The indispensable art of cartography

In the West, we are living through well documented crisis of meaning.

There’s no need to for me to elaborate on this too much here, I think we all get it – the mental health epidemic, the rise in use of anti-depressants, opioid addiction, the prevailing mood of rudderlessness, confusion, and anxiety.  It’s easy to say Covid hasn’t helped – but then arguably for a lot of people it actually has.  An increasing volume of analysis suggests that it gives people a coherent structure to cling to in an otherwise directionless world; a heroic battle that bestows shape and meaning where previously there was none.  It sounds crazy to say it, but you could forgive someone for feeling more lost in a world without it than with it.

I expect you’re wondering why, in this “business newsletter”, I’ve plunged into such bleak waters, however I can assure you there is a strategic point here – a crucial one.

The key lies in that word “lost”.  What does it mean to be lost exactly?  It’s not a trick question, the answer is pretty basic: it means you don’t know where you are, or where you’re going.  And therefore what is the remedy for feeling lost?  The answer of course is having a map.

Maps are essential tools for strategy – “effective and coherent action” – in any field of life.  If we refer, for example, to that old strategic chestnut of military manoeuvres, we can see that a literal geographical map is perhaps the single most important tool a general has at their disposal.  You need to know where the hills, rivers, forests, and bogs are.  You need to understand the territory on which you’re operating in order to use it for your advantage.  We can all picture that clichéd image of the top brass standing around a giant map pushing little tanks around with a stick, right?  Well that’s the cliche for a good reason: it is upon that literal map that strategy is drawn.  To try to do so without it would be pointless, even farcical.

Moving on to business, although we are no longer using geographical maps, the principle is just the same.  To navigate coherently and effectively through the market, through our product categories, we need maps too.  We need to understand the consumers, the segments they can be divided into, the points of distribution, the sub-categories, the adjacent categories.  These are our hills, rivers, and forests.  Without them, again, we operate blind.  We have no scaffolding upon which to hang our plans.

What is clear then, is that there is one single strategic skill that trumps all the others: cartography.  To be able to draw as true a map of the operating territory as possible.  Naturally there is skill in navigating the map after it has been drawn – but this is less than half the battle.  A well drawn map can often lead to the solution presenting itself with little effort at all; like an illuminated path through the gloom.

After all, isn’t this what people mean when they talk about a “gap in the market”?  It’s a space that can only be observed when the market has first been drawn and understood in its entirety.  The gap is found merely by looking.

Understanding the strategic importance of cartography then, the rudderless sensation felt by many in the West today starts to make a bit more sense.  Our cultures hold no value more dearly than that of individual liberty: the freedom to go where you want, do what you want, and be who you want.  On the face of things it’s a fine value indeed, but it has one drawback: that in order to facilitate it one needs to remove structures, norms, and boundaries which stand in the way of such autonomy.  These may be found in the shape of traditions, religions, laws, duties, social norms, and any other forms of societal expectation.

Now I’m sure you don’t need me to point out the analogy here, but I’ll do so anyway.

Such flattening of society, whilst doubtless making people more free, also serves to gradually remove elements of the map.  Being told “follow your passions, do what you want” may well be inspiring, but it’s also daunting and confusing.  It’s like telling a founder “just make whatever” – a brief which is not only extremely difficult, but which is also highly unlikely to yield a successful result.

The obvious alternative to this mapless freedom can be seen in traditional societies – which basically means any nation other than the handful “WEIRDs” like the US and UK (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic), so called because of their historically anomalous behaviour.  In traditional societies maps are still vividly drawn – leading to conditions which doubtless us WEIRDos would find oppressive, but which studies clearly indicate yield considerably better mental health.

(As an aside I read a fascinating study today relating to this, concerning the so-called “Big 5” personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  In essence psychologists assumed that these are universal, and could be measured in individuals anywhere, and at any time.  Shockingly however, researchers have failed to identify these dimensions in populations in non-WEIRD nations such as Bolivia, Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Macedonia.  The implication is that in kin-based community oriented societies, where individualism is less important due to the continued clarity of cultural maps, people simply don’t need to develop these attributes / pathologies).

To what extent one favours either one of these models will largely be dependent on personal values, and it’s not my place to argue for either one here.  What I will say however, “strategically speaking”, is that what we learn from both military and business strategy is that maps, far from being barriers to creativity, actually enable it.  Maps, correctly understood, are liberating forces.

The most successful and iconic brands aren’t those who simply ignored the conventions of their category.  Quite the opposite.  They are those who understood them so deeply that they were able to dance with them.  They achieved such mastery of their territory that they were able to see where it could be stretched and bent.  Those brands who we deem “iconoclasts” achieved that status from a platform of deep respect and intimacy with their maps – exposing the lie that creativity thrives in a vacuum.

Maps then should not be understood as barriers.  They should be understood as supports; as frameworks which hold us up, and upon which we can build effective and elevating plans.

Removing the map doesn’t liberate people – quite the opposite.  It instead creates conditions where strategy is impossible, and only raw power can succeed.  (Remember that power is always the alternative to strategy).

Imagine warfare before maps: it was the larger and better equipped army who would prevail.  In business we see this too: in the absence of strategy it is the better funded brand who will inevitably win.  And thus so too can we see the pattern play out in life: where those with money, connections, and fame profit from the removal of the map, and those without such advantages sink – hence the widening of the gap between rich and poor.

Naturally I have no particular solutions to this, that’s not my remit.  My only purpose is this: to encourage you to embrace cartography.  You have to understand the map.  Most founders have only a superficial grasp of the territory in which they operate, thus condemning themselves to artless and generic strategies at best – and at worse suffering the same anxious paralysis of the Western world at large, not knowing what direction to take.

Fortunately we don’t have to do this from scratch.  Every territory has been mapped many times.  From a white paper in The Grocer, to the ancient wisdom traditions upon which our society is built, every inch of human existence has been sketched before.  Our only job is to gather these sketches, layer them, and try to build as clear a picture of reality as possible.

Then, and only then, do we act.

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