Evolution: One Bucket or Another?

Note: This post assumes that you have some familiarity with Wardley Mapping. If not, read this post explaining relevant terms, and for a quick explanation of what Wardley Mapping is, and how it works.

In this post, we’ll cover how to define and evaluate your company’s capabilities in terms of their Evolutionary stage, so that you can most effectively map them. 

If you’re already familiar with Wardley Mapping, you can skip the first two sections and start reading at “How Do I Figure Out How Evolved a Capability Is?”.

Why Make a Wardley Map?

It has been said that you should consider making a Wardley Map when “you don’t fully understand something, but you ought to.”

(quoting a no-longer-existing tweet: DurableStretch/status/1364141582144983042)

Wardley Mapping is typically used for mapping business Landscapes*. 

Why would you need to do this? 

Executives, founders, and business owners use Wardley Mapping to do things like: help chart business growth, define opportunities for new feature development, and to diagnose operational issues that are hampering company growth. 

Wardley Mapping, and Your Hypothetical SaaS Business

As an example, let’s say that you’re the founder/CEO of a SaaS business, whose main product is a web app that lets users store and manipulate their photos. You’re looking at Q2 earnings, and realized you have possibly six months left of operating expenses with your current revenue streams. (Sound familiar? Read Simon’s Wardley’s book here.)

For the past five years, you’ve operated the company with a mixture of intuition and best practices. This has worked so far, but now that the company is in trouble. You need to figure out how you’re going to fix the company, or everyone is getting fired–including you!

To save the company, you’re going to need to create a better representation of the context in which your business operates(ie your “competitive business Landscape”).

To do this, you need to create a Wardley Map.

Five Steps to a Wardley Map

The five steps to creating a Wardley Map are:

  1. Define Your “True North” (ie Your Customer/User).
  2. User’s Needs – Needs to be met.
  3. Capabilities – How you’re going to meet your user’s needs. 
  4. Value Chain – A list of users, needs, and capabilities becomes a value chain when you add dependency relationships.
  5. Wardley Map – A value chain becomes a Wardley Map when you determine how evolved everything is and position it accordingly (left-to-right) on the evolutionary axis.

Let’s start with step one, defining your “True North”.

For a map to truly be a map, we must define True North. Without it, direction would be subjective.

If a map is a grouping of the many coordinates of many things, we have to know which way is up. And “up” needs to point towards your users.

In general, there can be many kinds of users that could be the anchor for a map.

For instance: regulators, buyers, your customer’s customers, and board members could each be a True North for your company, depending on what you’re trying to create a Wardley Map for, and why.

In this example, your True North is “the customer”. No customers = no revenue. Your customer is a typical True North, but as stated above, it’s hardly the only possible one.

Once you have your “True North”, you can begin the mapping process in earnest, with the next step being “Defining Your User’s Needs To Be Met”.

Image from Simon’s book.

The third step of creating a Wardley Map is listing your company’s “Capabilities”. As stated in the list above, Capabilities are the means through which you’re going to meet your user’s needs. 

Image from Simon’s book.

You can see below that the company’s Capabilities of CRM, Platform, Power, Data Centre, and Compute, all exist at the “invisible” end of the Value Chain (step four of creating a Wardley Map). For quick context, we use a Value Chain to diagram the “relationships of dependency” of our customer needs and Capabilities.

Image from Simon’s book.

We complete the Wardley Map-making process by adding an axis to place our Capabilities at the right Evolutionary stage.

A completed Wardley Map, with Capabilities placed along the “Activities” Evolutionary stage. (Image from Simon’s book.)

For those new to mapping, placing your company’s Capabilities at the right Evolutionary stage is often a challenge, and can lead to “analysis paralysis” in the mapping process. 

The rest of this post will focus on how best to put your Capabilities in the right Evolutionary “buckets”, so to speak.

How Do I Figure Out How Evolved a Capability Is?

How can we figure out how evolved a specific capability may be, and how to effectively place your company’s capabilities on a Wardley Map–what strategies do we have when we get stuck here?

As stated previously, each Capability exists at a certain stage of Evolution. 

To appreciate a Capability in terms of its Evolutionary Stage (“Data Center is stage 3”) is to appreciate its qualities (“rapidly increasing ubiquity, rapid increase in use, failure not tolerated”).

There is a list of Evolution Characteristics you can find at the bottom of the page here.

Let’s jump back into the example of the SaaS Founder/CEO, and pick three relevant Characteristics, from Simon Wardley’s Evolutionary Characteristics Cheat Sheet. In this instance, let’s choose Ubiquity, Certainty, and Failure.

Characteristic Stage One Stage Two Stage Three Stage Four
Ubiquity Rare Slowly increasing consumption Rapidly increasing consumption Widespread and stabilising
Certainty Poorly understood Rapid increases in learning Rapid increases in use / fit for purpose Commonly understood (in terms of use)
Failure High / tolerated / assumed Moderate / unsurprising but disappointed Not tolerated, focus on constant improvement Operational efficiency and surprised by failure

Let’s refer back to our map in progress. Our Capabilities here are: CRM, Platform, Data Centre, Power, and Compute.

Let’s choose “CRM” as our Capability. 

For context, our CRM is the company’s Customer Relationship Management process. Often this is handled by an off-the-shelf software solution, such as Hubspot. Let’s assume in this case that we “rolled our own”, ie we built a custom CRM solution for our company.

Let’s say we make the following guesses for our CRM Capability:

  • Ubiquity seems to be Stage Two: Slowly Increasing Consumption. In this case, the CRM is used only by marketing and sales. Marketing uses it to build the company’s email list, sales uses it to track leads. Aside from these two use cases, adoption of the CRM across the company is low, and its use is far from ubiquitous. However, new standard operating procedures in both departments are increasing the use of the day-to-day use of the CRM.
  • Certainty seems to be Stage Three: Rapid increases in use / fit for purpose. With the slowly increasing use of the CRM, company employees are finding new ways to integrate the CRM with existing business functions every day. Sales and marketing are becoming more aligned in their use of it, and the CRM is being used for both departments to meet weekly and monthly KPIs.
  • Failure seems to be Stage Two: Moderate / unsurprising but disappointed. The custom CRM for the company has been more cost-effective, and it’s been great to build it to your company’s specs. However, it still fails more often than it should. These semi-constant failures affect the Evolutionary Stages of both Certainty and Ubiquity. In other words, if the CRM failed less, CRM use might be truly ubiquitous across your organization, and its functions deeply understood by employees(Certainty).

As stated above, these are our best guesses for the Evolutionary Stages for this particular Capability, in the context of these particular characteristics.

But how do we know that we’re gauging our Capability correctly? What can we do to be sure?

There are two paths forward:

  1. Mapping First
  2. Breaking the Component Down

However, we usually default to creating a rough-and-ready, “good enough” map first.

Why You Should Map First

If you’re early in the process… just keep moving. Pick something roughly in the middle and move on. 

(You can make it more “accurate” later.) 

Don’t get stuck. Go all the way through the mapping process, and THEN validate and improve specific parts of the map.

The thinking process behind Wardley Mapping. (Image from Simon’s book.)

If you’re in the process of working through the map to validate assumptions and make the model “more right”, there’s a second path forward — break the component down. 

If you are having a hard time placing it on the evolutionary axis, that’s a tell that there are multiple concepts being represented by that one word. So you need to disambiguate, which requires careful thought. 

Examine the thing closely. Make notes, sketch it out, or phone a thoughtful friend.

Once you’ve unbundled the component into its constituent parts, you can loop back to the first step, which is building out the first version of your map.

As Always, Context Is Key

You might also take some time to read up on what the broader world thinks about the thing. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the subject helps. So does having a conversation with an expert. 

Sometimes other folks have already done a lot of hard thinking about the space, and you might be able to adopt their conceptual terminology instead of having to invent your own.

* The term “Landscape” is based on Wardley’s Strategy Cycle, which describes 5 factors from Sun Tzu’s Art of War: Purpose, Landscape, Climate, Doctrine, and Leadership. His more literal version is arguably less confusing, since it’s based on familiar language, if you’ve read the Art of War:

Tweet by Simon Wardley: swardley/status/1357452824595091459

About Alex and Steady Rhythms

Steady Rhythms Growth and Marketing is a copywriting firm run by Alex Wagner. We specialize in “Voice of Customer”-driven copy to maximize conversions across growth channels.

The mission of Steady Rhythms is to transform and deepen the relationship our partners have with their customers, to create messaging that resonates with them and increases LTV.

If you’d like to know more about how customer-driven copy can drive revenue for your business, book a time with Alex here.

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