The Benefits of Mapping

Marcus Guest
7 min readOct 25


“Instead of using multiple different ways of explaining the same thing between different functions of the company then try to use one: A map.” — Simon Wardley

As we explored in Book One,⁠ the modern business world shares some similarities with warfare — competition with rivals and uncertainty (as we don’t know what rivals will do next). As in warfare modern business is driven by technological changes which players need to master if they’re not to be out-competed by rivals. Yet most technologies are ‘higher-order systems’ built on top of multiple sub-systems that satisfy new user needs. Let’s take artificial intelligence, which is built on top of sub-components like computers and databases, which themselves are built on top of other sub-components like power generation (electricity). This result is that no organisation can master all the components it uses to create value and this creates problems because it means that organisations need to coordinate with others in order to get a job done and this adds complexity.

Fig 1: (Very basic) map of AI

Managing complex operations is something the world of business also shares with the world of war. Yet army generals don’t need to know how to sail a ship to work with someone from the navy, nor do admirals need to know how to fire field artillery to work with someone from the army because they use maps to co-ordinate their activities in pursuit of a common mission; allowing each to focus on their specialised area. Therefore we can say that, at their most basic, maps work as a common language enabling people from different functions to coordinate complex activities effectively.

Unfortunately, unlike the world of war, the business world lacks maps and therefore a common language. Business meetings take place every day that waste everyone’s time as different functions (the business equivalent of generals and admirals) struggle to understand each other as each speaks their own particular jargon in pursuit of getting their own particular needs satisfied: Finance insists on everyone else submitting budgets by a certain deadline, (even for innovative projects where no data yet exists) so they can submit financial forecasts to the board; whilst technology people try desperately to explain to non-technical people why they need investment for certain software (whilst padding the figures to ensure some resources are left over for when the inevitable ‘improvement’ is demanded halfway through the project). Senior leaders try to show they’re keeping up with everything being said but usually end up making the decision that will best cover their backside if anything goes wrong. Imagine if wars were fought like this!

But there is an alternative. Meetings with maps focuses everyone on the needs that really matter, those of end users. Maps also help translate the different perspectives of functions into a context everyone can understand, which allows everyone to challenge anything unclear or possibly wrong. Meetings with maps bring the collective intelligence of a team online so they learn together how they can create more value: It doesn’t matter if you’re generals and admirals planning a mission, or business and technology teams planning a product launch — a common language transforms your intellectual diversity into an asset that can be exploited rather than a liability to be overcome.

Fig 2: Coordinating activities with a map

Wardley Maps have many benefits, so many benefits in fact that listing them can make the method sound like a cure all for every problem an organisation could possibly have. But, then again, if you were on your own and lost in a strange city where you didn’t speak the local language then opening a map on your phone, which suddenly reveals where you are, where everything else is around you and how you can move through this space should also feel a lot like magic if it wasn’t for the fact that we all so frequently use maps in almost every aspect of our lives, (except in business).

So, without embarrassment or exaggeration let’s look some of the many benefits of Wardley Maps:

  1. Creating a common purpose — By focusing on external (rather than internal) user needs you create a common purpose for everyone in the organisation. Everyone now understands that the organisation creates value by satisfying the needs of important others (buyers of products or services, investors, or others who have the power to influence their fortunes).
  2. Improving organisational learning — A clear and easy to see visual representations of an organisation and its wider environment shows how a business, or even an industry, operates. Everyone can now understand what’s really going in and around your organisations and can start to actively contribute to any strategy being developed or deployed.
  3. Coping with change — Wardley Maps were designed to help organisations cope with the fundamental rule of business: Everything evolves through supply and demand competition. You don’t need to waste resources on overly-detailed plans for an unpredictable future when you can use continuously update you maps to show the impact of changes in real time.
  4. Managing complex environments — Now you know how evolved components in your organisation’s value chain are you can determine the most appropriate way to manage them because there’s no one size fits all method for all situations — you need to use multiple methods depending on how evolved components are and how much uncertainty they have.⁠
  5. Zooming in and out — You can make a Wardley Map of an entire industry to see how value is created today and consider how it might (or might not) be created tomorrow. You can also map a single component, like a silicon chip, to understand the supply chain for fabricating these. And you can map anything in between that you need to focus your attention on⁠.
  6. Anticipating the future The future may be uncertain, but not everything is unpredictable. Maps can be used to uncover re-occurring economic patterns, some of which are quite predictable. While it remains hard to predict exactly what other players on the market will do, we can anticipate industry trends and gain a head start, because not everything is random.
  7. Identifying new opportunities — Maps not only reveal which components and capabilities are critical to creating value in your industry today, but also highlight what will matter tomorrow — meaning you’ll be able to prioritise investments for innovation, differentiation against competitors and greater efficiency opportunities, such as common shared services⁠.
  8. Mitigating risks — Maps also show potential risks for the organisation: Risks around contracts, risks connected to mismanaging projects or people, risks connected to coming changes in the industry and the impact these will have on the organisation, risks connected to supply chain constraints; and risks related to inertia⁠.
  9. Managing contracts efficiently — Instead of the difficulties involved with making sense of large scale contract specification documents you can use maps to visualise arrangements. Even a large project can be mapped in an afternoon and will reveal where the risks of severe cost overruns are and whether the wrong methods are being deployed⁠.
  10. Developing organisational structure — Maps show value chains of multiple components in different stages of evolution and these can now be managed by smaller teams using multiple, appropriate methods (rather than trying to imposing a single method on everything). Leaders now need only manage interfaces between teams rather than the teams themselves⁠.
  11. Creating appropriate cultures — Cultural transformations often try to create a single culture, but to adapt to a changing world organisations need more than a single ‘cult’ — they need at least three cultures to deal with: Emerging opportunities, intensifying competition, and business model disruption. Maps help identify and manage all three cultures⁠.
  12. Allocating resources — Mapping helps organisations identify capability gaps, new skills or assets that need to be developed and where resources should be focused: These might be different types of people or new technologies, strategic partnerships that can bring potential synergies as well as anticipating integration challenges that will need to be overcome⁠.
  13. Enabling strategic gameplay — With maps you will be able to see where you can attack the market and the various moves you can deploy to shape a landscape to your advantage. There’s a whole playbook of moves in the mapping method than can be deployed: From building ecosystems, to exploiting the inertia of others, and undermining barriers to entry⁠.
  14. Scenario planning — Maps don’t tell you what to do but they help you find paths forward by seeing how things are connected. You can now roll different scenarios forward and start answering “what if” questions (ex. “What would happen if we did this, or a rival did that?”) all the while quickly and safely testing the potential impact of changes on maps first⁠.
  15. Learning from events — Finally, maps can also be used to learn from the past — reviewing how past assumptions and decisions unfolded and why certain moves you, or others made, led to victories or defeats — so you learn to play the game better next time⁠.

In summary, Wardley Maps are an extremely powerful tool for depicting how your organisation (and the wider industry) creates value today by satisfying user needs, seeing how this landscape is changing, and exploring where your options for action are. The clearer you see this bigger picture — and the more effectively you use it to communicate with those around you — the greater your chances of turning conditions to you favour. This is what strategic leaders do: Rather than launching all their resources on a single, copycat idea and hoping rivals don’t counter it they ‘out-think and out-move’ rivals by discovering and testing out ideas on a map first. This is why Sun Tzu wrote that:

“the victorious army only enters battle after having first won the victory, while the defeated army only seeks victory after having first entered the fray” — The Art of War, Chapter 4

Leaders, teams and organisations that use Wardley Maps develop the ability to explore new ideas quicker, exploit new opportunities better and more effectively overcome the challenges holding back their organisation and even their entire industry. And they do all this with little more than some paper and pens and a few people prepared to take an hour or two to think things through.



Marcus Guest

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