A Five Stage Model for Digital Maturity

‘Digital maturity’ is another one of those phrases that has lost some of its meaning through over-use but since so many companies are undergoing some form of digital transformation I do think it useful to have some kind of framework for development. So what might the progression in digital competence look like?

The four stages of competence model (or ‘conscious competence’ learning model) used in Psychology to describe the psychological states involved in various stages of learning might be a good place to start. The model is typically used in the context of positioning individual learning and attainment of skill, but I think it is just as applicable to how an organisation (for a company is but a group of people) might learn and improve capability. Applied in the context of digital transformation, it progresses from unconscious incompetence through to unconscious competence thus:

Unconscious incompetence

At this initial stage, the organisation (or in the original model the individual) is not only unaware of how to effectively deploy digital technologies, they are also blissfully unaware of what they don’t or should know. In order to move on to the next stage, the company needs to first recognise the value of digital transformation, and the degree of stimulus or impetus to learn determines the amount of time spent at this stage.

Conscious incompetence

The company may not fully understand digital or how to deploy it but they are at least aware of their short-comings and of the value in developing new competencies to address the deficit. Experimentation and learning from failure becomes an important part of the learning process at this stage.

Conscious competence

By this stage, the company has developed competency in digital, but deployment or execution requires conscious effort, focused involvement, and likely planned, definitive steps.

Unconscious competence

A true ‘digitally-native’ organisation. Digital becomes second-nature, executed easily, intuitively, allowing for greater efficiency and capability in execution. 

What I like about this model is that it progresses from unconscious (we don’t know what we don’t know) to conscious (we know what we do know and what we don’t know) to innate (we know it so well it is intuitive). 

The Dreyfus Model for skills acquisition takes this a stage further, with five distinct stages of learning - novice, competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery. From the Wikipedia entry:

“In the novice stage, a person follows rules as given, without context, with no sense of responsibility beyond following the rules exactly. Competence develops when the individual develops organizing principles to quickly access the particular rules that are relevant to the specific task at hand; hence, competence is characterized by active decision making in choosing a course of action. Proficiency is shown by individuals who develop intuition to guide their decisions and devise their own rules to formulate plans. The progression is thus from rigid adherence to rules to an intuitive mode of reasoning based on tacit knowledge.”

In this model, the same progression from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence takes place, and as the company (or, in the original model, the student) becomes skilled, there is less dependency on abstract principles and more on real-world experience. So in the context of digital transformation, the stages of competence look like this: 

1. Novice 

The company follows established rules, including those that have been created for specific circumstances without any contextual adaptation, and feels no responsibility for outcomes

2. Advanced beginner

As experience grows, new 'situational' elements come into play meaning that rules can be applied to specific and related conditions. But decisions are still made through the application of rules, all aspects of work are treated separately, and with little prioritisation or responsibility taken.

3. Competence 

At this stage the numbers of rules increase, perhaps to the point where we need to adopt organising principles, or specific and particular perspectives. So relevance of information becomes more important, decision-making then becomes active, planning more deliberate, and so implying more responsibility for choices and decisions.

4. Proficiency

By now, the company is able to take a more holistic view of a situation, better understand contexts, prioritise the importance of particular aspects, note deviations from norms, employ guiding principles and adapt to the situation at hand. Diagnosis of situations is becoming more intuitive but conscious decision-making is used in the formulation of plans, and real-world previous experience can inform decisions. 

5. Mastery/Expertise

Digitally-centric approaches are second-nature, there is a strong vision of what is possible, there is an intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding but analytical approaches might be used in new situations or contexts. Decision-making is intuitive, with no need to deconstuct situations into discrete elements to understand them, the company does what works, pattern recognition might extend to the plan as well as the diagnosis.


Stubborn on Vision, Flexible on Details

Jeff Bezos once said:

“We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.” 

If you’re not stubborn, you’ll give up on experiments too soon. And if you’re not flexible, you’ll pound your head against the wall and you won’t see a different solution to a problem you’re trying to solve.”

Many organisations are now recognising the value in more iterative, experimental, adaptive ways of working in response to rapidly changing competitive contexts, customer expectations and technologically-driven possibilities, but this can frequently raise questions around direction. If we spend all our time iterating our way towards our future (so the question goes), where is our strategic direction? And how can we make the kind of creatively-driven leaps forward that change the game and enable us to leap-frog the competition? 

The answer to this lies in the right balance between the directional guidance given by a compelling longer-term vision and the flexibility enabled through highly adaptive and responsive approaches and ways of fulfilling that mission. Iteration and experimentation without vision is chaotic. Rigidly pursuing a plan without adaptiveness leads to declining performance, missed opportunities, limited learning. Stubborn on vision, flexible on details. 

Bake a Bigger Pie

In the Q & A following her wonderful talk at Gooogle Firestarters last Wednesday, Sue Unerman drew from this quote, taken from Guy Kawasaki's book Enchantment:

“There are two kinds of people and organizations in the world: eaters and bakers. Eaters want a bigger slice of an existing pie; bakers want to make a bigger pie. Eaters think that if they win, you lose, and if you win, they lose. Bakers think that everyone can win with a bigger pie.”

What a fantastic analogy.

The Importance of Reflection


Consistently building in reflection time at the end (or indeed in the middle) of projects is something that most companies rarely do well and often end up considering as something of a luxury. In the rush of the day-to-day we get very good at being relentlessly forward focused, immediately moving on to the next thing, seldom taking the time out to pause and really understand what happened and why, and how it might be done better next time.

And yet given how important developing a learning culture is now for just about every business, it’s surely something we should all be doing more of. There's some well known examples of companies that have been able to create the space for employees to explore new ideas (Google 20% time of-course, 3M's Time to Think, GDS's FirebreakFacebook's Hackathons, Spotify's regular hack days etc) but in the age of continuous experimentation it's also about reflecting on what we're learning as we go along. I like the way that Pinterest, for example, go to great efforts to embed reflection time in their culture and practice so that it becomes a habitual way of gathering learning as they go.

One of the simplest, and therefore the best, frameworks that I've come across for this is the so-called ‘after action review’. It originated in the US Military who would use it in their de-briefs as a way of improving performance, and features four simple questions that can be answered after an action of some kind:

1. What did we expect to happen? Knowing that you have to answer this question afterwards means that you go in with a greater clarity of objective and desired outcome.

2. What actually happened? A blameless analysis, that identifies key events, actions and influences, and creates a consensus

3. Why was or wasn't there a difference? What were the differences (if any) between desired and actual outcomes, and why did this difference occur?

4. What can you do next time to improve or ensure these results? What (if anything) are you going to do different next time? What should you do more of/the same/less of? What needs fixing? What worked and is repeatable or scalable? The idea is that at least half of the time of the review should be spent answering this question.

Sounds obvious. But then the most useful things often do.

Google Firestarters 16 - The Magnificent Seven - The Event


Wednesday evening we brought together seven of the smartest brains in strategy and planning for our 16th London Firestarters event and we asked them to answer one simple question: What is the most useful thing that you have learned to date in your career? Each of our speakers was given only ten minutes but the result was some wonderfully thought-provoking, insightful, inspiring, and heartfelt talks.

First up was Richard Huntington, Group Chief Strategy Officer, Saatchi & Saatchi, who gave a brilliantly entertaining talk about the difference between being right and being interesting. His starting point was that we need to remember that no-one actually needs planning, and some of the most memorable campaigns in ad history have been created without the benefit of input from the discipline. But having no entitlement to exist is a good thing, since it means planners always need to remember the need to prove value. And there are two main ways in which planners can bring value:-

  1. Constant optimisation: focusing on the little things that make the big differences. To optimise approaches or work to maximise performance or effectiveness. The daily work of creative development, building communications strategies, evaluating and understanding performance, improving, monitoring, briefing. The analogy here was a sheepdog herding a flock of sheep, where the course of the brand has been set and the planners job is to keep it on course. This, said Richard, is when we need to be right.
  2. Periodic disruption: where planners are genuinely charting a new future for a brand, a future that changes a direction, creates new value. This is all about imagination and audacity, and the analogy is Thomas Heatherwick's Olympic cauldron. You don't iterate to get there - this is a creative, intellectually or inspirationally-driven leap. But this is where planners need far more to be interesting than right.

The great skill, said Richard, is in navigating between these two extremes and in being able to change gear and change mode at will. Planners should never restrict themselves to just one of these ways of delivering value. 


Amelia Torode, Chief Strategy Officer, TBWA London, began with something that legendary planner Jon Steele had once said to her:


Jon's point was that in pitches, and when selling in the work planners need to 'read the jury', and bring them with them. As Jon also said, it's not about being right, it's not about being the best, it's about winning. Building on this, Amelia went on to give some great thoughts, peppered with lovely insights from within and outside of the industry, around always remembering that it's about the people. From Jeremy Bullmore's respect for any audience that he spoke to, to Antony Burrell, Sheryl Sandberg, and Oliver Burkeman - all inspiring ways of thinking about career, planning, and life.

Phil Adams, Planning Director, Blonde Digital adeptly decried how unstrategic the planning profession can sometimes be, and championed knowing the difference between good strategy and bad strategy, not confusing strategy, tactics and objectives, and realising that strategy is about making choices. Good planning, said Phil, is purposeful and precise, prosaic and profound. He railed against the poor practice that strategies focused on 'engagement' can lead to (he's banned the word in his team) and possibly had the best slide of the night:


Leo Rayman, Chief Strategy Officer, Grey London had a powerful take on how, inspite of the profession existing in an increasingly left-brain, data-driven world, listening to your gut instinct is so important. Business is a visceral thing. We easily over-emphasise the rational. Yet intuitively, gut instinct can be a powerful direction setter. Planners are not mekons - all head and no gut. The two things are directly connected (via the Vagus nerve) which means that gut instinct can literally be communicated directly to the brain, so we should accept being lost sometimes but believe in our gut. There was an excellent thought about pitches as well (one of my personal favourites) about how you should always close from the gut (about why you really want that business) as it is always more meaningful, powerful and emotional.


Sue Unerman, Chief Strategy Officer, MediaCom did a captivating, erudite talk about the power of karma in life and career (something I also believe in). Sue had some charming, funny and insightful examples of how karma has come into key points in her career, what really motivates people, and how sometimes you just have to draw the line. I loved this: the only person that determines whether you have a bad day at work is you. It's difficult to do justice here to Sue's talk, but it was wonderfully disarming and wise.

Key points in your career was a theme that Candace Kuss, Director of Social at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, also spoke about - describing the reality of overlapping life and work and why that's not necessarily a bad thing, and about the moments of real choice that we all have in our careers and how important they can be. Candace has changed direction several times in her career, and spoke compellingly about these choices and what we should think about when we face these forks. Life is all about choices.


Last up was Andy Nairn, Founding Partner, Lucky Generals, who did a witty, entertaining ten minutes on a piece of advice he first heard from Richard Branson: 'Screw it, let's do it'. When the profession can sometimes get a bit over-ponderous, chin-stroking and inwardly facing, it's good to let go, and bring the fun back in. He railed against how the mantra of 'fail fast' is just not true in most organisations, how data is not a substitute for intuitive decision-making, but instead implored us all to learn from doing, and just start. And there were some lovely examples of bringing this to life through the way in which they've worked with their client Paddy Power.

When I reflected on the event the following day, I was thinking that it could possibly have been our best ever Firestarters. Such was the quality of talks - in turns funny, brilliant, insightful, witty, charming. So my thanks to our excellent speakers, to Google for hosting, and to the many people that came. It was brilliant.

You can view a Storify of the event, and see the Scriberia visualisation in all its glory here. The next Google Firestarters will be in September so if you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for news of that.

Thanks to Jay Kandola for images