While this isn’t as technical as SOX or other GRC (governance, risk, and compliance) frameworks or else standards in the information governance space (like the ISO 23081 records management processes), the 5 Stages of Documentation is a quick, do-it-yourself way to measure the maturity of your documentation. You can apply this tool to any project, program, team, organization, or department you are working with.

Think of it as a mini documentation audit, or “stress test”, if you will.

Identifying your primary documentation stage will give you an idea of how to attack the documentation challenges in front of you and understand where you need to go next.

From my extensive experience in working with a broad range of clients, industries, and programs – there are five distinct stages of documentation that organizations, departments, projects, or teams tend to fall into:

  • Stage 1. No Documentation (Blank Slate)
  • Stage 2. A Bit of Documentation (Documentation “Lite”)
  • Stage 3. OK, But Suboptimal Documentation [LB3] [AB4] (“Check-the-Box”)
  • Stage 4. Optimized Documentation (Just-Right Documentation)
  • Stage 5. Overdocumentation (Overkill)

Stage 1. No Documentation (Blank Slate)

If you are a new company or have just been put in charge of a new business line, project, or team, you are in Stage 1.

Stage 1s have a lot of work to do. But they also have the advantage of starting from a clean slate. You can use the full suite of documentation skills and best practices to develop your documentation program from the ground up. 

What are signs of Stage 1?

  • No documentation, systems, or processes—a blank slate!


Stage 2. A Bit of Documentation (Documentation “Lite”)

If you have a “bit” of documentation, such as some forms, templates, accounting records, and sales materials, but not much of a consistent process for documentation, you are in Stage 2. You may be a Stage 2 if you have lots of notes, but you don’t have a process yet for getting value out of them.

There is a good chance you are in Stage 2 if you are a private company, entrepreneur, or personal business owner. Bigger organizations aren’t precluded from this stage either.

Many Stage 2s scrape by until there is a burning, immediate challenge (e.g., lawsuit, going public, retirement of a key employee, regulatory requirement, loss of critical information, or embarrassment with a customer or a boss) to push them up to the next stage.

What are signs of Stage 2?

  • Little or sporadic documentation
  • No documentation systems or codification
  • Minimal processes in place
  • Few meeting notes, sales records, communications, and unresolved culture around documentation

Stage 3. OK But Suboptimal Documentation (“Check-the-Box”)

Most of my clients (at least when I start working with them) are in Stage 3. If you are in Stage 3, you probably have many superficial aspects of documentation in place (e.g., templates, memos, procedures, systems), but your documentation and related practices are not working as well as they should.

If your team or your company is in Stage 3, you may be “going through the motions” when it comes to documentation. You are probably documenting what is obvious to satisfy your customers, suppliers, auditors, and regulators. But your team doesn’t recognize the connection between documentation and improving behavior, driving action, and paving the road to success.

Many Stage 3s believe they are Stage 4s. “We have lots of documentation around XYZ process!” Stage 3s take a checklist approach—they believe that just “having documentation” is enough. If that is your company, documentation may be giving you a false sense of security and you are missing out on the returns a topflight effort would deliver.

If you are a Stage 3, although you may not need to sell your company on doing documentation in the first place (as in Stage 2), you may need to sell them on the value of documentation beyond just “because of the audit” or “because the boss said so.” 

What are signs of Stage 3?

  • Documentation in place but little connection to its value
  • Weak or sporadic documentation of processes or meetings
  • Reactive, not proactive, documentation
  • Issues that are talked about in circles and never reach a solution
  • Lack of momentum on projects
  • Failure to realize potential of staff members or consultants
  • Documents that aren’t read or referenced
  • Documents and document systems that don’t resonate with your staff


Stage 4. Optimized Documentation (Just-Right Documentation)

Stage 4 is the “ideal” to which you should aspire in your documentation journey. At this level, management regularly reviews and rewards strong documentation. There are established routines around documentation and, most importantly, your documentation is being used.

There isn’t one path that moves you from Stage 3 to Stage 4. It depends on what your team or organization needs and what obstacles you are facing. My experience is that these stumbling blocks are often not as high as they seem. You can get over them through simple but effective documentation techniques.

Some examples from my own experience in moving clients from Stage 3 to 4 include: building a portal to access information, implementing a reporting practice for a compliance program, and using interviews to speed up a project. Moving to Stage 4 has nothing to do with being “perfect” either. You know that you’re there when documentation is improving how people work.

If you are a Stage 4, use your processes, techniques, and results to promote documentation across your organization and broaden its applications to other teams, departments, projects, and applications. Documentation is contagious, and its gospel will spread.

What are signs of Stage 4?

  • “Fit for purpose” documentation
  • Proactive documentation practices
  • Usable, practical documentation systems and tools
  • Consistent meeting notes to capture ideas and actions
  • Documentation that is used, communicated and talked about
  • Regular documentation updates

Stage 5. Overdocumentation (Overkill)

If you are drowning in documentation and related systems and practices, you have the opposite problem of Stages 1 and 2. You could call Stage 5 the overkill stage. It is the most expensive of all the stages, and sometimes the most dangerous. And it’s also very common.

Unfortunately, in the documentation world, we tend to swing to extremes—either barely any documentation or mountains of it. Stage 5s are found in organizations where there is fear of failing regulatory requirements (e.g., SOX, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002), a lack of ability to write and communicate succinctly, or a lack of understanding of what information users and the company really need.

And many documentation specialists love detail, which gives us a personality bias toward overdocumentation, too.

Maybe you are in Stage 5 because you had a consultant who dumped every complicated “best practice” on your department, or maybe you had a business analyst who documented every little detail, or an IT vendor who sold you a Ferrari when you needed a bicycle. These are not uncommon scenarios.

Stage 5s are unfortunately some of the hardest projects to turn around. You must weed through lots of documents, bloated teams, painful templates, and overlapping systems—many of which need a complete overhaul. It is hard to tell an executive that their lengthy documentation or “best-in-class” system is not what they need. We feel attached to the projects we sponsor, and it’s hard to let go. (Researchers call this the IKEA effect, where we admire the bookshelf we built our

selves more than another bookshelf, even if it’s a bit off-kilter.)

If you are in Stage 5, use documentation techniques to help you to shed the fat with “lean” thinking to make your documentation practices digestible, functional, cost-effective, and smart.

What are signs of Stage 5?

  • Overthinking and redoing documentation
  • Documents that are never “good enough” or just never seem to reach completion
  • Complex documentation storage systems, workflows, templates, and metadata
  • Excessively long documents
  • Unreasonable documentation policies or standards
  • Endless review and edit cycles
  • More work on documentation than on value coming out

With this 5-Stage benchmark laid out, if you haven’t already, ask yourself:

  • Which stage does your team, project, department, or organization fall into?
  • Which one do you fall into personally—in different areas of your life (work, home, personal projects, administration)?

Be honest. Documentation best practices are about getting your team, your project, your company, and your individual processes to Stage 4—and staying there for good.

If you are struggling to get your team, department, or organization to a Stage 4, I’d love to help you out. I love talking to people about their documentation challenges and successes and would love to hear about your documentation practices too. Contact me at adrienne@riskoversight.ca to discuss.

This article is an excerpt from my latest book – The 24-HOUR RULE and Other Secrets for Smarter Organizations.