Much of our business practice of strategic thinking emerged from military practice. In those contexts, the need for competitive advantage is literally life or death.
As a business leader, Simon Wardley sensed the importance of strategic thinking, but as he set out to learn how great strategies are built and executed, he was dissatisfied with what he found. In particular, he noticed that business settings lacked the “situational awareness” that is so heavily emphasized in military strategy.
His efforts to create a better situational awareness for business leaders led to the creation of Wardley Maps, a strategic planning and communication tool. Wardley Maps visualize a business environment, with a focus on the evolution of components within that environment, to help organizations make better strategic decisions.
Wardley craved a map of his business landscape, one that, like a general on the battlefield, could help him understand (1) his current position, (2) options for movement, relative to (3) an anchor of some significance. His search for a map like this evolved over a decade, through his experiences in senior roles in businesses on the leading edge of cloud computing in the 2000’s.
“Strategy is all about observing the landscape, understanding how it is changing and using what resources you have to maximize your chances of success.” - Simon Wardley
He stresses (over and over) that maps will never tell you what to do; they will only improve your leadership team’s ability to communicate, and achieve a shared understanding, through an improved visualization of your business context.
The Strategy Loop
As he surveyed the existing literature for business strategy, Wardley was disappointed in what he found.
"The most telling factor here is that business strategy is normally a tyranny of action — how, what and when — as opposed to awareness — where and why." - Simon Wardley
Inspired by military sources, Wardley devised an iterative strategy development approach that combined the five factors of Sun Tzu with the OODA loop of John Boyd.
- Purpose - the mission and definition of the “game” to win
- Landscape - the position, relative to some anchor, that enables discussions of movement
- Climate - “rules” of the game
- Doctrine - universal actions to take
- Leadership - choices for context-specific actions to take; or “gameplay”
He would loop his leadership teams through this cycle, multiple times, over a day or two, to refine their strategic intent. He related that, in his experience, multiple iterations were necessary to yield new insights, and overcome the effects of bias.
But his ability to “see” the landscape was still weak. He needed something new.
Dealing with Uncertainty
But what should a business landscape reveal? A view of the markets? The competition? The customer space?
This is where Wardley had a key insight. His interest in “seeing” the landscape would focus on the evolution of the distinct components that support the business - the things that make up the offers that are sold to customers, and how they are changing.
This desire to “see” change in a landscape, on a map, led to this view of change or evolution, which is at the heart of a Wardley Map.
Everything evolves over time, but how can we “see” this? Wardley modeled the effect of supply and demand competition in terms of:
- Ubiquity - how widespread the awareness of the thing is, across the market
- Certainty - how much consensus or agreement there is, across the market
The curve above shows that in an early stage of any component (supporting the business), the certainty is low, and the ubiquity is low. This is the “genesis” stage, where innovation chases high potential value.
As more is learned, and awareness grows, bespoke, custom-built solutions are crafted, and value is delivered. Over time, patterns in these custom-built components or things (remember these can be internal to an organization, as well as customer-facing) emerge, and common needs can be “productized” to standardize the value delivered.
The mode of consumption of this value evolves over time as well. Initially a product might be purchased, but later it may be “rented” as a service. When ubiquity and certainty reach their peaks, this service becomes so essential and common that it is seen as a utility, and the consumption expectations change away from competitive products to efficient utilities.
But it is difficult to assess ubiquity and certainty, let alone measure them. Wardley offers, “We must use characteristics or weak signals or information markets to give us a probability of when the change will happen or even if it’s occurring today. Mapping is all about probability rather than time.”
Wardley believes that this evolution up the curve is inevitable, and that this movement should be the focus of situation awareness for business leaders.
He invented Wardley Maps to provide that view.
Building a Map
What do we get from a map? What are the core elements that we rely on? Drawing from the use of maps in strategy military settings, Wardley lists the core elements as:
- Anchor - a reference that bounds the scope of the map
- Position - the relative location of things on the map, that aid navigation
- Movement - view that supports change in position (choosing to move from point A to B)
In the simple example below, my map anchors on the part of town where I live. It visually displays the relative position of schools and gas stations and bus stops. I can plot my movement to a gas station, and “see” that I need to cross a river (so I look for a road with a bridge).
For a business map, Wardley defines them differently, based on what needs to be visual:
- Anchor - on customer needs
- Position - components (or what he calls “activities”) shown relative to their place in the value chain, exposing a path up to the customer (at the top of the map)
- Movement - evolution is the critical landscape element, so display the anticipated evolution of specific components, and the impact this has on adjacent components
Let’s check out an example of a Wardley Map:
Notice that each component or thing “needs” the thing it connects to below it. This is the visualization of the value chain.
Notice the x-axis built on the stages of evolution:
Notice that stages are not grounded in time. The x-axis is not (and can not) be mapped to time!
"Evolution itself, the very heart of these Wardley maps, can’t be measured over time and instead we have to measure over certainty. This use of uncertainty is an intrinsic part of learning to map but as any map shows, not everything is uncertain and even the uncertain can be exploited." - Simon Wardley
Movement and Inertia
We can gain a better situational awareness, just by building a view combining value relationships and evolution, across a leadership team. Remember, It is just a model, it won’t be perfect, so seek shared understanding and improved communication, not absolute accuracy.
As components evolve across the x-axis, there are many business implications that deserve a strategic conversation.
The power of the Wardley Map stems from its ability to “show” anticipated changes in evolution, and anticipated resistance (i.e. inertia) to those changes.
When a leadership team can arrive at a shared understanding of the landscape, as a Wardley Map, they have successfully navigated a significant about of uncertainty, and are ready to talk about where to drive strategic changes to the business.
These opportunities to drive changes are now visible on the Wardley Map in a way that was not possible without it. We can talk about “where” to apply a strategic change, relative to a spot on the map.
Not only have we mapped the external uncertainty in our business environment, but we have also reduced the internal uncertainty in our shared understanding of the strategic landscape of our business!
A map won’t make choices for you, but it can be an incredibly useful communication tool for strategic decision making.
Wardley Maps can help bridge from choices about “where to play” (per Roger Martin’s Strategy Cascade), to “how to win” by anchoring on a specific set of customer needs in a specific market, and creating value, relative to the landscape (i.e. map) and climate (i.e. rules of the game), and leveraging doctrine (i.e. universal actions to take).
Doctrine, in Wardley’s taxonomy, encompasses much of the “good modern practice” patterns that are already known. Bringing maps into these conversations can yield many insights, though.
When discussions on teaming and methods are help with the backdrop of a Wardley Map, we can be smarter about applying the right teaming model and the appropriate methods to the strategic work at hand.
In particular, he advocates for the application of small, in-house agile teams to drive changes on the left side of a map. Conversely, he explains the advantages of applying six-sigma models (that minimize variation) to outsourced work as changes to seek on the right side of a map. It’s a much smarter conversation around the dogmatic “one size fits all” debates, no?
Another debate that improves with a backdrop of a Wardley Map is around planning. The left side environments are complex or complicated (in Cynefin terms), so planning is less useful. In the middle of a map, learning is paramount, so PDCA cycles are effective. When working with commodity components or things, we drive efficiency and control by standardized measurement and reduced variation.
Wardley Maps offer a missing view of the business landscape to any strategy development practice. Strategic change seeks to find competitive advantage, given an honest view of where the business currently stands. Wardley Maps help provide a view of where the business currently stands, and likely evolutions that will be encountered.
“Manipulating the environment to your advantage is the essence of strategy.” - Simon Wardley
This is just an introduction to the richness and depth of the topic. Dig deeper to learn about fascinating extensions of Wardley Maps to visualize and communicate:
- Capital flows (physical, social, financial or political)
- Markets and ecosystems
- Constraints and forms of inertia
- Competitive Cycles (wonder, peace, and war)
- Teaming, Skills, and Attitudes - best fits across the organizational design
Seeing the environment, like a general on the battlefield, has been a weak link for strategic leaders. Wardley Maps offer an innovative tool for visualizing that battlefield. But since the battlefield has not been mapped before, the activity of mapping itself can bring important, needed behaviors to the strategy development activities.
"Challenge, communication, learning and embracing uncertainty are the very core of mapping." - Simon Wardley
Find a whiteboard template, gather your leadership team, and try drawing a Wardley Map for your landscape.