Chapter 1: On Being Lost

This is a summary of Chapter 1 of Simon Wardley’s free book on mapping, which documents his journey from bumbling CEO to competent strategist — someone with a vague idea of what they’re doing. It begins two decades ago, with a young Simon Wardley and an innocuous enough question from a senior executive. “Does this strategy makes sense?”

The document in Simon’s hands certainly ticked all the right boxes. It had the right sorts of diagrams and all the familiar buzzwords like “innovation,” “efficiency,” “alignment,” and “culture.” So he answered, “seems fine to me.” But he really had no clue.

Fast forward a decade. Simon, now a CEO, could feel the full weight of his responsibility — the company might live or die based on the strategic choices he made. But he still had no clue, and he knew it. It seemed like somewhere along the way he’d missed some really important lessons on how to evaluate strategy. He felt like an imposter. He needed to learn quickly or he might be found out!

So he began studying everything he could get his hands on — strategy documents, books, models, and more. Eventually, by complete chance, he picked up Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” After reading a few different translations, a framework for competition and strategy — Sun Tzu’s Five Factors — began to emerge:

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

If he considered business in terms of this framework, might he find the missing pieces — those all-important lessons on evaluating strategy?

Purpose is your moral imperative. The scope of what you are doing and why you are doing it. The reason others follow you.

Landscape is a description of the environment you’re competing in, including the position of troops, the features of the landscape, and any obstacles in your way.

Climate describes the forces acting upon the environment, the patterns of the seasons, the rules of the game, and your competitors’ actions. You don’t get to choose these forces, but you can discover them.

Doctrine is how you train your people, standard ways of operating, and techniques that you almost always apply. These are the universal principles, the set of beliefs that appear to work regardless of the landscape.

Leadership is about the context-specific strategy that you choose after considering your purpose, the landscape, the climate and your capabilities.

For Simon, it soon became clear that the typical strategy jumps straight from purpose to leadership, ignoring everything in between, meaning too many decisions are made with just gut feel and opinion.

As George Box once famously said, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” And this model seemed useful, so he dug deeper.

His study of Sun Tzu led him to military history. The idea of topographical intelligence – having and using maps to exploit the landscape — seemed vital. Generals with situational awareness of the landscape tended to win. Generals without, tended to lose.

So how does one describe the landscape and gain situational awareness in business? To answer that question, Simon had to find out what it is about maps that make them useful, which led him to the following:

  1. Maps are visual. You can point out where something is and where it should go.
  2. They’re also context-specific — focused only on the battle at-hand.
  3. They describe the position of specific components of the landscape, relative to some anchor (usually a compass).
  4. And finally, they depict the movement of those components.

No existing business diagrams seemed to include all of these aspects. Did that mean there were no maps in business?

If there were no maps, no understanding of the Landscape, then what about the other missing factors — Climate and Doctrine? Are there actually rules of the game, instead of everything being random? And which practices are universal? Which are context-specific? Simon explores these later.

In this chapter, chess is a recurring analogy. In chess, Simon explains, there are not one but two whys — the why of purpose such as the desire to win the game, but also the why of movement as in “why this move over that?”

As you play chess over time, you begin to learn which moves are beneficial and in which context. And you start getting better. But without an understanding of the landscape, without being able to see the board, the process of strategy and winning will remain mysterious.

Simon concludes with three important realizations:

  1. First, the strategy cycle (through Sun Tzu’s Five Factors of Purpose, Landscape, Climate, Doctrine, and Leadership) is iterative, not linear
  2. Second, acting is essential to learning, and
  3. Third, purpose isn’t fixed — it can change as the Landscape changes, and as you act.

Up next, in Chapter 2, Simon begins to describe what it looks like to make maps in business.

-----

To read Chapter 1 of Simon’s book, or to get started with Wardley Mapping for yourself, visit LearnWardleyMapping.com.