Please Share

Capabilities Based Planning: A Primer

Intro to Capabilities Based Planning - CBP

The familiar way to start defining your project is with a set of functional requirements. But increasingly, this approach is not meeting the needs of the business or organization; especially with IT projects. A  new approach has emerged that is far more rooted into the strategic context. It’s called Capabilities Based Planning (CBP). And one of the leading practitioners is Glen Alleman.

Glen is a heavyweight project manager. He has served on some of the largest, most complex projects. He is also a serious thinker about how we can practice our profession rigorously. It is a privilege to have Glen contribute this introductory article.

What is Capabilities Based Planning?

Intro to Capabilities Based Planning - CBP

Intro to Capabilities Based Planning – CBP

Capabilities Based Planning fits naturally with essential business priorities like:

  • Strategy Creation and Implementation
  • Business Development
  • Business Process Improvement
  • Integrated Program Management.

Capabilities Based Planning (CBP) differs from the more common approach to planning. The standard approach is to base your planning on a shopping list of features and functions. But CBP focuses more on fulfilling strategy by providing the necessary capabilities.

This approach creates more  flexibility and adaptiveness. It is therefore more robust to the changing needs of the business. And it implies a modular building–block approach to delivering enterprise applications. And this is valuable. It reduces risk and increases the probability of project success.

So, instead of starting from a formal set of requirements, you start with a need to build a set of capabilities. This drives a planning response to figure out how to build those capabilities. This way, you can expose any gaps in architecture, planning, or business understanding. These gaps are often hiding behind formal specifications.

Capabilities Based Planning - Capabilities replace features and functions


So let’s look at what we mean by ‘Capabilities’.

What are Capabilities?

‘Capabilities provide your customer with the means to generate business or mission value.’

Performance-Based Project Management’, Glen B Alleman ([amazon_textlink asin=’0814433308′ text=’US’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’mikeclay-21′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ed69d547-fccd-11e6-89d4-0feb89458461′], [amazon_textlink asin=’0814433308′ text=’UK’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’mikeclay-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’d572467a-fccd-11e6-b5f6-7fdc853ad2c1′])

This definition shows us that capabilities provide a defined outcome for you project. But it is rarely a final end-point. Instead, it lays the groundwork for the continuous delivery of value to the business. A Capabilities Based Planning approach allows subsequent projects to enhance those capabilities.

This is particularly valuable in IT projects. We are all familiar with out-of-control IT projects that produce bloated software products. These features that were appealing to stakeholders at the outset, but which users do not need. So the features don’t get used, and the time, cost and risk the project has incurred were a waste.

Capabilities are not the same as Features and Functions. Capabilities allow stakeholders to state business demands without explicitly specifying a solution. When you project creates a capability, it enables the organization to:

  • Affect an outcome
  • React to an input
  • Change an effect

Let’s Compare the Two Approaches

To do this, let’s take an example of how a capabilities-based approach differs from the more familiar functional approach. Here are two statements of a need:

Former Aproach: Using Features and Functions in your requirements document

‘We will install a General Ledger and operate it in all financial centers by fall of 2006.’

With these features and functions comes a set of abilities, but they are not made explicit.

New Approach: Using a Capability Statement Framework

‘We will be capable of acquiring a $100M business in less than 90 days.’

With the capabilities explicitly stated, you can directly connect your investment to the strategic objectives.

Capabilities Based Planning - Schematic

Capabilities Based Planning – Schematic

The Case for Capabilities Based Planning

Under Capabilities Based Planning, things are different. Organizations can deliver operational value when a specific capability is available for use. As a result, this lets them meet their business objectives.

On the other hand, features and functions describe static and dynamic behaviors of a system. As a result, they are not directly connected to business strategy.

So, capabilities provide the answer to the question:

‘To achieve our strategic objectives what must we be able to do, and when?’

You can then use Milestones to mark key points in your timeline. Your big milestone is delivery of the capabilities. Others mark key points along the way.

So, to sum up…

Capabilities Based Planning transforms:

  • the delivery of features and functions.


  • a process that delivers a capability in support of a strategy.

Capabilities Based Planning is planning, under the conditions of uncertainty, to provide capabilities suitable for a wide range of business challenges and circumstances, while working within an economic framework.

Connecting the Value Chain from Business Operations to Strategy

Defining your project in terms of features and functions requires you to start with a specification. This will allow you to test that the features work, and that they conform to the specification. If you start from capabilities, then you have your outcome or effect to test against, from the start.

Capabilities Based Planning is part of your project management toolkit. But it is better to understand it as a part of enterprise process analysis:

  1. Identify capabilities the business needs, to support its operational requirements
  2. Use the set of capability options to test how different operations scenarios perform
  3. Make choices about requirements and how to achieve the capability
    You are likely to have a complex set of capability requirements. Therefore, you will probably want to take a portfolio approach, using an integrated portfolio framework
  4. Produce a set of project options, based on the operational models to have assessed.

Putting Capabilities Based Planning to Work

Using Capabilities Based Planning means you must change your approach to planning. Now, think of the planning process as a set of business process improvement activities. These focus on increasing the maturity of the capabilities the business needs, to fulfill its strategic objectives.

Now your emphasis is on operational capabilities, rather than features and functions. So these operational capabilities become building blocks for change.

However, in a changing environment, you also need to maintain strategic flexibility. So you must assess the capabilities under conditions of uncertainty. This suggests a ‘building blocks’ approach, that can adapt to these changes.

Scenario Analysis

Scenario based planning is one approach to setting the objectives of a business strategy. It is widely used in IT-based projects. There, technologies and needs can change rapidly. Scenario Analysis is popular in decision making processes, where it is used in two ways:

  1. Finding alternatives
  2. Evaluating existing alternatives

1. Finding Alternatives

The first use (finding alternatives) is popular but has problems. For example, we assume we can discover a sound business strategy by studying individual scenarios. This ‘what if’ approach to decision making is flawed when some of the parameters are unknown. And this is the case in most IT projects.

2. Evaluating Existing Alternatives

The second use of scenario analysis is based on simulation. You can test how different strategies perform, based on competing assumptions about the future. Even if you can create reasonable assumptions, this will soon become complex. The scenarios trigger sequences of cause and effect. And the scenarios are related to each other too. So changes made to one operational scenario may impact another. Therefore, you must base your selection of scenarios on a solid understanding of how they affect one-another.

A capabilities view of the world and address some of the issues found in scenario based planning. Capabilities provide a collection point to consolidate scenarios. They systematically define operational concepts and their relationships. So each capability establishes a compelling case for one or more decisions. Together, these build your portfolio of projects.

A Summing Up

Capabilities create value.

Defining businesses needs through IT–enabled capabilities connects:

  1. the measure of IT’s value
  2. the business’s measure of success

So you should use capabilities to drive your project requirements.

This leads to one of the ‘5 Immutable Practices of Project Success:

Identify the capabilities needed to achieve:

  • Either, your project objectives
  • Or, the desired end-state for a specific scenario

As a result…

Capabilities allow you to answer the first of the 5 questions that underpin Project Success:

‘What does done look like?’

Defining Your Project

You may be interested in our Project Manager’s Project Definition Kit – an innovative course and resource kit, so you can take a jumble of ideas, needs, and requests and turn it into a well-defined project.

About the Author Glen B. Alleman

Glen is a deep Project Management generalist with 30 years' experience on Software Intensive System of Systems programs in Aerospace, Defense, Federal, and Enterprise programs. He specialises in Evidence Based Project Performance Management for software intensive programs and in using Agile at scale. His blog, Herding Cats is one of the most widely respected in the profession, and his book, Performance-Based Project Management (US, UK) shows how basic principles can be applied at scale, to the most complex projects.

follow me on: