What do Wardley maps really map? A settler writes

On the last day of Foocamp 2011, after a whirlwind of other fascinating conversations, Edd Dumbill introduced me to the business strategist and researcher Simon Wardley. Over a tasty Californian street food lunch Simon proceeded to draw me a literal back of a napkin sketch of his “pioneers, settlers, town planners” model.

I was intrigued because this tripartite structure seemed to mirror my own experience at Orange/France Telecom Group, in a division dedicated to the “industrialisation” of solutions pushed by the company’s powerful research and development division. At the end of our chat, Simon took my business card; on it he wrote, “Settler”.

Ever since, I’ve followed Simon’s writing, and, more recently the well-deserved success of his mapping technique as a way for large organisations to acquire some semblance of situational awareness. You should check out his highly readable and enlightening series of posts. In fact, the rest of this will only make sense if you have at least a passing familiarity with Simon’s model. But there are some aspects of the model that bother me, and this long-overdue post is to share them with you.

I write from the perspective of a serial settler. I’m the one who moved from print to new media just as America Online was carpet-bombing the developed world with connection CDs. I joined a mobile operator the year its customer base doubled thanks to first-time, pay as you go, phone buyers. I arrived at the Government Digital Service the week the first, 24-department, transition to GOV.UK was completed.

We settlers occupy a precarious yet privileged position. Simon’s other two archetypes can always reach for a handrail at one or other edge of the map. There’s always something so bleeding edge that only the pioneers geek out about it, and something so commoditised that only the town planners can get excited. But settlers are stuck in the middle, constantly jostled by both of the other tribes. I reckon this positions settlers well to see the others’ points of view, as well as to appreciate the pitfalls of the model.

My first big lesson is this: do not structure your large organisation by pioneers, settlers and town planners.

I know because I’ve been there. In 2009-10, Orange Group wasted valuable months that could have been spent learning about user needs for iPhone and Android apps on a turf war over whether to treat the app store as a site of innovation, industrialisation or commodity. Rather than seek consensus about where on the map any given component sat, each group was incentivised to claim it for their own. This set up a permanent three-way tug-of-war between the tribes.

As anti-patterns go, it’s not much better than the rightly derided “bimodal” approach to managing technology. By all means recognise that the map has different kinds of context, with different attitudes required. But put all the attitudes into cross-functional teams – that way they have a fighting chance of being able to respond as one when the world changes.

My second insight is that evolution is complicated – much more so than you’d guess by seeing the simple x-axis of Simon’s maps. As I traced in my post on the three lives of the front-facing camera, actor-networks form and re-form; unlikely components gain visibility; others recede. Things flip from commodity to innovation and back again.

The use of the term “evolution” bothers me. It carries strong implication of an inevitable unidirectional process. Only with the benefit of hindsight can evolution be said to be a straight line, and that’s just a trick of perspective.

In the words of Michael Mullaney who analysed 20 years of Gartner hype cycles, “we’re terrible at making predictions. Especially about the future.” Gaining a better grasp of the here and now – “situational awareness” – seems more useful. But mapping should not be mistaken for a tool with predictive power by implying that things naturally move from left to right.

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Figure 20 from Simon’s Medium post titled “Everything evolves”

It also troubles me that the axes on a Wardley map are not truly independent. There’s a clear correlation between visibility and commodification, which sees most maps take on a top-left to bottom-right drift. This begs some questions. Is there a causal link between the two axes, and if so in which direction? Or might there be a third factor at play?

My experience of organisational dysfunction and dissatisfaction with “evolution” as an axis combine to one big conclusion. Accept this conclusion and I think mapping can be a valuable practice.

Here goes: All maps are socially constructed. Wardley maps are therefore an artefact of social science, not (despite the Darwinian metaphor) a life science. The x-axis shows not evolution but level of consensus.

Exhibit, this table of the different characteristics at different stages. It’s a chart that can only have come from years of astute people watching. Whether he knows it or not, Simon is an ethnographer par excellence

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Table showing characteristics and general properties of the different stages in Simon Wardley’s model

I say that as a good thing, not a criticism, but it has 2 important implications…

  1. the process of mapping is itself part of the social construction. The act of observing always changes the outcome
  2. a common manoeuvre to secure consensus is to create an illusion of objectivity, so maps contain the seeds of their own misinterpretation.

When we map, we are never disinterested observers. We all have agendas, and whether consciously or not, will use the mapping process to advance them. Elements only move from left to right on Simon’s maps because people move them! And not moving them, or moving them backwards is always an option.

Likewise, whether things are visible or invisible is often a matter of contention. People seeking prematurely to commoditise an element may claim that “users don’t care about x so we can treat it as a commodity.” For example, when it comes to matters like encryption, or where their data is held, user research shows that users don’t care – until one day suddenly they do.

As I was puzzling over this point a few weeks ago, Simon tweeted that: “All maps are imperfect representations. Their value is in exposing assumptions. allowing challenge and creating consensus.”

That is true. But one could just as easily use maps to launder assumptions into facts, delegitimise challenge (and still create consensus). If I wanted to lie with a map, the implied inevitability of evolution would be very convenient to me.

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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