February 7

Is the map the territory?

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“The map is not the territory” (Korbysky)

This is one of the ‘useful beliefs’ for life or success that are listed in self-development books and workshops. It’s simplicity is appealing, yet it’s simultaneously complex. Imagine scouring an OS Map to decide the best route to take for a walk in the hills. It's really only coloured lines on paper.

Like me, you may have learned how to use the contour lines to plot the slope of a hillside. (I think we used Pen-Y-Fan in "O level" Geography). The map contains the information we need, but not the land itself. And no map can account for the effects of rain making a marshy section impassable.

The London Underground map is a great example. Apart from the river Thames, it tells you nothing about the territory of London. Its sole purpose is to enable you to navigate around the underground stations.

As inaccurate as language

Like language, it’s full of deletions. Landmarks such as Buckingham Palace are not on it. Nor is information that links to the territory, such as which exit to take out of Victoria Tube for the Coach station. That information isn't included at all, yet it is on the signs as you emerge from tube into the daylight !

It’s also riddled with distortions - even the names! The Circle line doesn’t go in a circle. There aren’t ‘districts’ in London today, and the tracks go around bends other than 45 or 90 degrees. And there are generalisations too - the spacing of the stations is even on the map, but not in reality.

None of this matters though, because we don’t need that level of detail to get from station to station. Geek option: If you really want that information, Google maps shows where the tracks actually go - choose the ‘transportation’ option.

More a mental map than physical

What Korbysky was really saying is nothing to do with physical maps. He was referring to mental maps - the constructs we hold in our head to help us to navigate lifes journey. While we can share those maps with one another, what we share is only a representation of what we think. Unless we are curious to ask more, or consider the possibility of multiple meanings, we only get an inaccurate understanding.

Consider this scenario: 

You are taken ill over the weekend, and phone in sick on Monday. Sick-note in hand, you tell your boss you’ll be away for 2 weeks. When you return, on the team whiteboard it says you’ve been on annual leave. Are you OK with this lie, because its intended to keep your life private? Or is it wrong, because its a lie? Depends on your perspective, doesn't it? Your map. (You might also wonder why the boss didn't ask what he should tell the team, but that’s another point!)

Go beyond the map

To know the territory, we have to care enough to get out into the land described. To go beyond the map. As a leader, this is about getting to know your team, however hard it may be, due to Covid-19, workload, or competing demands.

When we don't know our people, they feel unseen. We need to talk to them, ask richer questions, and listen whole heartedly as we walk with them in their "territory". When they feel seen, they'll start to trust us. (And stop lying about sickness being holiday!)

All this takes time, however.

Sadly today, many people are often too busy to bother.

Is that you?

That's all for today. If you've questions or comments, drop me a line below or get in touch.

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