, the group should make a list of the top five to ten such initiatives and rank them. As a part of this exercise, you then map these IT initiatives back to the business drivers identified in the previous exercise. The intention here is to identify any outliers. In this case, outliers are any application delivery initiative that cannot be mapped back to a business driver.
  • The second is to identify obstacles and inhibitors. These are conditions that are impeding efficient application delivery by your organization. Here again, the group should make a list of five to ten inhibitors or obstacles and rank them.

Industry best practices and mapping

This part of the process is where it would be helpful to have a Rational Specialty Architect describe industry best practices. Then your group can discuss which ones could help you focus on the business drivers and address the initiatives that you uncovered in the previous steps.

Over the years, Rational staff and consultants have collected and published industry-proven best practices for application delivery teams. These are very useful because they help us all understand what is working among our peer organizations and allow us to build upon their successes.

Best practices also tend to address root causes of issues. For instance, a team might report that they are always late in meeting release deadlines and are often pressed at the end of a development project with late changes from the business stakeholders. This kind of issue is usually a symptom of a deeper problem. The symptom is that annoyance seen by the team. In this example: late changes that introduce a high degree of rework. However, the cause is more likely that the team is performing development projects with poor requirements definition and management techniques. When we fix symptoms, we usually do things like throw more resources into the team at the late stages to shore up the release. When we fix root causes, we introduce proven best practices, such as requirements elicitation with storyboards, story card-driven development, and iteration retrospectives, to help assure that we are addressing the true needs. Fixing root causes is usually the best approach.

A Rational Specialty Architect can provide an overview of major best practice groups, with as much detail as needed to assure that you understand what practice options are available. Just as a personal trainer for a marathon would lay out general practice categories to a person in training, such as running technique, weight training, nutrition, stretching, and supplements, the Rational specialist can describe practices that will help increase the likelihood of success, such as agile development, requirements definition, quality management, architecture management, build and release, and metrics.

Next, the effort changes to a mapping exercise to see what practices have the highest potential to overcome the inhibitors described earlier and to best support the IT operational activities. Like the marathon trainer, the Rational Specialty Architect can help you assess what practices make the most sense to advance the organization and to build upon good practices that you already have in place.

Vision for your application delivery organization

For any kind of major improvement, it is important to have a vision of what the organization will be like at completion of the improvement plan. It is common to fix this vision at about 18 to 24 months into the future. We suggest that you create a short statement that describes what your organization will look like at that point in the future. This vision, or North Star, is helpful to remind everyone why the incremental steps in the roadmap are being done as they are. Also, the vision statement will help management stay invested in the roadmap by describing the outcome expected for the small, incremental improvement steps. Again, like our marathon runner, it's important to see that end, that vision of crossing the finish line, to stay motivated throughout the small day-by-day efforts that you undertake along the road.

Roadmap to success

In the next part of this effort, you produce an adoption roadmap. We suggest that the roadmap be created as a set of paths toward adopting up to five best practices that you identified in the previous exercises. The roadmap should have a separate path for each of the best practice or set of related best practices that you plan to adopt. You can then follow these paths to adopt the practices in parallel, if that's what your organization prefers. For each of these paths, ask the group to identify a set of intermediate goals. Then, for each of those steps, identify these four details:

  1. A measure of success or achievement (how do you know that the intermediate goal has been reached?)
  2. Time to completion (by when should the intermediate goal be achieved?)
  3. Owner (who owns this objective?)
  4. Potential obstacles to success (what would keep you from achieving the intermediate goal?)

The result of this exercise becomes a "roadmap to success" for the adoption of the best practices that you have identified in this process (see the example in the table that follows). You can use this roadmap to plan activities and projects initiated to help you adopt the best practices and to measure the adoption rates and gauge the success of the outcome.

Example of an incremental roadmap
Phase 1 April 15, 2011Phase 2 April 30, 2011Phase 3 May 15, 2011Phase 4 June 15, 2011Phase 5 July 15, 2011
Practices Define requirements format and use Define elicitation techniques Pilot new format and use on project Tune up requirements practice Expand to other business areas
Products None None Rational Requirements Composer Rational Requirements Composer Rational Requirements Composer
Services 3-5 days mentoring service 3-5 days mentoring service 10 day Quickstart service 2-3 days mentoring service None
Benefits Consistent approach and process defined Consistent manner of extracting needs 10-15% improvement in quality 5-10% reduction in cost and time Scope control and clearer project objectives

When IBM Rational Specialty Architects help you guide this process, they use this roadmap, along with the results of the other exercises, to provide your organization with a series of recommendations to enable the successful adoption of these best practices. The next section explains more about how they work with you.

The Capability Improvement Workshop option

There is also a complimentary one-day Capability Improvement Workshop delivered by a Rational Specialty Architect to guide you through this exercise. The workshop is for executives who are responsible for delivering software to their business and executives from lines of business. Practitioners may be asked to attend, too, but they might not be able to complete some of the exercises in the workshop because they have limited visibility of the larger picture. Tying what the business is asking of IT to what is being delivered by IT requires a broader view than most practitioners have.

This workshop is not the in-depth capability assessment described in the October 2004 issue of The Rational Edge (see the Resources section here for a link to that article). Instead, this workshop is a way to discuss and discover the improvements that you could make in your organization that are most important to delivering software. This is true even if you're an IBM Rational customer. One possible outcome is a better way to deploy your existing Rational tools so you can implement a best practice with what you already have.

"One possible outcome is a better way to deploy your existing Rational tools so you can implement a best practice with what you already have."

The workshop agenda follows this article:

  1. Introductions and workshop objectives
  2. Baseline of understanding: customer current processes
  3. Business drivers exercise
  4. IT exercises
    • IT initiatives exercise
    • IT obstacles and inhibitors exercise
  5. Industry best practices discussion and mapping
  6. Vision exercise
  7. Roadmap exercise

After the workshop, we will create a report and executive summary for you with our suggestions for implementing the best practices that were uncovered in the workshop. We do not recommend a "big bang" approach to implementing these best practices. Instead, we focus on the ones that will provide the most value for achieving the business of your organization.

For more information, you can contact your IBM Rational representative or send email to any of the authors.



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ArticleTitle= Steps to develop a plan for incremental capability improvement