Jan Rezac asks:
Are there any “objective” Wardley Maps, or is it always “subjective” to the team, time, and place? What should I do to understand where the “objective” position of a component is? How do I challenge the team to understand that their “custom CRM” is not objectively normal?
These are great questions. Objectivity is a helpful ideal, but in practice it’s not a sure thing. Let’s discuss why we would seek an objective view and then explore what to do in a real situation like the one Jan describes.
Objectivity Is a Pursuit of Truth
Objectivity is about independence from the biases and unvalidated assumptions of individual perspective. If a decision is constrained by information quality, as opposed to e.g. time, then it’s better if the information we have more closely resembles the truth rather than whatever is conveniently available.
Increasing objectivity is not particularly hard to do, either. Much of our individual bias gets checked and revised as soon as we share it with others. By adding people to our mapping conversation across various dimensions (e.g. backgrounds, skills, experience, perspective, etc.), we can start to get something that more closely resembles what the group on the whole believes to be true.
It’s also not at all difficult to find and digest perspectives external to the group. Even a basic search on the internet can yield information from other organizations or industry subject matter experts. Once the low hanging fruit is discovered, deeper studies through ethnographic research, for example, may be worthwhile.
Truth Isn’t Enough
In Jan’s case, however, there are two problems with the pursuit of objectivity.
First, a consultant’s perspective is going to miss the deep context accessible only to those on the team who have been working inside the organization for years and years. “Objective” answers may not work due to unique constraints only the team can see. Or those answers may be flat out wrong due to a misreading of the situation.
Second, it’s harmful to tell people truths that they aren’t ready to hear. If an objective position is so different that it is confusing or painful to hear, the natural response might be avoidance. Repeated experiences like that could actually entrench ignorance, disbelief, and a general distrust of objectivity.
Though disheartening, these problems are no reason to give up. We just need to better understand what we’re trying to achieve by making maps in the first place.
Models Are Inherently Subjective
Wardley Maps are a kind of model, and the reason models are useful is that they are simplifications of reality. That’s what makes them useful — we don’t have to “hold” the entire world in our heads in order to have a conversation about the world that is meaningful. As Ackoff puts it:
[Models] are idealized in the sense that they are less complicated than reality and hence easier to use for research purposes. These models are easier to manipulate and “carry” than the real thing. The simplicity of models, compared with reality, lies in the fact that only the relevant properties of reality are represented.
For example, in a road map, which is a model of a portion of the earth’s surface, vegetation is not shown, since it is not relevant with respect to the use of the map. In a model of a portion of the solar system the balls representing planets need not be made of the same material or have the same temperature as the planets themselves.
– Russ Ackoff, Scientific Method: Optimizing Applied Research Decisions, 1962
Models are inherently subjective, because model-making — that shrinking of reality and picking apart of signal from noise — is an inherently subjective process. Different people make different choices about what to simplify, emphasize, include, and exclude. Just because those choices are invisible to us doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
To be clear, I am not endorsing subjectivity at the expense of objectivity. Rather, I am hoping to highlight that subjectivity is deeply embedded. I think it’s better to assume our maps are subjective rather than objective, so we can be more ready to adjust them as new information appears. (If we assume something is objectively true, on the other hand, it is very difficult to integrate information to the contrary.)
Furthermore, the challenge of a consultant is not to find some perfect truth and reveal it to the team (“ta-da!”), but rather to enable the team to search for the truth themselves. (Borrowing from Senge’s Fifth Discipline: “Always focus on enhancing the capabilities of the system to solve its own problems.”)
The secret is not to possess an objective answer, but to create conditions where we can acknowledge our subjectivity and make greater objectivity worth seeking.
Consider Indirect Intervention
As a consultant, you can’t really claim to know the right answers. You don’t have all the existing client context, nor do you necessarily have the domain expertise. What you can claim, however, is to have seen what’s possible. Your value is your exposure to many different organizations and how each of them has solved variations of the same problems.
Additionally, you can act as a sensor that “trips” when it encounters ignorance or incongruence in the organization. Because you know what’s possible, you can notice when possibilities are inadvertently or prematurely culled from a decision space.
What you do with that awareness requires great care, however. Using Jan’s example of the “custom CRM,” he might know for a fact that many other organizations use off-the-shelf or as-a-service tools instead of custom-built solutions. That may be the more objective view with respect to the whole world, but what good is it if the mere existence of alternatives is insufficiently persuasive here, with this team?
Instead of attacking the issue head-on, a consultant has at least two indirect interventions to consider.
First, consider helping the team discuss doctrinal principles. What principles do they use in their work, generally? What principles do they use in making build-or-buy decisions, specifically? Is objectivity important in those decisions? How do they go about gathering evidence to get a more objective view? Is it important to re-examine decisions in light of new evidence? How do they overcome resistance to that kind of re-examination?
Second, consider helping the team have concrete experiences. Create safe, first-hand encounters with reality. Perhaps it’s a conversation with an industry expert, or a behind-the-scenes look at a leading CRM-as-a-Service provider. The key is to help people see what’s possible for themselves, since experiences are harder to ignore.
Both of these interventions make subjectivity frictionful and conspicuous. In the former intervention, we can notice the differences between what we say we will do and what we actually do. In the latter intervention, we can notice the differences between what we think reality is like and what reality is actually like. In both cases, becoming aware of these differences makes our subjectivity addressable.
Many thanks to Jan for these interesting questions!