The map is not the territory

5 min readNov 24, 2016

As the saying goes all models are wrong, some are merely useful. A map is simply an imperfect representation of the territory. This is actually essential for usefulness. A perfect map of France would be a 1:1 scale map at which point it is the size of France and in effect useless. All maps are approximations.

There are a number of discrete characteristics that are essential to any map. These are

1) visual. It’s not a verbal story.

2) context specific. It is a map of specific landscape, it’s not a general map that applies to everything i.e. France is not the same as Spain.

3) position. You can see the position of relevant components (or features) on the map. This requires two things:- first, that you have components. Second, you have some form of anchor. Position is relative to something else and in the case of a geographical map then the anchor is the compass i.e. this hill (a component) is north of that feature. In the case of a game like Chess then the anchor is the chess board itself and a piece (a component) could be at position C1 or A2 etc.

4) movement. With a map you can mark on not only where components are but where they are moving (assuming they are capable of moving) and where they could move to i.e. the constraint of possibilities. Hence, I can see my infantry troops moving across the map and understand the barriers which force them to change direction i.e. troops walking off a cliff is not a good idea. Movement isn’t simply about drawing a line on a picture it’s about the consistency of meaning of such a line.

Position, anchor and movement are essential for navigation. Take a look at the following map. It’s a farm (that’s the context), it’s visual, it has position of fields relative to an anchor (in this case the compass) and you can draw movement on it. You’d probably agree that you can give this map to someone else and they could quite happily find the barley field with it.

Let us now remove those aspects of navigation. I’ve taken the same map, kept the same number of fields plus their shape and relative area sizes but removed any concept of position and the anchor. I’ve just placed the field in order of what type they are — fruit, livestock and crop. I’ve drawn a movement line ono this. The question is, could you hand this “map” to someone else and expect them to find the barley field?

It should be obvious that the answer is no. Movement and its consistency — you can follow this path to go from A to B — are not only essential qualities of a map but they also turn out to be essential for map making. These navigational qualities enable us to learn about the environment whether through a visual form or a equivalent internalised mental model.

In business, you can use a Wardley map (these are provided as creative commons) to describe the landscape. It’s visual, it is context specific (i.e. this business or that industry), it has position of components (on a value chain) relative to an anchor (the user need) and lastly it has consistency in movement. I’ve provided an example below. It also has some advanced mapping characteristics e.g. flow, type and climatic patterns.

A Wardley map

If you don’t know what a map is or the above is confusing then start with chapter 1 and can I suggest reading some basics of strategy.

Now, most companies use “maps” that aren’t maps i.e. they lack one of the basic characteristics e.g. business process maps, value stream maps, customer journey maps, mind maps … there’s a long list of things called maps which really aren’t. This doesn’t mean they are not useful, they can be extremely useful except in providing a systematic way of learning about the territory.

But what if my map is wrong!

First, all maps are wrong, they are all approximations. What you mean to say is “What if my map is badly wrong?”

Well, a map that is badly wrong can be quite dangerous. There’s a long history here of dangerous maps and poor situational awareness especially in the military where maps have been used for a long time. Books like Topographical Intelligence in the American Civil War are a worthy read. But there’s also plenty of examples of forces charging into a battle with no map and no understanding of the territory and the disastrous results that ensue — Ball’s Bluff, Little Big Horn.

The difference here is that even a wrong map provides you with an opportunity to learn. Without a map, you have no systematic way of learning about the territory — the rules of the game, what context specific play works and what is universal — other than hoping someone remembers it all and develops an internal mental model of the landscape. This can happen, we tend to call these people heroes as in “It was Mary that saved the business, she’s our hero”.

You’ll also find that without a map then you can’t even effectively communicate with others over the territory or pass those learned lessons along. Maps provide your common language and there’s a reason why maps and military history go hand in hand, including the “badly wrong” maps.

It’s true that maps are not the territory but if I’m going to lead a significant force against an opponent then I’d rather have a map of what we do know about the territory (even if parts of it says “here be dragons” or “we don’t know what’s in this bit”) and a wealth of lessons learned about climatic patterns, universal approaches and context specific play than to charge in blindly as if everything is unknown. I also hope my opponent is doing the blind charging and hoping that some hero will arise.

It’s a bit like paintball or world of warcraft. You always hope to end up fighting a team of newbies who don’t understand the landscape, who have no common mechanism of communication and charge in blindly with hopes that a hero will save them. They have goal such as “Let’s win!” but no understanding of movement (the why of strategy) and the resultant outcome is almost always the same “We lost, again!”

Unless they get very lucky or they’re fighting a team which is equally blind to the territory.

Ditto with business.

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This post is provided as Creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International by the original author, Simon Wardley, a researcher for the Leading Edge Forum.

Originally published at




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