Have a look at our new Handbook: "Transitioning from Monolith to Microservices"!  Discover →

Back to the list
Episode 77 · Jan 10, 2023

Simon Wardley on Improving Business With Maps

Featuring Simon Wardley, Researcher
Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Spotify

The complexity of business and business processes can pull us away from the big picture. Internal documents, graphs, and other visual representations are there to aid us, but they might not be detailed enough, intuitive, or easy to read. In this regard, Wardley maps are business management tools that help organizations visualize their processes by plotting all their components topologically. In this episode, we will learn how to use maps to change a business position or strategy, represent possible scenarios or options, and improve decision-making.

Edited transcription

Simon Wardley is confident of the results his invention, Wardley mapping provides. In 2008, when working at Canonical as manager of software services, he used mapping to define their business strategy and helped Ubuntu move from 3% of the OS market to 70% of all cloud computing systems. Maps, says Wardley, help them learn where to move forward, and what new, unidentified practices they could be part of.

Widely used in several industries and practices —from small businesses to government organizations—, Wardley maps came out as a response to uncertainty. As CEO of the photo services company Fotango in the early 2000s, Simon had a hard time grasping the extent of the services his company provided. Puzzled yet looking for help, he ran into Sun Tzu’s all-time classic The art of War. What stood out the most for Simon was Sun Tzu’s five factors in laying plans:

  1. Purpose. Having a purpose or moral imperative to what you are trying to do and why. This will determine why others would follow you.
  2. Earth. Describe and understand the landscape you’re competing in, including the position of troops, obstacles, and other topological features.
  3. Heavens. Understanding the climatic patterns of the landscape and how it affects the environment and the elements in it.
  4. Doctrine. Understanding doctrinal principles of organization, how you train your forces, and how you structure yourself and them around the landscape.
  5. Leadership. Choosing a strategy after reviewing the previous four factors.

Simon was surprised by how much importance Sun Tzu gave to the landscape in planning. Regardless of the differences between military and business strategy, Simon figured out it was crucial to think of his company as an environment to learn how it worked. In other words, he decided to make a map of it.

Simon asked throughout his company for every map there could be, including “mind maps, business process maps, and systems maps.” Still, it didn’t take long for Simon to realize that most of these were not maps, but graphs. While both maps and graphs connect concepts through nodes, in maps, space has meaning.

In maps, “where you put the nodes matters”, says Simon. “If you think about playing a game of chess, [….], the decision of moving a piece is determined by what we have learned about the environment, so when we move a piece, we’d learn about that move based upon the environment because we can observe the environment”, he adds. It is due to this additional layer of interaction, Simon believes, that “maps are very good for exploring territories and landscapes.”

After learning about this difference, Wardley devised a map for his organization. Maps, Simon argues, treat space in a way that provides intrinsic benefits for representation and observation that other forms of representation lack. Simon says that maps help to understand “the components involved in creating something, understanding how evolved those components are”, learn about the economic patterns in the industry, and use this information for anticipation. those for anticipation.”

To explain how mapping can provide valuable feedback, Simon gives the example of a mapping he did for an insurance company. His task was to take a look at a bottleneck in their business process: “they needed computers, they would order servers, servers would go into goods in, they’d modify, mount and rack it.” He found that they used custom racks for their customers instead of standard racks. Modifying racks added complexity, time, and cost to production. Yet, upon reflecting on it, the company couldn’t justify why they were using custom racks instead of standard. Perhaps it made sense someday, but not it didn’t anymore. So they optimized their process flow by ditching custom racks. According to Simon, mapping allowed the company to expose “their assumptions of the territory in a form that others can look at and question whether the map is right or wrong.”

By creating a representation of the business, its components, and how their work, maps show the company’s “assumptions over how something should be built, and that allows other people to see my assumptions and to challenge my assumptions through the map.” Maps also allow us to bypass conflict with business stories: “we have an entire industry tell everybody that great leaders are great storytellers, so if I have a story and you challenge my story, you’re saying you’re not a great leader, so I get very defensive.” Simon assures that challenging maps, in turn, don’t have this ego dilemma.

How to map

According to Simon, to create a map of something, you need to define three things:

  • Anchors. Anchors act as magnetic north to orient the map pieces by determining their position and setting where they can move to. “If I’m mapping out a competitive environment, I’ll use anchors of say the users and the business,” says Simon.
  • Value chain. The position of anchors within the map on the y-axis. While territorial maps have positions set in the cardinal positions, in mapping a business the key is mapping the supply chain and its need. As an example, mapping a tea shop could consist of mapping the public need for a cup of tea and the business need for selling them. It would also include the needs of a cup of tea, that is, the cup, tea, and hot water, but also the needs of the hot water and so on. Simon recommends using this axis as a representation of how visible components are for customers: from more to less visible.
  • Evolution. The x-axis marks the directions in which map elements can move while keeping consistency between them, or rather, how they evolve. To survive, says Simon, all businesses are subject to change and add more layers of complexity to their operations: “when we talk about evolution, we talk about the genesis of the novel and new, then those things evolve to become custom-built examples, then products and rental services and eventually commodity and utility services.” 
Image source: Wardley Maps 1 — True user needs

Learning mapping

Simon understands it takes three months to learn to map but reminds us that it demands practice, so it’s best to start early. Simon teaches mapping mostly to companies, groups from 20 to 30 people in a period of three to four weeks, doing a half a day session around each week. Simon separates teaching into four sessions or steps:

  1. Awareness. Get acquainted with most of the theory. Learning what mapping is, how it is possible to map space, and why situational awareness is important and useful.
  2. Practice. Pick a problem, and ask who are the users in that line of business and what are their needs. Later, ask what components are needed to satisfy those needs and how these have evolved. Simon shows them the mapping of a tea shop. Simon recommends the tea shop example since it’s something most people are familiar with. Then, he encourages you to do the same while looking at your organization and familiarizing yourself with its system.
  3. Patterns. Recognizing the “patterns that come out of mapping, particularly doctrine and organizational patterns”. To find these patterns, Simon recommends going back to the scenario in the previous step and analyzing it “from the viewpoint of principles and doctrine of how the organization runs.”
  4. Map refining. Polish your map by working “on anticipation, looking at competitors, their doctrine” and deciding where your company should step up to win the market. To encourage feedback on maps, he advises students to make different choices on the same scenario to refine their “understanding of what is possible in that space.”

Overall, Simon reminds us to always challenge our assumptions and allow others to do it as well when mapping: “it’s also a model, it’s going to be wrong. So that’s great, what you do is you share it with someone else and allow them to look at your assumptions and challenge what you’re doing”.

The bottom line

To learn more about Wardley maps, Simon has a Wardley maps series on Medium. Additionally, you can check the community list of maps on Github where you will also find other useful resources such as videos, courses, and certifications in. If you want to keep updated with the latest from Simon, follow him on Twitter.

Meet the host

Darko Fabijan

Darko, co-founder of Semaphore, enjoys breaking new ground and exploring tools and ideas that improve developer lives. He enjoys finding the best technical solutions with his engineering team at Semaphore. In his spare time, you’ll find him cooking, hiking and gardening indoors.

twitter logolinkedin logo