Meaning Guide

If you had better maps would you tell better stories?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I firmly believe that businesses need better maps, for a whole host of reasons.  Here’s another one:  Maps help you tell better stories.  By “better” I don’t mean better by Hollywood standards … your stories may or may not become more like Indiana Jones scripts, but I mean “better” as in more useful:  More accurate, more intelligible, more likely to lead to change.

Maps make you smarter

David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, recently said this:

“For a long time, psychologists, cognitive scientists, archaeologists, have understood that there are objects in the world that allow us to do things you couldn’t do otherwise. A fork, or a scythe, or a wheel. But there is a special kind of object in the world that not only does what the wheel and the scythe and the fork do, but also changes the wiring of your brain so that you can build in your mind a virtual fork, or a virtual scythe, or a virtual wheel.”

Krakauer calls these objects “complementary cognitive artefacts”, and gives several examples – astrolabes, sextants, quadrants, armillary spheres, abaci (that’s the plural of abacus in case you were wondering).  But his centrepiece example is the map:

“Maps are a beautiful example of this. Let’s imagine we don’t know how to get around a city.  Over the course of centuries or decades or years, many people contribute to the drawing of a very accurate map.  But if you sit down and pore over it, you can memorize the whole damn thing.  And you now have in your mind’s eye what it took thousands of people thousands of years to construct.  You’ve changed the internal wiring of your brain, in a very real sense, to encode spatial relations in the world that you could never have directly experienced.  That’s a beautiful complementary cognitive artefact.”

The visual models we make of business exist for the same reason – they “change the wiring of our brains”.  What if, just as maps of geography are made for a broad audience, we could make models of businesses that the average employee could understand?

Maps locate experiences

Imagine you are planning a vacation somewhere.  You decide where you want to go, then you use the map to plan out your itinerary.  The photos and videos you take along the way map out your experience of the holiday.  The experiences are chronological so they form a story:

“Story”, like “simplicity”, has been one of the business words of the past decade.  Stories are great, because they reflect how we experience the world.  The world doesn’t show up as a map, it shows up as a story.  You can look at multiple destinations at once on a map, but you can’t experience being in multiple places at once, because there’s always a flow of events.  Because they reflect our experience, stories engage us and bring meaning to life.  So if they’re so great, why do maps make them better?  Two reasons:

(i) Stories still require a shared frame of reference.  If you are writing a novel set on planet earth then you assume that the map of the world is already internalised “in the reader’s mind’s eye”, to use Krakauer’s phrase.  But if it’s not, then you will almost certainly need a map:  I mean, how many fantasy or sci-fi novels have you seen that didn’t include a map on the inside cover?  The trouble in business is that when we listen to people’s stories, no matter how engaging they are, without a shared frame of references they are only isolated vignettes.  If I happen to work in the same department then I already have that frame of reference, but if I work in upper management then I probably don’t.

(ii) Without a shared frame of reference, stories about the future don’t seem credible.  How do we tell stories about things that haven’t happened yet?  Where is the underlying frame of reference that those stories attach to?  The sad truth is that in most businesses, this kind of map simply doesn’t exist.  You can tell me the most compelling story about the Promised Land, but without a map to show me the way, we’re lost!

Here’s a practical example at a national scale.  In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the UK was left with a national debt fast approaching £1trn.  I remember listening to the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne telling us a story about living within our means, harking back to the familiar Conservative metaphor of the country as a house, with the wise homeowner imposing austerity on themselves in order to balance the books.  The Labour government argued that cutting spending would actually result in less money, because the economic pump needs to be primed with increased public investment in order to get people working and spending again.  So which story do you prefer?  Is the economy more like a house or a pump?  If the only shared reference points we have are simplistic metaphors like these, then how on earth can you tell?!  Without some kind of shared map of how the economy actually works as a system, we’re not even talking about the same things.  Instead of intelligent, constructive dialogue we end up with competing narratives locked in a cycle of abuse and recrimination.

You need a better map!

And so we end up with the picture I started the post with, and the key question, what should the bottom layer look like for organisations?

I’ve been reflecting on this for years (and of course the production of these kinds of maps is the main reason our company exists) but it’s really struck me in recent years how much more powerful our stories could be if the events they allude to could be located in a shared frame of reference.  The closest we have to these are business architecture diagrams, but they’re typically:

  1. Written in ArchiMate or some other UML-variant modelling language that only technical people understand (or at least pretend to understand)
  2. Bewilderingly complex, because they adopt the engineering-mindset of trying to represent everything precisely and accurately
  3. Out-of-date, because budget-holders only see value in them when there is a technology change underway

All of which, of course, defeats the purpose of the exercise.  Who would want to talk about planning a holiday if the only maps available of the destination were old, massively complex and written in ISO-specified text boxes?  We need new maps.

Better maps, better policies

What should these maps look like?  Read the rest of this blog for more ideas, but as the high noon for Brexit approaches, I can’t resist linking to our EU map from last year, and by observing that the whole referendum campaign was based on competing narratives with no shared map of what each story referred to.  Stories without maps are powerful but dangerous.  Stories in isolation shouldn’t be governing strategy, policy and organisational change; these stories need to be embedded in maps that better capture the systemic nature of the world:

I used this model just last week to tell the story of “sovereignty” – one of the main sticking points during the referendum campaign.  In 30 seconds I could show the journey from domestic elections through to the prime minister sitting with the Council to priortise initiatives, the work of the appointed but unelected Commissioners to convert those priorities into draft legislation, the negotiations between government ministers and elected MEPs, and the enforcement of the approved legislation by the Commission.  If I had more than 30 seconds I could fill in the story with examples.  If we had an hour with people from across the system we could tell a whole range of stories from a whole range of perspectives.

The thing is, those stories would stick.  They would create shared meaning.  I’m not naive enough to believe that maintaining meaningful maps would make all our problems disappear, but they would at least give us a better way of talking about them.

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