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What if your map is wrong?

If you want to get from point A to point B, you might use a map.

But, what if your map is wrong?

A familiar map of the world

Most of us are familiar with a map of the world which is based on the Mercator Projection (show to the left).

The Mercator Projection has many virtues. But it also has many limitations.

Notice, for example, the relative sizes of Greenland and Africa. In reality, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland.

These distortions occur because the map is a flat representation of a geospherical world.

Whilst the Mercator Projection is the map most of us are most familiar with, it is not the only one.

A sideways look at the word

For example, here is an equally 'valid' sideways map of the world. You probably have to look at it quite carefully to recognise what it is.

We're used to the idea that North appears at the top of the map, but, as this map shows, there is no reason why this should be so. Putting West at the top is equally 'valid' even if we find it a little disconcerting.

Each map has different purposes. The Mercator Projection is the way it is because it was most useful to European explorers. The sideways map, on the other hand, is better for showing the highlighted shipping routes from China to Rotterdam and New York.

The Dymaxion Projection

This curious Dymaxion Map create by Buckminster Fuller shows that the major landmasses are actually much more contiguous than the Mercator Projection might lead us to believe.

Types of maps

In addition to these different projections, there are numerous other types of maps, such as:

  • political maps, which shows the boundaries of countries.
  • topological maps, which show mountains and other features of the natural environment.
  • cadastral maps which show property boundaries and built structures.
  • thematic maps, which show any number of different attributes, like population density, for example.

Does any of this matter?

Most of the time: no, it doesn't. Most of us can get through the day with relatively simple street maps of our local area. Google maps with some sort of GPS is more than enough for most purposes.

But what if you have something more ambitious in mind?

What if you're planning on sailing around the world? Or expanding your business globally?

It has long been argued that the popular Mercator Projection gives us a Euro-centric view of the world. This, understandably rankles inhabitants of other parts of the world. It gives us a false sense of the distances between different points on the globe. And, given that people are likely to subconsciously associate size with importance, it distorts our perception of the relative importance of different regions.

If you're planning a trip from London to Paris, the Mercator Projection is probably just fine. But if you're planning a trip from, Murmansk to Alaska, then it might not be your best guide. (Credit to  @dwindersdever for suggesting this example.)

So, if you are planning something more ambitious than a trip to the supermarket, it may pay to spend at least a little time making sure you've got the right map to hand.

What's all this got to do with business strategy?

Sometimes, geographic maps do matter in strategic planning. For example, if you're planning a geographic expansion or building distribution.

But the point I was making was more of an analogy.

I'm talking about a map of our business environment rather than a geographic map. Instead of showing continents and oceans, a map of our business environment would show the relationships between:

  • customers
  • competitors
  • distributors
  • suppliers
  • products
  • processes
  • resources, etc.

Have you ever seen such a map? Probably not. We've been drawing geographic maps for thousands of years. We've only just started drawing maps of business environments. And because business environments are more abstract and changing than the physical world, we've found it much harder to do.

Of course, that does not mean we haven't been trying. There are a large number of frameworks, models and canvases that have emerged in recent years. Like the geographic maps described above, each has its inclusions and omissions, strengths and weaknesses. And each is more or less useful in different circumstances.

Some popular examples, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, include:

Think of your business strategy as a plan to get you from point A to point B. But A and B aren't physical points on the face of the earth. Instead, they represent the current state of your business (A) and what you would like your business to become (B) to be successful.

And, like a map, your business strategy should show you:

  • challenges to overcome or circumnavigate - like a mountain you have to go over, or around or find a pass through.
  • opportunities: like a river than you can use to transport heavy equipment more easily than you could over land, etc.
  • distance: like opportunities that are near to hand or more distant, and similarly threats that are imminent or further away.

If you have the right map, you just might get there. If you don't have the right map, you'll probably become disoriented, confused and lost. You'll head off in the wrong direction. Arguments will break out in your organisation about which way to go. You may never get to where you want to be.

And never forget, as Alfred Korzybski said: "the map is not the territory". No matter how good your map is, keep your eyes open as you move towards your goal and be prepared to adjust your plans in response to what actually happens.

If you need help mapping your business environment and plotting your path to success, contact me for a free no-obligation discussion.

About the author: Chris Fox is an independent business strategy development and execution consultant. He helps organisations develop and execute evidence-based future-oriented business strategies for growth and success. He is also the founder of, the online tool for collaborative business strategy development and execution.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It's crucial that the maps are simple enough for ALL stakeholders to understand. I've found that any diagram/map for business processes that has more than 15 +/5 boxes of information is TLDR for most people (too long didn't read. Driver's first law). Many strategy or business maps are highly understandable to the person who created but often almost meaningless to the average reader. That's why in OpenStrategies we only include in our strategy maps (SubStrategies): "the smallest amount of strategic information that has the highest value to the most stakeholders".