Mapping the future

My conversation with Simon Wardley, inventor of Wardley Mapping and Senior Researcher at DXC Technology

Simon Wardley

I first met Simon Wardley when we worked together on my company nexxworks’ project at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and I became deeply inspired by his visual way of analyzing and strategizing. His Wardley map methodology is extremely useful for business leaders and I believe that there’s no better way to explain how this visual approach works, than by showing it on video:

If you’ve ever talked to Simon, you’ll notice how humble he is, always trying to persuade others of the fact that his biggest achievements seem to happen almost accidentally: from his renowned mapping methodology to his Map Camp turning into a conference and even his duck pond growing from a few to about 80 ducks (ok, the latter is perhaps not his biggest achievement, but it’s still pretty impressive).

Just take the origin story of his mapping method. The way he tells it, he was basically running a company without a clue as to what he was doing. And when he started looking for answers in the Big strategy books and elsewhere, he failed to find something truly helpful. Until he read not 1 but 2 different translations of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and was struck there by the 5 factors that were said to drive competition:

  1. Purpose
  2. Landscape
  3. Climate
  4. Doctrine
  5. Leadership

He was especially intrigued by the landscape part and so decided that he needed a map, at first reaching to the most popular ones like customer journey maps and business process maps. But when he started to move around the pieces there, seeing that this did not change the meaning of the map, he realized that these were graphs, not maps. Because when you for instance put Australia next to the UK, your entire map changes, right? And so he developed his own maps - where place did matter - from about 2005 until 2012, when people started noticing them. And that was also when he realized that his method was pretty unique in the business environment.

This is how he describes it: “I built a tool because I found it useful. I made it creative commons. And like most useful things, it started to spread. But it’s also spreading very slowly, seeing that management practices take 30 to 50 years to change. That's about it.”

A constant flow from novel to commodity

Wardley maps are great to uncover the constant flow and the direction in which business (or society, concepts etc.) evolves. “In any industrial ecosystem”, Simon explained, “novel things constantly appear as a consequence of the desire of companies and individuals to gain an advantage over others and differentiate. Those things that are useful will be copied. They will spread until the once novel and new becomes commonplace. The magic of the first electric light bulb, the first computer and the first telephone are now an expected norm. We no longer marvel at such things but instead we would reel in utter shock if presented with a workplace that did not provide them.”

“Things not only evolved from novel to commonplace - enabling new things to appear - but they also allow for new forms of practice and organization. Throughout our history, the standardization of components has always enabled creations of greater complexity. If we define economic progress as the movement of our society to ever more complex technological marvels, then progress is simply a manifestation of competition. This impacts all organizations. And this is what we have to map.”

Maps to help us frame

Framers is probably one of the most horrible books I've ever read. (Just wait, I’m actually going somewhere with this.) Its authors are clearly talented, but I hated the book. Except for its premise, which I loved: in a world of massive automation and artificial intelligence, the reason that we need the humans is to provide the frame, which is brilliantly visualized on the cover by these two hands:

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I think that Wardley Maps are an excellent tool to help strategists accomplish that framing. And I’ve got the perfect example for that. One of the 12 industry research groups Simon is active in, is focused on agriculture. Group members are farmers, government officials from different countries and other experts. So they discussed what the most important areas of investment would be and came up with the usual concepts like vertical farming, reducing food waste, drones, AI, IOT, etc. But once they started to categorize all of these trends and map them, often adding concepts they did not think about earlier, they ended up with very different priorities, being:

  1. The need to educate the consumer through labeling in terms of what's in the food.
  2. Creating an identity for farmers - around farming practice, preservation, breeding, forestation, etc. - because, particularly in the west, farming has become severely diminished.
  3. The need to improve awareness of the supply chain because most of us really poorly understand it.

“When you look at what the analysts have been saying - design tools, automation, consolidation, robotic drones, et cetera – and then compare that with the data, then you come across shockers like these”, explained Simon. “We've done all this industrialization, all this automation and the result was mostly that we got rid of a lot of farmers. But we haven't improved our productivity. Well, we've improved it bit, but not as far as Asia, where there is far less automation and there are a lot more farmers. And the result in the west is that we created monoculture and poor soil structure, which is exposed to all sorts of risks. While Asia is much more intensive in terms of farm people, much more diverse, much more resilient and has better productivity. In fact, all we've done on our side is we've got good at maximizing profit, which is maybe not the thing we need to be focused on.”

Changing the story

Another great consequence of the Wardley mapping method is that it opens people up to feedback, without them feeling personally attacked. “Large organizations tend to be story driven”, he said. There's an entire industry which goes around telling everybody "to be a great leader, you've got to be a great storyteller". The problem with that is if you challenge the story, you're actually saying “you're not a great leader”. And so people get super defensive. But this method allows people to take their story, put it in a map and others can then challenge the map without challenging the person. Because all maps are imperfect anyway, right? A map of England is nothing like England itself.”

“And so I've seen these remarkable examples where people have been doing things which made no sense. But they had no way of expressing why. And once you've got the whole thing onto a map, people could have a conversation about the map without challenging each other. With very little conflict, they could find a better map and change what they're doing.”

About virtual events

Simon and I also talked about why it takes so long for virtual events to evolve into mainstream, while he was drawing a map. He did that on the go, so the only thing I can share is this very imperfect screenshot, but I want to show it anyway to illustrate his method:

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He explained that “social practice” always needs a “space”, which can be “physical” or “virtual”. Physical spaces are always custom products (one conference venue is never the same as others) while virtual spaces are really an industrialized commodity. That means we would always have evolved from custom physical space to commoditized virtual space in the end. But COVID’s isolation economy really acted as a forcing function for that change and sped it up.

The reason why the virtualization of space, especially in work environments, is so often met with resistance or inertia, has everything to do with power, according to Simon. “It’s not just about the fact that companies have preinstalled capital (office buildings etc.) in the physical space. Their advantages and their power relationships, too, are derived from those preexisting physical practices. But the virtual practices are still emerging and we haven't developed status practices there yet. Often managers want to get everybody back into the office because a lot of their power comes from their large top floor office, their car parking space and all those symbols of power which have not yet been created in this virtual world. And the second thing, of course, is that they're not used yet to managing in that space. So we have to develop those new practices. The same goes for virtual conferences. I know we can't do corridor conversations in the same way as physical conferences yet, but I believe we’ll evolve that way.”

About next generation companies

Every 10 years, Simon also does a comprehensive population study of companies, looking for what he calls phenotypic changes. The last two of those happened in 2011 and 2021, and here were the main findings of how organizations were expected to evolve:

In 2011:

“When I published the study of 2011”, Simon explained, “a whole bunch of people said “The stuff on the right, that's just for startups. You'll never see an enterprise doing that”. But revisiting the findings today, you see every enterprise evolving towards an ecosystem, big data or DevOps, a service structure etc.”

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In 2021:

And again, when Simon showed his 2021 findings to people, a lot of them claimed that the next generation characteristics are just for startups. Yet the data clearly shows that this is the general direction:

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If there is one thing I learned over the years, it’s that it is incredibly hard to see the direction in which the world is evolving and how a strategy can adapt to that constant flow. But I really think Wardley mapping is a great way to look beyond your own biases and insecurities and form a picture of the future and your place in it, whatever you hope to achieve.