The Benefits of Mapping

Marcus Guest
6 min readOct 25, 2023

“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 — there is competition with rivals and uncertainty, as we don’t know what rivals will do next. Modern business, like warfare, is also driven by technological changes which players need to master quickly if they’re not to be out-competed by rivals. Yet most new technologies are ‘higher-order systems’ built on top of multiple sub-systems. For example, artificial intelligence 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). In consequence, no organisation can possibly master all the components it uses to create value for users and this creates a problem: Organisations need to cooperate with others in order to things job done and this creates complexity.

Fig 1: (Very basic) map of AI

Managing complex operations is also something the world of business 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. They use maps to coordinate their activities while each focuses on their own specialised area. This is why we can say that, at their most basic, maps are a common language enabling people from different functions to align activities effectively as they pursue a shared complex mission.

Unfortunately, unlike in the world of war, most businesses lack maps and therefore they lack a common language. This helps explain why so many business meetings waste everyone’s time, as different functions (the business equivalent of the army and navy) struggle to understand each other. Each functions speaks their own particular jargon in pursuit of their own particular needs: Finance demands budgets in spreadsheets, even for innovative projects where no data yet exists; IT use incomprehensible jargon to explain their even more incomprehensible architecture diagrams that are meant to create the case for critical development investments; and senior leaders try to show they’re keeping up with everything being said, but usually end up making decisions that serve to cover their own backsides if anything goes wrong. Imagine if wars were fought like this!

There is another way

Meeting with a map helps focus the attention of everyone on what really matters, translates different perspectives into a language everyone can understand, and provides opportunities for anyone to challenge anything that is unclear or potentially wrong without running the risk of challenging anyone’s authority. Meeting with a map brings the collective intelligence of a team online — whether generals and admirals planning a campaign, or business and tech teams planning a new product. A common language transforms the intellectual diversity of teams into an asset that can be exploited rather than a liability that they struggle to overcome.

Fig 2: Coordinating activities with a map

But Wardley Maps have many other benefits, so many in fact that listing them can make one sound like a snake oil salesman hawking a a cure all for every problem your could possibly have. But then again, if you were lost in a strange city where you didn’t speak the local language, opening a map on your phone to find out where you were, what was around you and how you can move through this space to get anywhere you want to get to would also feel magical — if it wasn’t for the fact that we all use maps in our lives every day for exactly this purpose — except in the world of business.

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

  1. Create a common purpose — By focusing on external user needs (rather than internal needs) everyone in the organisation can align around a common purpose — satisfying the needs of those others (customers, investors, talent) who influence the fortunes of your organisation.
  2. Improve organisational learning — A clear visualisation of how the organisation and the wider industry creates value today by satisfying user needs helps your people see how they can actively contribute to creating even more value tomorrow.
  3. Cope with change — Instead of wasting resources creating overly-detailed plans that don’t survive contact with reality maps enable people to make moves that shape the future to their advantage and course correct in real time as they go.
  4. Managing complex environments — When you know how evolved components in your organisation’s value chain are you can determine the most appropriate way to manage them — using multiple methods depending on how much uncertainty is involved.
  5. Zoom in and out — You can map an entire industry to see how it creates value today, a single component (like a silicon chip) to understand the supply chain for making these, or you can map anything in between that needs your attention.
  6. Anticipate the future — While it remains hard to predict what other players on the market will do you can nevertheless use maps to anticipate how the industry will change and get a head start on slow-moving rivals.
  7. Identify new opportunities — Maps show which components are critical to creating value today, but also highlight what might matter tomorrow — so you can prioritise investments for innovation, differentiation against competitors or greater efficiency opportunities.
  8. Mitigate risks — Maps show a range of potential risks to the organisation such as project management risks, investment risks, risks with teams, or industry related risks such as supply chain disruptions.
  9. Manage contracts efficiently — Maps can help you manage large projects with extensive contract specifications. Even a large project can be mapped in an afternoon to reveal potential cost overruns and whether the wrong methods are being deployed.
  10. Develop organisational structure —Maps allow you to organise around how value is created with small teams on clear missions and leaders managing the interfaces between teams, rather than lumping people into functional silos that struggle to work effectively with each other.
  11. Create appropriate cultures — To adapt to a changing world organisations need more than a single ‘cult’ — they need three cultures to deal with: Emerging opportunities, intensifying competition, and business model disruption. Maps help identify and manage all three.
  12. Allocate and integrate resources — Use maps to identify capability gaps and new assets that need to be developed, as well as identifying potential synergies of new business partnerships and managing integration challenges.
  13. Enable strategic gameplay — Maps help you see to attack the market and the moves you can deploy to shape a landscape to your advantage. These moves ranges from building ecosystems, to exploiting the inertia of others, and undermining barriers to entry.
  14. Scenario planning — With maps you can run different scenarios and start answering “what if” questions (ex. “What would happen if we did this, or a rival did that?”) as well as 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 — so you learn to play the game better next time⁠.

In summary, Wardley Maps are a 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. And the clearer you can see this bigger picture — and the more widely you share it with others around you — the greater your chances of identifying moves to exploit conditions to your favour. For real strategic leaders don’t put all their resources into a single, copycat idea, hoping rivals don’t counter it. They take their time to ‘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.

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Marcus Guest

Govern the state by being straightforward; And wage war by being crafty. — Laozi, Tao Te Ching marcus@powermaps.net PowerMaps.net