In his consulting practice, Ben Mosior teaches Wardley Mapping, a tool for visualizing strategic intent. In this conversation, we dive into Wardley Maps: what they are and how they can help us make better strategic decisions.
Listen to the show
- Learn Wardley Mapping
- @HiredThought on Twitter
- The Phoenix Project by Kevin Behr
- Leading Edge Forum
- Wardley maps: Topographical intelligence in business by Simon Wardley
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu
- How to Read a Wardley Map video
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Read the transcript
Jorge: Ben, welcome to the show.
Ben: Thank you for having me, Jorge.
Jorge: I’m excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please telling us about yourself?
Ben: So, I started out my career in systems administration, which I’ll very lovingly describe as telling computers how to do things. And I actually worked for the state of Pennsylvania for a while. I worked in higher education to basically learn how to deploy lots of systems and actually we ran a whole library network for the entire state. We also did some local things for the school that we were based at. And, I was learning about all sorts of technical concepts, like configuration management and all this kind of stuff. And eventually I wandered my way into the world of DevOps.
Which, DevOps is like a word that it’s a portmanteau: development operations. And there are a lot of different meanings that people load it up with. The one that I tend to see as being most foundational for me is ‘viewing the divide between development and operations and what it takes to get two groups of people to work together.’ So, I had this experience where I started to realize that, oh! Turns out if you are just managing the computers, that’s not enough to create value at the end of the day for the people that you’re here to serve.
So, I went to a DevOps days conference in Pittsburgh. I met Kevin Behr who wrote The Phoenix Project. Long story short, I find myself like thrust into this world of like, hey! Systems thinking! Global thinking! Like let’s actually not just focus on our local part. Let’s see how the local part fits into the whole thing. And gradually what that ended up doing is it actually took me out of the world of computers and into the world of humans. Like the human side of it. It turns out you can’t just have one or the other; you have to have both. And long story short, I’ve just had a lot of weird experiences working on the social and the technical. So, the socio-technical aspects of these organizations that we all work in.
I left the state. I started working for a corporation. I gradually found myself running my own startup, my own little kind of software development company with a couple of friends. Eventually I ended up in consulting and I really don’t know how I ended up there from the beginning to getting to that point. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense. But I found myself running into weirder and weirder ideas about how to make sense of things inside socio-technical systems. So that led me to a network of people on Twitter who just kept feeding me all these weird ideas and eventually, I ended up learning about Wardley mapping, which is a thing that I care a lot about because I spend a lot of time teaching people about it.
But roughly I think it’s very aligned with what The Informed Life is all about. It’s about making sense of things. It’s about sharing that experience with others and collectively creating coherence so that you all can act meaningfully together. So that’s kind of the arc of my career. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m doing what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
Jorge: I love this phrase, “collectively creating coherence,” and you mentioned Wardley maps as a way of achieving that. What are Wardley maps?
Ben: So Wardley maps are an invention of Simon Wardley. And Simon Wardley is a kind person who works currently for The Leading Edge Forum. He’s a researcher. He basically wanted to design a tool that would rid the world of parasitic consultants. And so, he sat down and that was his purpose for designing this tool. It came from his interest in trying to basically do a good job as a CEO. He has a journey, like there’s actually a book that he’s written, which you can find on Medium, where he basically talks through his whole career arc about, you know, he was an “imposter CEO.” He thought that maybe he was missing the all-important lessons of how to do strategy, that kind of stuff.
And what he ended up discovering is that not many people actually have this figured out, and there are no real secrets. And so, he felt like he had to go out and find his own. That led him to studying military history, led him to understanding, in particular, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and integrating that into Eastern philosophies of strategy and long story short, what he brought back to the world was a way of making individuals more capable of making sense of their environment and thinking through what to do about it. And based on his intent to rid the world of parasitic consultants. His whole idea is that if you equip executive leaders with the capability of making sense of the world for themselves, then they won’t need consultants as much. Consultants won’t be a crutch anymore. Maybe you’ll bring them in to help you challenge and refine ideas, but you don’t need a consultant in order to come up with a strategy.
So, concretely, Wardley mapping is a visual way of representing systems: its users, its needs, its capabilities, its relationships between all those three things. And then it’s also positioning those things in a way that helps their qualities become more apparent. So, there’s this thing that Simon Research called “Evolution.” It’s basically how do things evolve and get better or die under the pressures of supply demand competition, and what you get is like things start out new, uncertain, high risk, high failure, but with a high potential for future value. But then as they evolve, they get better. You know, someone’s always like looking at these weird ideas and trying to make them better because capitalism basically suggest there’s money to be made. So, someone out there is going to try to make it better. And over time, if the idea is worth investing in, it will continue to get better, more known, more boring, more predictable, and the value of it will be more concrete. And eventually, if it evolves to a certain extent, it becomes an invisible part of our everyday lives.
And so, Simon says, look, you want to represent the systems that we’re a part of both in terms of their parts and relationships, but also in terms of how evolved each of those parts are. Because what that does is it sets you up to understand the implications of those qualities. New stuff is going to be high failure, old stuff that everybody understands, that’s just part of everyday reality like power in the wall. It is going to be less surprising; it’s going to be less failure. And so that means that depending on the context, depending on the part of the system we’re looking at, we need to have a different way of approaching it. And I think that’s the entire point. By making visual artifacts — by talking about our systems visually — we can come together, look at a specific part of it, appreciate its qualities, and then together determine what our collective intent is about that part of the system. And I don’t think that’s just for executives. I think that’s for anyone who is making decisions at any level of the organization.
Jorge: If I were someone who’s listening in, I’d be desperately wanting to look at one of these things. You’ve described it as a visual artifact. And I’m wondering if we could give a shot at trying to describe one for folks who are listening.
Ben: Absolutely. And what I’d suggest is if you are in a situation where you are listening and you can pull something up in a new browser tab or something like that, go to learnwardleymapping.com and scroll down until you see a funny looking diagram. You’ll see a video down there called “How to Read a Wardley Map,” or depending on when you’re listening to this episode, maybe you’ll have to search a little bit harder. Maybe look into the reference section of the site a little bit.
But you’ll find an artifact with an X and a Y axis. So, the Y axis will be labeled the “Value Chain” and the X axis will be labeled “Evolution.” and the X axis will have four segments. Four sections within it. And these correspond to those four stages of evolution. We have different labels for these stages. It can just be one, two, three, or four. Simon likes to say Genesis, Custom-Built, Product, and Commodity. But you can also look at it through like a knowledge lens or a practice lens. There are these different lenses that you can look at that same evolution and use different words to describe it. There’s an evolutionary characteristics cheat sheet that you can use to get a deeper appreciation for evolution.
Thinking about this visual, it’s about what goes on this Y axis and X axis space. And what you have at the very top is who’s being served by the system. Who benefits, who is getting value from it. Underneath that is usually a set of needs. So, what the user needs from the system, and these are connected by relationships. Needs relationships. So, X depends on Y. Citizens depend on pandemic safety, for example, or users depend on the dashboard in your SASS application or whatever it ends up being, right? And then underneath that is yet more components. Yet more parts of the map. And these are the capabilities that the system has within it that all add up to produce this set of benefits for the user. And all of them have those relationships. X depends on Y, Y depends on Z, and so on and so forth.
And so, by making an artifact like this together, what you really quickly start to see is that inside your organization, or even inside your own head, there are things you ought to know that you don’t know. And it’s really a kind of a mechanical, “how does this work?” kind of question. And by discussing it together, and instead of talking at each other, talking past each other, you talk through an artifact that you’re constructing together? That specifically describes these dimensions. You’ll be able to more carefully and articulately describe what the system is and therefore more carefully and articulately described what your intent is with respect to that system.
Wardley Maps vs other systems diagrams
Jorge: There are many different types of systems diagrams. How is a Wardley map different from other ways of visualizing systems?
Ben: That’s a really good question. And it’s one that I get a lot of the time and the blunt answer is, it’s not all that different with respect to the benefits that working in any visual methods will get you. I mean, when you’re in a meeting and you’re not actually looking at something together? It can be very, very hard to make sure you’re talking about the same thing. can be very, very hard to make sure that you’re understood. But when you’re using a visual thing, any sort of visual thinking tool, that gets a lot easier.
What Wardley mapping brings to the table, however, is two additional things to the visual side of it. One is this evolution concept that we’ve been talking about, which has its own implications for, hey! If something is high failure, we should approach it in a way that makes that failure safe. Versus something is boring, totally known, hey! Maybe we should approach this with an expectation that we should reduce the deviation. We should make it as knowable and portable as possible. So, like the approach that we take towards that thing is different. So, appreciating those qualities is really important because otherwise you end up doing things like building stuff that you don’t need to build. You might outsource things that you shouldn’t outsource. And roughly it’s just a way of bringing capitalism and the implications that capitalism has to the forefront of your decision-making.
Now that’s one thing. The second thing is the strategic thinking process. Simon Wardley describes a process for sitting with your understanding of the system that breaks that, that sort of understanding down into five steps, only one of which is making the map.
The first is Purpose. It’s why we all do what we do. It’s the reason we’re getting out of bed, showing up to do the work. It’s the purpose of the entire system. It’s the moral imperative… it’s the view of aesthetic truth and beauty that we are trying to imagine for the future through the work that we do every day. that’s Purpose.
The second thing is Landscape, and that’s making maps. That’s making these visual artifacts of the competitive landscape to understand the circumstances that we’re playing in, that we’re dealing with right now. Who else is there? It’s not just us, right? It’s the wider market.
And then the third thing is Climate. These are the patterns that more or less dictate the rules of the game. It’s things like everything will evolve from stage one of evolution to stage four, over time. And so, what does that imply is a worthy question. But Simon has a whole table of like, I don’t know, 30 or 40 of these different rules of the game that one by one you can learn to appreciate over time.
The fourth thing is Doctrine. And these are the universal principles that we choose to apply inside our organization. Things like always focus on user needs. So, it’s about how you equip your organization to be the best that it can be to actually be able to participate strategically in the wider market. In the wider competitive landscape.
And then finally, it’s the question of what you would do given what you know. It’s the integration of everything that we’ve already discussed — the purpose, the specific landscape that you’re in, the rules of the game, those climatic patterns, and the training of your organization. The doctrinal principles that you always apply. It’s the synthesis of all those things that enables you to start thinking about what moves to make. Should we do this, or should we do that? And that is entirely about how to spend the precious, limited time, attention, all of scarce resources that you have at your disposal? Where do you put that? How do you decide how to invest all that in a way that makes sense?
I think the most common mistakes that organizations make is they spread that investment too wide. They don’t be intentional about what they’re doing, and the result is they don’t make progress quickly. They don’t actually achieve what they set out to achieve. And you have an organization full of individuals just showing up to work every day, not really connecting to that bigger purpose, not really making a difference in the world. And it’s a system that actively trains you, that what you do doesn’t matter.
So, those are the five factors of Simon’s strategy cycle. That’s what Wardley mapping brings in addition to being just a visual method. It brings this idea of how to pay attention and appreciate and understand the implications of capitalism, and that’s evolution. And then the second thing is it brings the strategic thinking process to apply to the visual artifact with others.
Example of a Wardley Map
Jorge: Can you give us an example of a Wardley map being used to make strategic decisions?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I often use Wardley mapping for myself, although a lot of the times, the map never leaves my head, just because if you do this so many times, you start building up an intuition for it. But the one that I often like to share because it certainly deeply impacted me especially because it involved my family, is COVID-19 pandemic related health and safety.
And so, I made a map a little while ago, and it was broadly about citizens… sort of citizens of various countries, right? I’m in the United States. That’s what I’m focused on. Citizens need health. And so, at the top of my map, those are the first things that are shared. And then I framed it this way: I said there are two ways, two different capabilities that the system has that produces health. And one is prevention, and one is treatment. So, sometimes there’s shorthand in these maps. Part of the fun is like trying to find words that very concretely and concisely describe a very vast phenomenological experience. So just roll with me — prevention and treatment is about: either you prevent yourself from getting COVID-19, or you treat the issue once you have it.
Looking at these two different sides of the Wardley map, underneath prevention you have a lot more novelty. So, this chain seems to be way more towards the left side of the map, the stage one and two side of evolution. They’re uncertain, they’re more unknown, they’re more risky, and yet the payoff could be really huge if we get it right. So, prevention, I wrote, needs things like mask wearing and things like social distancing. And what I noticed here is that these are things that feel like they should be much more evolved. They really ought to be more ubiquitous. Like the way I would hope things to be is that the obvious effective thing, like wearing a mask, is something that you would do as a citizen, in a country to prevent the spread of the virus. And I think it would be really interesting to dig into why these things are less evolved. But for whatever reason, they’re less evolved. Mask-wearing, social distancing… these are things that are really, really hard for people to do, and I think it has something to do with the entanglement of like the social side of it. Like people need to see other people.
The problematic and contradictory messaging that they’re getting, the emergent nature of conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination and why those things have come about. And it’s a really, really kind of deep rabbit hole that you’d go into and dig into if you wanted to explore that more deeply. But for me, I just wanted to emphasize these two things in my situation. That, in our house, we will be wearing masks and we will be social distancing. And because those things are less evolved, we may actually have to do some of our own research to figure out how to effectively do that. And so that led us to things like, The New England Institute of Complex Systems. I think I’m getting that wrong. There was a really fabulous paper that basically described how to do the New Zealand pod system, but for family units. And so, the social distancing part of that, we could actually like do some research and find some new cutting-edge things that we could try and apply. For a while, we were actually able to form a household unit with our upstairs neighbors. We all had collective rules that we were following based on this cutting-edge research. That was our experiments that we had to run because this thing was so less evolved.
Now, so that’s the prevention side of it. The treatment side of it is a little bit more straightforward because it’s all about what to do within the context of the existing medical system. Treatment is more towards the right of the map because generally treatment disease and is something that’s, largely more evolved. And underneath treatment, you have things like diagnosis, care, triage. These kinds of activities that you would expect to happen in a hospital, for example. And so, diagnosis depends on testing. Treatment depends on care, and care depends on personal protective equipment and medical knowledge. And so, you start to appreciate all these different parts of the system that add up to treatment. Then you can have a conversation about how, when PPE isn’t available, the part of the system that provides care, enables treatment, and that therefore enables health for the citizens, starts to fall apart. When testing isn’t available, the same thing happens. And so, you have this like question when you have the full system, “okay. We’ve got prevention kind of questions that are more towards the left of the map. You have the treatment side, which is more towards the right of the map. Where do you put your time and attention?” And as an individual? One person with a family?
I felt like the best thing we could do is invest our time and attention in the prevention side of it. On the mask wearing and the social distancing. It’s really, really hard for us to do something with testing and PPE and things like that. So, it just wasn’t an option for us. So very practically, just by having the whole system in front of us, we were able to make more informed decisions. And frankly, I share this with other people and saw what they thought. And that made it better. Because then we could refine and expand our awareness of what was and wasn’t actually happening out in the wider world. So, any biases we had about how things worked, could get checked at the door. And we could actually work together on designing something better together.
Jorge: The way that sounds to me is like, the artifacts that we see — these charismatic maps that you were referring to earlier — are the outcome of a process and the real value lies in the process. And it also sounds to me like the value of the process is dependent on the collaborative way in which it comes about, right? Because in the process of making this thing together, you build alignment. You tap into people’s diverse knowledge, etc. Is that fair?
Ben: That’s absolutely fair. And there’s always the problem with any methodology that you have to somehow convince other people to do it with you. I never want to underestimate the value of one person paying attention using this method, just to get themselves figured out, to understand why they interact in the way that they do with the system. But yes, like it is enormously valuable to do with another person, or if you’re on a team to do it together.
And my general advice with any methodology is kind of get past the, “everybody has to learn how to do it.” Like, ignore that! And instead, just get started. Just take half an hour, try to understand one simple part of the whole thing. Just get a little bit better every day. And so, I don’t think you need to be an expert Wardley mapper. You can start out by making lists. Like one of the first steps of Wardley mapping is who is being served by the system? And so, what you can do right now, today, is in the next meeting that you attend, you can sit there and you can make a list of who is being served by this system. And then you can ask other people what they think. Does this list make sense to you? Is this what you think? What am I missing? Who do you disagree with my inclusion of, on this list? Right? So, it doesn’t have to be this like whole thing, this whole like methodology, it’s like little parts of it, a little bit by bit every day.
Jorge: You said that Simon Wardley’s goal with this was to rid the world of parasitic consultants. You’re a consultant.
Jorge: Given that it sounds like the true value in this resides in teams doing it for themselves to get their bearings and figure out where they’re going next, what role do you play in that process?
Ben: That’s a really good question. Because as a consultant, it seems like I am convinced that I have no value by saying that it’s an anti-consulting framework. And that’s not quite true. There are a lot of different ways we could explore this, but I think I’ll start by saying the first thing is consultants are not useless. It’s the dependence on consultants in a way that takes away an organization’s own agency that I think is problematic. Simon in particular is looking at the example of, maybe one of the big consulting firms coming into an organization, talking with an executive and basically executive delegates the act of creating strategy to that consulting organization. That’s probably the exact scenario that Simon is designing against by providing Wardley mapping.
I’m playing a little bit of a different game, personally. And whenever I work with other consultants, this is the question, a set of questions that I have for them. It’s like, which game are you playing inside this organization? Are you playing the game where you just make money and you go home, like, it’s just your job? Are you playing the game where you’re trying to reduce harm? And so, your being in the organization is not about creating dependence on you, but it’s about you reducing harm inside the organization. And that kind of has this implication, that you’re just… you’re there in order to watch for those moments where you can do one small thing that helps someone make one huge step forward and kicks off this snowball that turns into an avalanche of ideas and thoughts for them. Or are you actually doing a long-term and extended intervention?
And a lot of those games, I have a hard time with, just generally speaking. And so, I tend to focus on: how do I build people up? How do I help them increase their own capability? So that, I’m never building a dependence. It’s never a situation where they’re going to ask me to come back over and over and over and over and over again about the same thing, because they’ve delegated something to me. Instead, I want it to be something where if they invite me back, it’s because we’re going to have a new experience that genuinely stretches them, genuinely helps them grow about new things that we haven’t already covered.
So, when I come in to teach mapping, it’s about enabling the individuals of the organization, which is why I’m not focused just on executives, it’s leaders at all levels. How do I help every person that I interact with have a little bit more agency in the decisions that they make every day? And 1) that’s just helping them notice the system that they’re in, but 2) knowing how to make sense of that system, and then also be able to take action to change it, to shape it. And so, a lot of times my “consulting” ends up looking more like one-on-one sparring or coaching, things along those lines. Sure, I do a lot of Wardley maps too and maybe I’m teaching you how to do that. That’s why you brought me in, right? But there are these little opportunities to, on a one-on-one basis, build people up so that they individually have more power in the system that they’re in.
Jorge: When I was thinking about this role of helping people map the systems they find themselves in and consulting, I was thinking that maybe the role was like a cartographer. But it sounds to me like there is a little bit of cartography involved, but it’s cartography in service of learning to do cartography.
Ben: I think the worst thing you could do is delegate the cartography to someone else. Because unlike a specialized field like literal map-making — so mapping the physical world — this is different. This is like ontological map-making; this is about understanding what exists inside an organization. And it’s not just like what furniture is in the rooms. It’s about what ideas are in people’s heads. What ontology has the organization created that is not understood in an appropriate way across the organization? And this is one of the things that we often get into where it’s like, “well, are you trying to help everyone understand every part of the organization?” No, absolutely not. What we’re trying to do is help individuals understand their parts of the organization, but also understand how their parts connect to other parts of the organization and where the shared understandings need to exist. It’s really about understanding the boundaries of where different areas of autonomy in an organization overlap, so that collectively they can negotiate along those boundaries.
And I think it’s just about knowing where to invest your attention in the organization, because if you’re doing work heads down 80% of the time, and you’re not paying attention to how the overall system is functioning, you’re going to immediately run into the problem — that initial career-arc mind-blowing moment that I had — which was, “Oh my gosh, I’m just trying to make the local thing better. And it’s actually making it worse for everyone around me!” Trying to see how you and your individual part of the organization fits into a larger whole is what this is all about. It’s really about making the organization more intentional at all levels and within all parts.
Jorge: That sounds like a great way to summarize this. I love the phrase “ontological map-making.” It sounds like a beautiful encapsulation of what this is about. I’m sure that folks are going to be wondering about where they can follow up with you. Where can we point them to?
Ben: I am really accessible on Twitter. And so, if you’d like to follow me @hiredthought, you are always welcome to direct message me or reach out. I can also be emailed if you want to go that way: firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, if you want to learn more about Wardley mapping, you can go to learnwardleymapping.com. There’s a free book that Simon’s written. We’ve made it available in multiple formats. There’s a short introduction video on the homepage that you can just play with and see if you’d like the concepts that you’re hearing about. You can decide for yourself whether to dip your toes further. And then I would encourage you to reach out and say hello if you need any help or have any questions. I’m always happy to hear from you.
Jorge: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Ben: Thank you so much for having me.