Is my diagram a map?

Let us take a systems map

It is visual and context specific (being a system diagram of an online photo service and not a self driving car). It has components and the relationship between components. We also have the flow of information (blue line) between components. But does this make it a map? I’ve shaded one box (CRM) in grey and moved it.

The components and the relationship remain the same. It’s still visual, it’s still context specific specific and nothing alters with the flow. The diagram is in essence identical but yet I’ve moved a box. The movement of this box hasn’t changed the diagram in any meaningful way.

Let us now compare this system map with a road map of major roads in the UK.

It’s visual and it’s context specific (being the UK not France). The diagram has components, relationships between them and also flow (e.g. the movement of traffic). But it has more than this. The compass acts as an anchor, the components have position relative to each other (London is North East of Southhampton) and we have a concept of movement. If I wanted to walk from London to Exeter (not travelling along the major road) then I could head South South West (roughy).

The diagram is not very accurate, it lacks scale but is this a map? Let us move the component I’ve marked in grey (Nottingham).

The components and the relationship remain the same. It’s still visual, it’s still context specific specific and nothing alters with the flow from London to Nottingham. However, by moving the component then I’ve fundamentally changed the meaning of the map. Nottingham is no longer North of London but SSW of London which of course, a quick flight across the territory will tell you is wrong.

A map (and this diagram is a map) helps you explore the territory. It does so because it has the characteristics of navigation - anchor, position and movement. Without such characteristics you cannot learn about the territory.

But what about scale? It’s important to not confuse the need for perfection with being a map. A perfect map of France is 1:1 scale at which point it’s the size of France and therefore fairly useless for navigation. All maps are imperfect representations, even geographical maps. What makes them maps is their use for navigation, communication and learning. We often “simplify” maps to improve this use. A Philips map is not a perfect representation of what exists. A London Underground map (which uses an anchor of the tube network with position of stations on the tube network and movement between stations) is not a perfect representation of what exists. But both a Philips map and the London Underground map have position, movement and an anchor which enables us to explore the space.

Whilst the road map is a map, the systems map above is in fact not a map. Instead the systems “map” is an entity relationship diagram. We might call it a map, in the same way I might call myself a Jedi but it’s not the name but the characteristics that define what something is. I still lack the powers of the force no matter how many times I tell myself that I am a Jedi.

You could of course argue that the systems map is a map by defining the anchor as the system itself i.e. we’re constraining the territory to the entity relationship diagram itself. We would be invoking the idea that there is no territory outside of the components and relationships described. The only possible movement becomes along the defined relationships and beyond this there is nothing else to explore. In much the same way, a London underground map defines the territory as the tube network. That is a fair argument but only if the system does represent the entirety of the territory which in business is never the case.

A map must be visual and context specific. It must have components but more than this it requires an anchor, position and movement. The quickest way I know to determine if something is a map or not is to move a component and see if this changes the meaning of what is being looked at. Almost everything we call a map in business — systems maps, business process maps, mind maps, digital maps, product road maps, strategy maps — are not in fact maps. As inconceivable as it is, we keep on using that word in business but it doesn’t mean what we think it means.

So why does this matter? Maps are useful for communication, collaboration and learning about a dynamic environment i.e. one in which situational awareness matters. Business is such a territory.

If you want to map a business then I’ve written the best part of a book (all creative commons) on how to actually do this.

Originally published at on May 12, 2017.

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