Maps and Territories

“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, workshops and seminars. It’s simplicity is appealing, yet it’s simultaneously complex. We can all imagine an OS Map laid out on the kitchen table in some holiday cottage, scouring to decide the best route to take for the days walk, but its really just lines and colours, so of course it isn’t the territory.

You may have also learned as a child how to use the contour lines to plot the slope of a particular hillside (I think we used Pen-Y-Fan when I was doing O level Geography). The map contains the information we need, but the land itself is not. And no map can account for the effects of rain making a particular marshy section impassable.

The challenge is best understood by using the London Underground map as an example. Apart from the Thames (which I believe is only there as a defacto logo for London) this map tells you nothing about London and the territory. Its sole purpose is to enable you to navigate around the various underground stations.

As inaccurate as language

Like language, it’s full of deletions: landmarks such as Buckingham Palace are omitted. As is information that would be useful at some stations that connects to the territory, such as which exit to take out of Victoria tube station to get to the coach station. That information isnt included at all, yet its on the signs as I emerge from the bowels of the earth towards the daylight !

It’s also riddled with distortions, even down to the names. The circle line doesn’t go in a circle, there aren’t ‘districts’ in London today (there are boroughs) and the tracks go around bends that are 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, (aside from the fact that it would help with the detailed planning I have to do in order to manage my travel anxiety) because we don’t need to to tell us that level of detail to get from place to place. If you really want that, you’ll find that Google maps does show where the tracks actually go if you choose the ‘transportation’ option.

More mental than physical

What Korbysky was really saying is nothing to do with physical maps, however. He was referring to mental maps - the constructs that we hold in our head that help us to navigate through lifes journey. While we can share those maps with one another, what we share is only a representation of what we think and mean, and unless we are curious to either ask more or entertain the thought that there could be multiple meanings, we can often get a completely incorrect understanding.

Consider this scenario. You are taken ill over the weekend, and phone in sick on Monday. Armed with a Dr’s note, you inform your boss you’ll be absent for 2 weeks. When you return, the boss has put on the team whiteboard that you’ve been on annual leave. Are you OK with that little white lie, because its intended to keep your life private?

Or is it wrong, because its a lie? Each of us can see this differently. (You may also be wondering why the boss didnt ask you whether it was OK for the team to know the actual reason, but that’s a different point!)

To know the territory, we have to care enough to get out into the land being described. Which as a leader, is about getting to know your team, however hard it may seem to be due to workload or competing demands.

When we don't know our people, they feel unseen. Instead we need to talk to them, ask richer questions, and listen with our whole heart as we take a walk in their "territory". 

Which takes time.

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

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

About the Author Jonathan