Sometimes you learn about a thing and it completely shifts your perception. Years ago, while earning some kind of certificate in sustainable business management, I learned about the four stages of learning and it changed so much about how I approached, well, everything new. The gist of it is pretty straightforward: there are four phases a person can go through when developing a new skill:

Unconscious incompetence: you have no idea what you don’t know (ah, blissful ignorance!).

Conscious incompetence: you know you don’t know nothin’ so everything seems like a struggle.

Conscious competence: you know something now, and you know you know it. But you still have to focus on it to do it well.

Unconscious competence: You do the thing well enough that it’s basically muscle memory. You no longer need to focus on doing the thing, but on mastery, or stretching, or teaching others.*

It’s a people theory. But a few years ago, I heard Jared Spool talk about it as an organizational theory. Spool, of course, applied it in a user experience context, describing how a company might travel from the “dark ages,” where a complete dearth of UX design leaves a black hole of customer experience, to a fully “infused” state, where everyone is fluent in design (optimistic much?). My brain, of course, leapt immediately to content strategy.

Find yourself on the curve

Let’s play a quick game. Give me a cogent definition of content strategy:

  1. Give you a definition of what now?
  2. I know I should be able to, but I can’t for the life of me put it into words.
  3. Okay, but let me think about it for a second.
  4. Content strategy defines the role of content in an organization, to inform the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.*

Your answer will, of course, place you squarely in one of the four stages of learning competence. Most of my time working for other people has been spent in organizations that live in either the first or second phase. This isn’t surprising. Content strategy as a field is still figuring itself out. Organizations inevitably struggle to figure it out, too.

Diagram of four quadrants with one emoji in each quadrant depicting the four stages of learning, connected by a purple curvature creating a dip from "Unconscious incompetence" (smiley face in upper left), to "Conscious incompetence" (frowney face in lower left), to "Conscious Competence" (thinking face in lower right), up to "Unconscious competence" (smiley face in upper right).

It’s pretty likely that your own organization operates in one of those first two phases, too. This may be true even if you answered my question with #3 or #4. Just remember: this is fundamentally a people theory. A person can be in phase 2 or 3, while their organization is still stuck in phase 1. That happens to be most of my clients. It can be an incredibly frustrating experience. Everything feels like a battle and the wins seem few and far between.

How do you navigate the disconnect?

The answer starts with identifying the disconnect in the first place. It continues with self-reflection and forgiveness of those around you for not knowing what they don’t know. If you routinely struggle with your content (Is it working? Why does it take so long to create? Why do people keep bouncing from our website before doing anything?!), there are two easy things you can do right now to begin shifting your organization from one phase of the competence curve to the next:

Take stock

Make a list of all the public-facing content your team produces. List the tools used to produce each piece, how many revisions it goes through, how long each step takes, who puts their hands on it throughout. This is tedious and feels like busy work. But it surfaces the invisible (as one of my clients puts it, “it makes the implicit explicit”). You can then do this with all your other teams. As you go, light bulbs may start flickering on and teams will begin to discover what they don’t know (as well as recognize many things taken for granted).

Pilot small wins

When an organization moves into the phase of conscious incompetence, it can be overwhelming. Facing the depth and breadth of inefficiency surrounding content production, teams typically either shut down and give up, or they try to FIX ALL THE THINGS! The antidote is to bite off small input/high output change projects. Being strategic and experimental about the first projects you take on helps your team build confidence and immediately see and feel the value of the effort, without risking too much.

Will you really do it, though?

Even when we want to improve, breaking old habits is hard. Convincing others to embrace the unfamiliar is hard. Developing organizational muscle memory is really hard (and often slow). There are lots of techniques to make it easier but for a good long while, it will take a real champion (you) and a good deal of patience.

So, are you up for it?

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* With noted debt to Kristina Halverson’s well-established yet ever-evolving definition.