Institutionalization in CMMI® and People CMM®: Converting a practice to a habit

The word “institutionalization” is a mouthful, a tongue twister. If it was a requirement that every employee be able to pronounce word correctly for a successful appraisal result (for CMMI®/ People CMM®), the number of successfully appraised entities would have been far fewer than what they are now :-).

The concept of institutionalization is explicitly embedded in the CMMI® and People CMM® models. In fact, approximately half the practices in every one of the models are dedicated to institutionalization, so it is necessary to internalize this concept to successfully implement the models.

So, what is institutionalization? It is many related things, but the easiest and the most comprehensive explanation is that it is “making a practice into a habit”. Hence, when a practice (like submitting monthly project status reports to all stakeholders by the 5th of every month) becomes a habit with the organization, we can say that the practice is “institutionalized”. Organizations are not born with habits (nor are human beings). So, how do some practices become habits? Or more importantly, what can we do to make certain desirable practices into habits?

Let us use an example at a personal level to understand what we can do to convert a desirable practice into a habit.

Doctor CheckupYou are overweight. You are unfit. You get tired before you climb one flight of stairs. (You get the picture.) Your doctor has advised more exercise (than just using the TV remote). He has been telling this to you for the last few years; you make a New Year resolution every year, which does not last more than a few days. This year your doc has given you some kind of ultimatum “shape up or else!”

ScalesSo, now you not only want to lose those excess kilograms (1 kilogram = approximately 2.2 Pounds, for those who still resist the metric system :-)), but want to make regular exercise a habit. Here is a combination of things that is will increase the probability of regular exercise become a habit.

OathFirstly, as an individual you need to build up a great amount of motivation to achieve fitness. The motivation needs to be higher than your motivation for “one more helping”, “15 minutes more of watchingGym the TV”, etc. You need a deep conviction, an inner resolution, a personal commitment, a personal vision/ policy, an oath to oneself. Something like, “come what may, I will do the required exercises at least 25 days in a month.”

Next, you will have to study the alternatives that are available – should you join a gym? Should you join a batch at the gym, or be on your own? Should you go to the gym in the morning or evening? PlanShould have a different exercise program every day? Should the weekend be different? Based on the initial investigation and thinking, you will make a high level plan.

Let us say, you decide to join a batch of people like you in a neighborhood gym. The batch meets everyResources morning at 6 AM and is led by 2 instructors. Now you need money to enroll in the gym and the program. You will need the right set of clothes and shoes. And many such resources, including time; time to reach the gym, time to do the exercise and time to go back home (or wherever) after the program every day.

ShareTo free you up for the daily gym sessions, new responsibilities will need to be taken up, and existing responsibilities may have to be redistributed. Who will drop the kids to school? Who will wake you up? Who is going to water the plants? Who will wash the car now? If you are going to reach your workplace later by half an hour every day, who will stand in for you for that half an hour? In addition to assigning the responsibilities, you (along with others) will possibly need to rearrange and plan out many other impacted activities.

ProcessLet us get back to the daily gym. The instructors will have a standard process that they have chalked out to for the group. Based on your situation they may tweak the standard to define a tailored process/ program for you.

TrainerThe instructors will be constantly watching, coaching and guiding you to make sure that you don’t overdo it or take it too easy. They will also try to ensure that you don’t hurt yourself. So, they will keep providing you necessary training as you progress.

InventoryOn a regular basis you will have to keep track of some important items related to your daily gym-ing. For example, you need to make sure that you have shoes and sock and tee-shirts and shorts washed at the right time. Your gym membership card/ usage may have to kept safe and updated on a regular basis. Basically, you will need to maintain control of the important items, so that you don’t end up picking up someone else’s gym bag.

InvolveWhen you start and as you progress, various stakeholders will have to be identified and involved to the required degree. For example your spouse/ partner, others at home, the gym instructors, your doctor, and maybe your co-workers.

MonitorYou will have to maintain data of your progress – how much time you spent on the treadmill, when you moved from level 1 of the exercise chart to level 2, how many days you could not attend the gym. You would also be keep track on the impact of the work that you are doing – are you losing weight? Too fast? Too slow? Do you feel energetic? Tired? The basic idea is to collect data to monitor the status and effects and control the actions to achieve better results.

BuddyTo maintain motivation, you could pair up with a buddy in the gym group – where each of you can objectively help the other to maintain adherence to the plan, schedule and actions. In addition to your buddy, the instructors will also be checking out that you are basically following the processes and the plans that have been laid out.

Doctor CheckupOnce in a while, you would be going to your doc and reviewing the status, so that long-term course corrections can be identified (e.g., add a diet program, increase aerobics- reduce weight bearing exercises, etc.).

Process ChangeThe gym staff would collect improvement feedback from the participants to change their equipment, standard programs, etc. For the next batch they may define a slightly different process because of this feedback.

All the bold-and-underlined elements are the likely to prevent you from slipping back to your old ways, and with time, doing exercises every day is likely to become a habit, or “institutionalized” for you.

In a nutshell, here are the 12 elements:

  1. Having a policy/ vision
  2. Creating plans
  3. Mobilizing resources
  4. Assigning responsibilities
  5. Getting the training to develop skills required
  6. Keeping conscious control of key items
  7. Involving various stakeholders
  8. Monitoring the status/ effects and controlling the actions
  9. Keeping an eye on adherence to the process
  10. Having periodic reviews with the key stakeholders
  11. Appropriately adopting a process for a given situation
  12. Collecting information to drive improvements

The analogy used may not directly fit an organizational situation. In the above example, the vision needs to be set by the same person who is taking the action, whereas in an organization, it will be the leadership team that sets the policy and many more people who follow it. Similarly, resources will need to be mobilized by leadership team or some specific groups in the organization, and used by all groups. However, the principles are similar, and if an organization keeps track of the above 12 aspects, there is a high likelihood that whatever is being introduced will quickly become a habit with the organization.

By the way, the word “institutionalization” also means being admitted to a mental institution, but that is not the context we are discussing here, today ;-).

Please do share your experiences, comments and feedback by posting a reply/ comment.

Other related posts uploaded on the same blog:

I am Rajesh Naik. I am an author, management consultant and trainer, helping IT and other tech companies improve their processes and performance. I also specialize in CMMI® (DEV and SVC), People CMM® and Balanced Scorecard. I am a CMMI Institute certified/ authorized Instructor and Lead Appraiser for CMMI® and People CMM®. I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. For more information please click here.

33 thoughts on “Institutionalization in CMMI® and People CMM®: Converting a practice to a habit”

  1. It is said that

    “Watch your thoughts for they become your words,
    watch your words for they become your actions and
    watch your actions for they become your habits.”

    So, developing the habit of implementing the generic practices

    at every opportunity can be done at 3 levels:

    Make the employees think about them at periodic intervals by

    small tests, make them talk about them by periodic knowledge

    sharing sessions and make them use them through internal

    quality audits (once again a generic practice!).Then such a complete cycle can be used to continuously and fervently by the process group with incentives from top management. Say, if you demonstrate the use of GPs 10 times out of 10 opportunities, you get a gift card for shopping.

    Whereas the entire article and the analogy discuss the practices, I have tried to look at it from a slightly different perspective. So, these are my two cents, hope they add value.

  2. Awesome!! One of the most comprehensive explanation of institutionalization (thanks to spellcheck, now I get at least the spelling right).

    1. Hi Chinmay,

      You are right – spellcheck and wordprocessors have spoiled us – I often find myself looking for a backspace key and ctrl-z when I am writing with a pen and paper 🙂

      1. About “I often find myself looking for a backspace key and ctrl-z when I am writing with a pen and paper ”
        This is so true.

        Looks like this has been institutionalized across organizations. 🙂

  3. Yes Rajesh,
    In most organizations, “Institutionalization” of any practice is the key and also the mental block to the success of implementation. Very simply and beautifully described with analogy the key elements which would enhance making practice into habit.

  4. To drive the analogy further, when a large part of the organization picks up the “desired” habits, they can be deemed to be ready for the “fitness check” (Level x of CMM).


  5. Very descriptive article and very nice comparison.

    However, here are my 2 cents of reality!

    My Patti / Ajji / Nani / Grany has lived for 88 years without 1 day of exercise and all the time cooking nice dishes and feeding. My mother was hale and healthy for 61 years [seemingly] and a very strict vegetarian who would not even go to restaurants and if she did, she would simply stick to eating a cup of curd, but died of cancer [terminal stage] at 61 in just 4 months.

    Predictability effects [diseases] merely attributed to not performing exercises is very minimal. It is the food that we take that has significant impact on what diseases we get, small or big topped by what we will get due to DNA genes [hereditary!] . So, determination or motivation to save ourselves from diseases is better focused if we attend to the food intake than just focus on exercise. Food can screw up our health faster than our negligence to perform exercise can screw us up! The first target for Institutionalization must therefore be, discipline in what we eat than on exercise.

    Having said that, the company must decide what can cause severe dent in their business. If it is indiscipline in people management [including motivating them etc] , then thats the focus. Its the organic level core issue that is critical for institutionalization. My opinion is, there is hardly anyone who identifies these organic level core issues, we are unfortunately adding chilly to the wound by asking people to develop documents/systems without deep dive diagnosis and a thoroughly analysed conclusion.

    Institutionalization is very expensive and therefore, must be targeted at reaping significant benefits.

    Else, we are up to planning for a massive failure!

    Happy to discuss this. 🙂

    1. Hi Ramesh,

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, focusing energies to institutionalize less important aspects could be a waste of expensive resources.
      Please continue to share your insights – always welcome!

  6. Rajesh, thank you for this highly relatable explanation of institutionalization. We have a monthly organizational newsletter that uses a comic strip style character who relates process improvement information to our workforce. With your permission, I would like to use your post as a basis for a series on Generic Practices. The tone of your post perfectly matches what we are trying to accomplish with our PI comic strip. Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Michell,

      Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts.

      Please feel free to use the post as a basis for your comic strip.
      If possible, please do share your comic strip with the readers of this blog. If you send me the comic strip I will post it on the blog, with all due acknowledgements.


  7. Comprehensive explanation of the concept! Very easy to relate to..Looking forward for some more interesting analogies in the future posts!

  8. Excellent one Rajesh…! Your ability to articulate things in such a simple style keeps readers engrossed…! Just that the very-slow-maturing software engineering (can I call it like that…! (engg…!?)) makes it damn tough to put strong rules. If S/w Engg becomes 50% as stable as Automobile Engg, many a things would be much better and much predictable…! (Did I hijack the subject…!?)

    1. Hi Ramkumar,

      Thanks, and no, you did not hijack the subject. Maybe you can elaborate on how to make software engineering as much of an engineering discipline as automobile engineering!

  9. Wonderful article, Rajesh!! It outlines the process very thoroughly.

    I know this is not an article about fitness or running (but institutionalization). But, companies and corporate can learn a lot about institutionalization from the process of how to make running a habit. I have gone through that drill, going from running a km to running 50km and am still running with a goal to do 1000 miles a year. What you described worked very well for my first Marathon run.

    Having a policy/ vision ==> Run a Marathon

    Creating plans ==> Start with you can 2 or 3 weekdays, double it on the weekend, add 10-30% to distance every week or two. (of course, there are other logistics around when to hydrate, when to eat a snack during the long runs)

    Mobilizing resources ==> Get running shoes, t-shirts, shorts and socks, water bottle, salts, food

    Assigning responsibilities ==> Alarm clock/wife/friend – wake me early enough to get a run before starting the day.

    Getting the training to develop skills required ==> Find a partner/mentor who has done it before

    Keeping conscious control of key items ==> Stretch before running/ Pain, scale back or take a break if needed/ Make time for that run and rest/How much water, salt or snacks you need

    Involving various stakeholders ==> Involve like-minded friends to join you in your common goal so they can motivate you up when you don’t feel like and vice versa/Find friends who can support (provide water, snack etc) your long runs

    Monitoring the status/ effects and controlling the actions ==> Record miles/km on a calendar or your GPS watch/Will you reach the long distance (18-20mile) run 4 weeks before Marathon?

    Keeping an eye on adherence to the process ==> One foot in front of the other 🙂

    Having periodic reviews with the key stakeholders ==> Are you spending too much time running? Are your wife and kids still happy? Do you need to scale down you target? Maybe half-marathon is a better target or even

    Appropriately adopting a process for a given situation ==> Knee pain – scale back, ITB – take a 6 week break, etc

    Collecting information to drive improvements ==> What fabric will avoid nipple bleeding? What socks are good to avoid foot blisters? How to avoid loosing toe-nails?

    But in all this, motivation is the real key. Without the motivation, all your plans with come to naught. How bad do you want it? No wonder all those new year resolutions come to naught. You have to find the motivation.That motivation could be a result of the doctor’s threat – “shape up or die” 🙂 or just a sense of achieving something, but it has to be there and it needs to be strong. And this is not just at the personal level, but also at the company or corporate level.

    Institutionalization won’t happen without the motivation at company/corporate level. And that’s not just the motivation to start but to keep going. A reward – tangible or intangible in itself is a good motivation to keep going. For running, the reward can be the time your spend with your running buddies or the feeling of peace after the run or just discovering a new place. But without that reward, without that running being fun, it will not become a habit. I can say same is true at the company/corporate level. If the practice is not providing an ongoing reward (tangible or intangible) for employees or the company, it will not sustain to become a habit. If the VP driving the change is gone, will the practice live if he was the sole enforcer? Has the practice become part of company DNA? Is it leading the company to profitability? Is it increasing employee productivity? All those are good questions to answer when institutionalizing a change.

    And institutionalization doesn’t have to expensive. It gets expensive when you have a grand plan to change everything at once. That almost never works. What works is having a grand vision or plan but making changes incrementally. You can’t run a marathon the first day. Most training plans will need from 3 to 6 months. It is very doable even for those who have never run before but that doesn’t make running institutionalized. Because even if you get there, you haven’t yet given enough time to figure out if it really fits in your day to day life. Does it work around your kids school schedule? Your wife’s work? Will you continue to find the time for those long runs? Instead, you may set a long term plan to do a marathon in a year but have interim milestones – first 5k in 1 month, first 10k in 3 months, first half marathon in 6 months, first 20 mile by month 9, you will be on way to making running a habit by the time you complete your marathon goal. Milestones actually give you a lot to digest on the way. Is it a viable plan? Will it bring the results as expected? Are there unexpected surprises? Do we need a different milestone in between? In sum, institutionalization has better chance to succeed as a continuous incremental carefully planned change rather than an abrupt sudden change.


  10. This is great.

    However let’s say that instead of Gym, one day I decided to go in a park for jogging, to burn the same amount of calories, another day I have to go to buy some vegetables and instead of taking a vehicle I decided to walk. Again, I am burning the same amount of calories.
    Now in CMMI analogy, instead of sending weekly status report, let’s say there is an initiative that involves status of my project(s) as well, in some other form and this is being sent to all stakeholders.
    How would you treat this, so would you still want me to go to the Gym (or send the same project(s) status report) in spite of burning my calories in other form??

    Logically I know what should be the answer to this, but I have seen different people reacting in different ways when encountered with this situation.


    1. The institutionalization practices help us form “Habits” of the good practices. Now an important part of forming a habit is repeatedly doing similar activities. And this is where the formats, templates and structures help us.

      So in the case of a status report if different methods are used then there is a possibility that some information may be shortened or even missed. Giving the same type of information, at the same level of detail of information may becoming a challenging every time if the manner is different. So while the content is the focus, the similarity of the format help us ensure that we can give the same type of content over and over again. So that we don’t worry about “if I have missed something”. This also help to quickly identify if I have missed things.

      Same with the case of the gym, if there is certain method I follow then I also know that outcomes, I know how much I will burn (it may not be the same amount if I walk for work), the stress my body takes (strength training and lifting vegetables are different).

      So I would like have the same methods as I would like to concentrate my energies on the activity rather than the structure.

    2. Kalpesh,

      It is fine if you decide to jog, rather than go to the gym one day. But the issue is – are you aware that it is equivalent? In multiple terms like calories burnt, weight bearing exercise, exercise to different parts of the body, etc. If you established the same, then even jogging can become part of the plan (e.g., at least one day jogging per week, or something like that).

      And if you are doing it for convenience, without actually tracking the equivalence, then in a few days, you are likely to be saying, “I will watch the news on TV instead of going to the gym.” That is how many of the resolutions gradually fail (one bit at a time). 🙂

      So, though things need not be rigid, we need to understand whether the alternatives are really required/ necessary, or that we should focus on making something a habit. And maybe balance the need to rebel (once in a while) with the need to conform.

    3. Kalpesh,

      Valid and relevant points. There has been a very recent post on the same blog on Tailoring. Juxtaposing your queries with the points raised in the tailoring blog can provide useful indicators on where the balance lies.

      In my view, the extent of institutionalization also depends on the design of the process. Did you intentionally design various mechanisms to review project status or are some of these happening accidentally ?



  11. Institutionalization is a unique feature of CMMI as compared to other models. In my opinion it makes the activity / practice sustainable and is absolutely not expensive, in fact it gives the results of the activity / practice much more effectively and as a result is cost effective. In the given example if you buy a treadmill worth Rs.1 lac to reduce your overweight, and do not plan, monitor (overdo exercise or under do exercise), ask your family members to remind / motivate you (stakeholders), keep a record of the time / calories burnt and learn how to use treadmill (training), the entire investment would be a dead investment and moreover your health will continue to worsen. Thus institutionalization ensures that the activity / process is carried out effectively and get the right results.

  12. Excellent article !

    Comprehensive, described in simple terms and taking a real life example.

    Thanks for this blog, Rajesh.

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