Over the years, I’ve been asked repeatedly to explain what Wardley Mapping is. Since it’s a big practice, with lots of ways to slice and dice it, I like to try out new answers whenever I get the chance. One explanation I’ve been playing with recently is centered on the maps themselves and how they relate to the different ways we make important decisions. 

Intuition, Heuristics, Analysis

To start, let’s describe a spectrum of options for decision-making, with three distinct points. 

Simon Wardley says that most folks make decisions by gut feeling or intuition. This is our first point, which we’ll call decision by intuition. Intuition is useful because it’s fast, requires no additional information, and uses very little cognitive capacity. While perhaps efficient for simple decisions like what to eat for breakfast, intuition alone will totally miss the mark in strategy work where the consequences for moving too quickly are more severe.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have our second point, decision by analysis. Comprehensive in nature, analysis considers every possible option in reality, its probabilities of success, and all possible consequences. As you can imagine, DbA takes a lot of work, is slow, and must be based on a high volume of good information. Unconstrained, it can be too cognitively taxing and take too long, running the risk of missing the opportunity to act entirely. However, when managed well, the quality of outcomes can be better.

In between these options is our third point, decision by heuristic. Heuristics are experiential or data-validated rules of thumb used to shortcut thinking. They must be sought out and developed, but once discovered take little time and cognitive effort to deploy. Heuristics can fail if adopted naively or applied in the wrong context, but they are especially useful as a way to avoid getting mired in analysis.

Models As the Fourth Way 

This spectrum is useful, but the balance of options between “quick but potentially wrong” and “slow but right” is a bit uneven. What’s missing is a fourth way that’s not as slow and effortful as analysis but still higher quality than intuition and heuristics. This is where Wardley Mapping fits in.

A Wardley Map is a type of model, and models are designed through the important choices we make about what to emphasize and what to exclude. Models are far more cognitively manageable and quicker to use than a broader analytical approach, because, as Russ Ackoff would point out, “only the relevant properties of reality are represented.”

The use of a model like a Wardley Map, creates disfluency, a type of cognitive friction that requires a slower, more effortful approach to thinking about a problem space. This slowness can be useful, especially if we are traversing well-worn decision pathways too quickly to our detriment but wish to avoid endless analysis.

In situations experiencing constant change, slowness that isn’t too slow ends up being the key to integrating new information without getting stuck. That’s why Wardley Maps, and models more generally, play an important role as the fourth option on the decision-making spectrum.

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