How to use Wardley Mapping to understand how you deliver customer value

Stephan Willemse
Sep 15, 2020 · 8 min read

Kia ora. Alignment is one of the biggest challenges to overcome in any organisation. It’s hard because of the existence of so many alternative and often conflicting points of view. Viewing a challenge or opportunity through a technology lens, one strategic possibility might present itself. Viewed through a customer lens, it might be another. Product says x. Business says y. Design says y not.

But the world of design has given strategists a fantastic tool to help find this alignment — visual sensemaking. When we describe a concept, we each define a different view of that concept in our heads. I say ‘car’ and you think ‘BMW’. Or mabye ‘KIA’ or ‘Volvo’. But if I draw a Jeep with its squat body and buggy headlights, we’d all know which car we’re referring to. The activity of sketching something out, even if rudementary, creates a shared view. It is used throughout ideation and prototyping to help communicate an idea, even if only through a breadboard sketch. And that is the crux of alignment — simple, practical and co-created. To get alignment, you don’t only need a SWOT matrix or a PowerPoint presentation. You also need a map and some open conversations.

What is Wardley Mapping?

Wardley Mapping was developed by Simon Wardley as a visualisation, communication and strategic planning tool to help organisations understand the different parts of their value chain, as it used to service a specific customer segment. It’s a map of the structure of your business or service, showing the components that are needed to serve the customer or user. Plotting the evolution of different parts of the chain helps leaders to make strategic business decisions based on their working consensus.

Like many things, understanding the part can help with understanding the whole (so long as you remember that the sum of the parts are never greater than the whole). I’ll start with a bit of an overview, then we’ll map a hypothetical organisation’s value chain.

Introduction: Topographical Intelligence

Wardley’s basic premise is that organisational strategy is based on 5 factors: Purpose, Landscape, Climate, Doctrine and Leadership. Critical to this is an understanding of how these 5 factors play out in terms of position, movement and situational awareness — the map we spoke of. If you can understand the basic climatic patterns in your competitive context, then you can adapt your organisation’s value chain. The word climatic is important here: everything is in flux, everything moves. And just like a weather map, even the best map will only give you a snapshot in time.

As Wardley Maps have many use cases and are applicable across different scales, the starting point for this exercise is to identify the area of the organisation that you are mapping: the team, department, service or simply the product. You’ll have to find the Goldilocks level for your organisation. Too broad, and the practical detail will be missing. Too narrow, and you’ll end up with a niche utility map. Let’s use a hypothetical strategic design consultancy for this mapping exercise.

Step 1: Map out your value chain

First, identify your chosen end user segment, relevant to the focus area you’ve chosen. For this example, I’m looking at the service line capabilities that are used to design and deliver digital products within an organisation. So our user is a Product Owner that needs to solve a user need (the red dot on the left). Next, we map out the parts of the value chain that are deployed to service their needs. These are activities that will help us to solve a user need, from design to cloud. This Y dimension of proximity to the end user becomes one of the anchoring dimensions. Visible are those parts that are closest to the end user, with invisible generally being abstracted away from the user. For example, qualitative research and ideation is a co-creation exercise: it’s highly engaged with and visible to the end user. In contrast, cloud services act as utility suppliers: the end user only notices them when they don’t work.

Step 2: Rank the evolution and visibility

The next step involves mapping these broad categories of value chain activity onto the X dimension of technology or service evolution: Genesis, Custom, Product (+rental) and Commodity (+utility). What we’re trying to understand is whether that specific activity or technology is maturing and becoming commoditsed, or if it is remaining more static. Depending on this, we will have to make decisions on how to manage it. For example, genesis-phase activities or technologies could be lucrative as they are emergent and niche, but will need constant and active re-evaluation as they are hard to duplicate with certainty and hard to scale profitably. Commodity-phase activities might best be outsourced to a third party supplier, as they are essentially a utility that exists to enable other activities.

Let’s pause for a moment on this idea of technological or service evolution. This concept is not a new one: there has been widespread acceptance of the idea of technology s-curves or life cycles, which has a long history in academia. Similar thinking is also seen in product design’s Kano Model of declining customer value in features: what was once new and shiny becomes commonplace over time and therefore commoditised. However, Wardley Mapping contextualises the evolution by anchoring this to various vertices of the value chain. This in turn attempts to agree position and predict movement. As the mapping exercise is a group-based activity, movement and contribution to end user value are subject to ‘group intelligence’ and working group consensus. You figure out where things sit, how the work together and who your end user is. The purpose being to help identify which parts of your tech stack or value chain ecosystem are valuable to the end user and how they should be managed. This also means that there will be some interesting findings as you compare how different parts of your organisation view the value chain. Distribute it amongst different departments and you’ll surface interesting contradictions.

How do the different activities or technologies contribute to the end user’s needs?

In this illustrative example, we find ethnographic activities that interact directly with users in the Genesis column. Every time we conduct field research with end users, we discover something new. In the Commodity column lies consumption-based and infrastructure components including user & product/platform data, invisible to the user. Importantly, the focus is on the services employed to deliver value to the end user, not on the infrastructural nature of the technologies applied in doing so. Ergo, this is not primarily an architecture diagram.

Competent participation within this service ecosystem thus entails the evolution and maintenance of a collective understanding amongst participants about the unfolding dynamic between the end product and the platforms and technologies upon which they are innovating, and the respective positioning of each participant in relation to other ecosystem members with whom they must interact (Pujadas 2019).

Step 3: Agree movement

Which parts of the value chain are moving, and in which direction?

Once you’ve mapped out the chain and figured out how the different components are connected, you will have to find a working consensus around movement. It is important to understand that the value chain is dynamic: movement due to climatic factors must be included in the artefact via discussion amongst peers. From this shared mapping exercise, you might start agreeing around the movement of different parts of the chain — perhaps AI-driven user segmentation, productised front end and UI design modularity. Each organisation will have its own environmental forces applying evolutionary pressure on different parts of your value chain. Highly contested spaces will lead to pressures towards product and commodity movement. As you identify each area and agree the movement, you should be surfacing up those questions as to why this movement is happening and what your response could be.

What you’ll find in the long run is that, much like the Roaring Forties latitudes, there are always pressure moving in from the west, peaking in intensity before dissipating.

Step 4: Manage appropriate to the domain

The Cynefin framework, created by Dave Snowden
The Cynefin framework, created by Dave Snowden

Personally, I’ve found thinking from adjacent models such as the Cynefin framework to be quite useful in this exercise. In fact, we can overlay the Cynefin framework on top of the Wardley Map to help us understand how complicated technologies or activities can move to simple activities over time. Or how unstructured, complex activities defy our best attempts to regulate them down to best practice. It also helps to explain why qualitative research, for example, can aim for good practice and heuristics, but it will never be defined with finality. It shows why user research is a continuous activity, not a once-off project. And why CRM’s out-of-the-box design solutions can cater for the majority of users, but never the long tail of low volume, niche needs. And it gives us ideas around organising teams with different mindsets to tackle their parts of the value chain: Design Thinking and Lean for complex activity versus Agile and Scrum for building of complicated technologies.

Overlay of Cynefin onto a Wardley Map. Applying adjacent models act like filters, allowing previously hidden associations to surface for discussion

Conclusion: When to use

To reiterate: the value of this exercise is not in reaching final consensus on how the different parts of your value chain interoperate. Its value lies in helping a group of people makes sense of the components that make up a system. It’s a contextualisation and entity mapping exercise — an ontological tool that helps us think about how parts relate dynamically.

It’s not only a solution architecture overview, and it’s not only a service blueprint. It’s value lies in the conversations that can be opened through shared, visual sensemaking. It can help leaders to conceptualise how their investments are put in service of their end users. And it is a gateway to discussions around where to strategically invest or divest an organisation’s activities in response to an end user’s needs. After all, technology should always stand in service to the needs of people, never the opposite.

If you'd like to read a bit more about Wardley Mapping, you can find information on evolutionary stages, Simon’s blog or his Medium writings. And if you have a complex problem in your organisation and not enough bandwidth to do it justice, get in touch with us at Digital Arts Network \ New Zealand.

Ngā manaakitanga.

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Stephan Willemse

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Strategy Director @ Digital Arts Network \ New Zealand. Ideas Magpie. Reader. Surfer. Optimist.

DAN Stories

Conversations about creating experiences with purpose, building capability and driving innovation.