Thursday, January 03, 2013

The importance of maps

Ball’s Bluff is not commonly cited as one of major engagements of the American Civil War but it was not only one of the largest in 1861, it involved the utter rout of Union forces. Most saliently Ball’s Bluff is an abject lesson in the importance of maps and situational awareness.

Through misinformation and miscalculation, 1,700 Union troops were caught in disadvantageous terrain and in effect slaughtered (with an 8 to 1 kill ratio) by Confederates. A thousand men were lost because the Union Generals had no awareness of the landscape and marched blindly to their deaths on vague ideas of “because the Confederates are somewhere over there”.

Throughout time, understanding and exploiting the landscape has been vital in battle as it acts as a force multiplier. Probably the most famously cited example is the battle of the pass of Thermopylae where the Athenian general Themistocles used the terrain to enable 7,000 Greeks to hold back a Persian Army of 300,000 for seven days with King Leonidas and the “three hundred” reportedly holding them back for two of those days.

Maps and situational awareness are always vital to the outcome of any conflict.  Maps enable us to determine the why of action – cut off an enemy supply route, gain a geographical advantage over an enemy position or restrict an opponent’s movement.  The what (capture this hill), the how (bombard with artillery followed by ground assault) and the when (tomorrow morning) all flow from this, though the specifics change as no plan generally survives first contact intact.

Military maps are traditionally thought of in terms of describing a geographical environment, the physical landscape in which the theatre of battle operates. However, business is equally a competitive engagement between “opponents” but in this case fought over a business landscape of consumers, suppliers, geographies, resources and changing technology . But how do you map this and does it really matter?

The first hint I had that mapping might be important in business was when I was asked to examine alignment issues for a number of business and IT strategies for a major fast moving consumer goods company. The questions ranged from whether the strategies were aligned to did these strategies make sense and was the company heading in the right direction? 

What was noticeable in both cases of strategy is they clearly detailed the What, When and How of action but weakly described the Why? I was struggling to make sense of many of the decisions back then and almost two decades later, I still commonly see this problem - strategies strong on the what, when and how but weak on the why.

  • What we’re going to do  … “we going to build a cloud
  • When we’re going to do it  … “this year
  • How we’ll achieve it  … “with this technology stack
  • Why are we doing this  … “because everyone else is?” 

The why is often reactive and hand waving, the responsibility of choice can be passed to others (e.g. the common mantra of IT was “the business wanted it”) and in some case the reason given is simply others are doing it (e.g. “because the market is moving towards more services”). 

In essence this vagueness in the strategic why is no different from the vagueness behind the actions of Ball’s Bluff - “because the Confederates are somewhere over there”. The cause in both cases is poor situational awareness, lack of a map of the environment and opponents position.

What became transparent those many years ago, is that in Business and IT we almost never have a map of the landscape and we cannot know where to attack. Our reasons for action (the why) can only ever be vague and hand waving unlike the actions of Thermopylae and the exploitation of the environment to restrict a foe. The lack of any map forces us to focus on the what rather than the why.

This supremacy of what over why is shown most clearly in technology and business fads as exemplified by Gartner’s hype cycle. New technology trends are promoted because other’s are doing it, the focus is on what is done - cloud, social media, customer relationship management etc - followed invariably by the skeptics questioning of why?

The military equivalent would be a hype cycle of new technology - bow, muskets & cannon - with generals clambering to use the latest technology. Whilst it is certainly true that new technology has created advantage and beneficial new military structures - bronze spears resulted in the infantry phalanx, stirrups provided new tactics for cavalry - in the case of Ball's Bluff, it would be like the Union buying up the latest to artillery to fire in some vague direction.  

Corporal : “New Cannon arrived sir, as per orders we installed them and fired them this morning”
General : “Excellent news. Apparently the latest thing is mortars, that’s what all the high tech militaries are using. Let’s get some of those and fire them as well”
Corporal : “Certainly. Where should we fire those?”
General : “Apparently 67% of successful Generals are bombarding hills, I've got a report and case study on this. Let's bombard a hill!”
Corporal : “Yes, Sir!”

The assumption that high tech always wins the day is equally flawed. Low tech can be used to overcome a high tech opponent that has poor situational awareness. A famous example of this would be the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, with access to gatling guns and “hi-tech” weaponry suffering a severe defeat at the Battle Of The Little Bighorn against bows, arrows and stone clubs.

So given the importance of situational awareness e.g. mapping the environment and your opponent’s potential positions and movement - in any form of competitive engagement, then where are the equivalent maps for business? 

This is what I needed in 1996 to determine whether the strategies made sense. It is in pursuit of such maps that my journey of discovery begins.

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Part 2 of 200

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