Get Ahead of the Curve

Marcus Guest
4 min readNov 4, 2021

When you use Wardley Maps for strategy, execution or organisational improvement — as we do with a select group of clients — one of the most surprising things is how far they are ahead of the rest of the game. It’s as if you’re seeing a decade into the future (which is why we only work with a select few organisations as most prefer to stick with the herd where it’s safe).

The first example of this ‘future-seeing’ for me was seeing how one of the most popular elements in Wardley maps — the Pioneer-Settler-Town Planner model for organising around different attitudes or cultures — contradicted one of the most accepted ‘best practices’ out there: Gartner’s ‘bi-modal’.

Bi-modal. Gartner

I had numerous conversations with department heads and org development ‘gurus’ (the reason there are so many gurus out there is that no-one knows how to spell ‘charlatan’ h/t Roger Holdsworth). They loved ‘bi-modal’ and no-one wanted to hear the problem that, with the aid of Wardley maps, had been diagnosed with this approach: ninjas and samurais just don’t get on!

If, in your organisation, you have people focused on the business of today and other people focused on the business of tomorrow you have set the groundwork for a war. Those focused on the business of today complain the others have ‘flaky ideas’, ‘pie in the sky (unrealistic) projects’ and are ‘burning our profits’. While those focused on the business of tomorrow complain the others are ‘too conservative and backward looking’, ‘overly-conformist and ignorant of the future’ and are ‘leading the company down a dead end’.

It doesn’t make for a pleasant atmosphere.

That’s why the Wardley mapping method, drawing on earlier work by Robert X. Cringely in ‘Accidental Empires’ proposed an all important third aptitude or culture to be cultivated in an organisation. You need someone who is able to work with the Pioneers (or innovators) focused on the business of tomorrow who takes their good ideas and turns them into viable products or services. But, they’re also adept at working with the Town Planners (or adapters) focused on the business of today, taking established products and turning them into scaled up platforms (on which, ironically, the business of the future will be built by the innovators).

This key ‘bridging’ role — called Settlers by Simon Wardley (somewhat to his regret now) — overcomes the inherent problems in the Gartner bi-modal approach. It calls for cultivating multiple cultures in an organisation to deal with the complex, ever-changing reality our businesses have to deal with. It made instant intuitive sense to me — does it to you?

“Tri-modal” (PST model). S.Wardley

So imagine my surprise when speaking to department heads and our ‘gurus’ to find that, not only were thy happy (in fact delighted) with their ‘bi-modal’ approach, but they really didn’t see any need to question it. “Sure, there are problems with it” they admitted. “It isn’t perfect” they would go on. “But it’s ‘best practice’ nowadays” and ‘no-one ever got fired for copying best practices’ (I added that last bit in myself, as I thought this was meant, if left unsaid).

That was my ‘come to Jesus’ moment: very few people are actively trying to succeed in business — most are just trying to avoid failure, hence being in the herd copying “best practice” is a good place to be. So, imagine my delight when Gartner updated their ‘bi-modal’ model in 2016 to a ‘tri-modal’ model.

As predicted in Wardley Maps a decade earlier.

They still suggest you need people to RUN things — the predicable, reliable standards the ‘business of today’ runs on. And they still suggest you need people to INNOVATE — exploring areas where there are no fixed rules, to discover the ‘business of tomorrow’. But now they admit you need something else — to DIFFERENTIATE as well. This is what you do with products or services to create a reason in customers’ minds to buy your offering over that of your rivals. ‘Settlers’ who take new products and services to market and continuously improve them until they are ripe for becoming platforms.

Now, of course, Gartner still call this a ‘bi-modal’ model as that’s just good marketing (they’ve got a brand hit and they shouldn’t let the name go for such trifling reasons as accuracy)but it’s quite clearly a ‘tri-modal’ model now. Exactly as predicted in Wardley maps over a decade earlier.

Now, as you can see from the daets, this is an old example (but will still be new to many, as most businesses are way behind the curve, which perhaps explains why they’re all looking to copy ‘best practices’ so they can catch up). But I started this post with the intention of writing about a new one —a recent Harvard Business Review explaining why you should NOT be trying to ‘go Agile’ everywhere, (as many organisations are mistakenly still doing today — again misguided by our ‘gurus’). But this post is already too long, so I’ll save that for next time.

So, if you’d like to read that be sure to follow me. I put out several blogs and videos most weeks showing you how to make your organisation better without getting side-tracked by all the gurus and best practices. And if you’d like to learn more about what we do and why check out our content on



Marcus Guest

Govern the state by being straightforward; And wage war by being crafty. — Laozi, Tao Te Ching