The Half-Life of Our Maps

by Mike Shipulski

The Half-Life of Our MapsThe early explorers had maps, but they were wrong – sea monsters, missing continents, and the home country at the center. Wrong, yes, but the best maps of their day. The early maps weren’t right because the territory was new, and you can expect the same today. When you work in new territory, your maps are wrong.

As the explorers’ adventures radiated further from home, they learned and their maps improved. But still, the maps were best close to home and diverged at the fringes. And over the centuries the radius of rightness grew and the maps converged on the territory. And with today’s GPS technology, maps are dead on. The system worked – a complete map of everything.

Today you have your maps of  your business environment and the underlying fundementals that ground them. Like the explorers you built them over time and checked them along the way. They’re not perfect (more right close to home) but they’re good. You mapped the rocks, depths, and tides around the trade routes and you stay the course because the routes have delivered profits and they’re safe. You can sail them in your sleep, and sometimes you do.

But there’s a fundamental difference between the explorers’ maps and yours – their territory, the physical territory, never changed, but yours is in constant flux. The business trade winds shift as new technologies develop; the size of continents change as developing countries develop; and new rocks grow from the sea floor as competitors up their game.  Just when your maps match the territory, the territory changes around you and diverges from your maps, and your maps become old. The problem is the maps don’t look different. Yes, they’re still the same maps that guided you safely along your journey, but they no longer will keep you safely off the rocks and out of the Doldrums.

But as a new age explorer there’s hope. With a healthy skepticism of your maps, frequently climb the mast and from the crow’s nest scan the horizon for faint signs of trouble. Like a thunder storm just below the horizon, you may not hear trouble coming, but there’ll be dull telltale flashes that flicker in your eyepiece. Not all the crew will see them, or want to see them, or want to believe you saw them, so be prepared when your report goes unheeded and your ship sales into the eye of the storm.

Weak signals are troubling for several reasons. They’re infrequent and unpredictable which makes them hard to chart, and they’re weak so they’re tough to hear and interpret.  But worst of all is their growth curve. Weak signals stay weak for a long time until they don’t, and when they grow, they grow quickly. A storm just over the horizon gives weak signals right up until you sail into gale force winds strong enough to capsize the largest ships.

Maps are wrong when the territory is new, and get more right as you learn; but as the territory changes and your learning doesn’t, maps devolve back to their natural wrongness. But, still, they’re helpful. And they’re more helpful when you remember they have a natural half-life.

My grandfather was in the Navy in World War II, though he could never bring himself to talk about it. However, there was one thing he told me, a simple saying he said kept him safe:

Red skies at night, sailor’s delight; red skies in morninng, sailor takes warning.

I think he knew the importance of  staying aware of the changing territory.

Clearworks

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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.