3.30 – Map Making

Over the last month, I’ve been exploring the roots of a new idea, a thesis about organisations as a complex (yet playfully navigable) interaction between people who do the work, and the spaces they do it in.

Now, in the first of two summary posts, I’m going to recap the most useful elements that this project has shaped and produced. It’s been three years since I started Smithery, and being able to look back at 36 months worth of projects has helped me understand what the guiding mantra, Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things, has actually meant in a practice.

As an aside, I’ve found it really quite rewarding thinking back on what has worked, and what hasn’t, in order to bring together a set of principles, methods and approaches that characterise the work. It’s certainly nice to know that there does look like there exists something beyond intuition and creativity.

What have I got to, then? Well, three simple things. Firstly, a way to make maps. Secondly, a way to add detail to the map. And thirdly, a way in which to quickly explore specific areas.  I’ll explain each individually.


A Way To Make Maps

30 - maps

In hindsight The Culture Matrix, as it became called, was the wrong sort of metaphor. A matrix, when referred to in business, usually suggests fixed points along the rows and columns, bewteen which you can plot and deploy strategies and yadda yadda, so on and so forth…

It demands a high level of certainty in how the Matrix is constructed in the first place; you must know what goes down the side, and along the top. They’re probably really useful in times of certainty, which this current era is definitely not. There is no model. Here be dragons.

Maps, on the other hand, are a much more flexible, familiar and useful metaphor for what I’ve been describing theses last thirty days.

Every map is different; the scale, the detail, the content, the purpose, the land mass, the key… it can all flex around. But maps retain the same basic operating principles, which means people can pick them up and pull something useful from them.

Now, usefully I’ve been working with Mark Earls on his new book (I’m doing the illustrations) which is due out in a few months, and there’s a chapter in that about just how useful it is to draw out maps of information; sneak preview from it:

“Making visual representations of things and ideas and their interrelationships can provide us with the means to see the connections between things in the real world – not just in time and space”

– Mark Earls, from Copy Copy Copy (Wiley, early 2015)

We make maps so we can see what’s going on. We make a matrix to suggest that our problem can be slotted into someone else’s answer.

You’ll also find that most maps will have something key in common; you always know which way ‘up’ is, because that’s where ‘north’ on the compass would be. If I look back to the drawing I did originally of the intersection of the PEOPLE & SPACE layers, instead of turning it into a precise matrix, I could instead form a rough and ready compass from it.

05 - b links

North is where the people layers are slower, and South is where they’re faster. East is where the space layers are fastest, and West is where they’re slowest. I think anyone could then be asked to draw out a ‘map’ of the organisational culture they belong to based on those simple parameters; What We Do (North-South) and Where We Do It (East-West).

The trick then is being able to flesh out more detail…


A Way To Add Detail

30 - detail

Turning the Culture Matrix into a Culture Map makes a lot of sense when looking specifically at two things that emerged during the last month; the Book Matrix, and the Question Engine.

Firstly, the Book Matrix was a thorough enjoyable exercise to undertake, dancing around in my kitchen dividing up all my books into 25 distinct sections, as specified by the Matrix at the time.

18 - books

I think the approach has been ‘Broadly Right and Precisely Wrong‘, to paraphrase Keynes. What is the value now of those precise groupings, given they were generated by a framework which is now fluid, constantly moving? Should they be changed? I could revisit them and group them as a map at some point, or indeed think about how books would move of different maps. But the point is to be broader than that… to know what I have at my fingertips, theories and examples and propositions to pull from and drop into the right place at the right time. Also, as an exercise to try with others, the Book Matrix would be an interesting learning journey for a group over the course of a few months.

Secondly, the Question Engine is a rotating, more fluid piece anyway (perhaps because it arrived later in the project; it saw how the party was going and dressed appropriately…).

There’s something useful, I think, in just asking three random questions of the places in which we find ourselves. Don’t look for the obvious questions, because you’ll immediate find an obvious answer. What you’re looking for is the question you might ask if you squint a bit, or see it in your peripheral vision…

I’m going to keep testing the Question Engine as a concept by using the webpage it’s built on. If it proves useful and interesting enough, it could always become something else – an app, for instance – but it’s got to pass the utility test first.

Overall, I’ve learned that the way to add detail (and frankly we all should have known this anyway) is to only ever add just enough at any one time.

There were times in the project where the detail just got in the way. So conceptually, for myself, thinking of this approach as a series of layers that deepen with complexity is the right approach, as long as I remember the preference is to be as near the top layer as possible. Yes, there can be a complexity underpinning the relationship between everything, but there’s no need to ‘show the workings’ as it were. It only serves to slow down and confuse people, when the aim is quite the opposite…


A Way To Explore Quickly

30 - explore

Finally, the Flow Engine process, as a way to design working sessions either for individuals or groups has already proved itself to be useful on numerous occasions since writing about Designing Flow Engines just this week.

The set-up becomes almost effortless. Take one Indicator Event which suggests there are larger factors at work that make them happen, then create a process with three steps, using the three flow triggers of High Consequences, Rich Environment and Embodiment. These three triggers are rotated round each of the three steps (as primary secondary or tertiary triggers for a step), so are continually reinforced in the work people are doing.

It also considers the use of space in everything around what people are doing, which means that you’ve a much greater chance of getting people working well, and working quickly, even in unfamiliar or testing scenarios.

Funnily enough, thinking back to a lot of the working situations I have created in the last three years (and before), it’s easy to spot where I was using these triggers anyway… but not always as consistently as I could have. The approach of reinforcing each step in the other two feels reassuringly strong and simple.


Together, these three outputs from the last thirty days feel like they’ve strengthened my own understanding of what I do (or in some cases why I do things in the way I do). It’s also shown me where I need to sharpen and refine more, and where more fresh input and learning is needed.

Tomorrow, then, I’ll wrap up by thinking about where this is going to take me in the next three years…



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