Blog: Maps and Plans

Over the last few months, I’ve been wrestling with a book called Sensemaking in Organizations, by Karl Weick. I’ve got bogged down in it from time to time, but it’s fascinating. Weick describes sensemaking as having seven properties:

  1. it’s grounded in constructing or enhancing the identity of an individual or group;
  2. it’s retrospective, or based on “meaningful lived experience”;
  3. it’s “enactive of sensible environments”, which is kind of circular; it means that part of the process of sensemaking involves trying to produce an environment in which further sensemaking is possible;
  4. it’s a social process; it happens in the presence of others, or with the knowledge that others will understand, approve, or be involved;
  5. it’s ongoing; despite the fact that it’s retrospective, it doesn’t have a clear starting point either, because “people are always in the middle of things”;
  6. it’s based on extracted cues, “simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring”; and
  7. driven by plausibility rather than accuracy, which means to me that sensemaking is a heuristic process.

The book is rewarding, and I recommend it, but there is one story that on its own makes the book worth the price of admission. Over the last few months, I’ve treated a couple of newsgroups to the story, which I had heard before from Jerry Weinberg as an example of the heuristic, “When the map and the territory disagree, believe the territory.” But Weick’s analysis adds some extra richness that speaks to the idea of reasonable limits on planning and increased emphasis on doing.

Paraphrased, the story is that an Hungarian Army unit is on patrol in the Swiss Alps. A big snow storm comes up, and they don’t come back to camp for a day, two days, three days. Their lieutenant is now panicked, thinking that he has sent these men to their deaths… and then the unit walks back into camp. “Wow! We thought you were lost for good–where have you been?” “Well, when the storm came up, we hunkered down, and when we finally poked our heads out, everything was covered with snow and we realized that we were lost. One of us had a map, though, so we opened it up, and we realized that if we went down the hill we’d hit a river, and if we followed the river we’d hit the town, and here we are.” The lieutenant looked at the map and realized that it wasn’t a map of the Alps, but of the Pyrenees.

Says Weick (on page 55), “this incident raises the intriguing possibility that when you are lost, any old map will do. For example, extended to the issue of strategy, maybe when you are confused, any old strategic plan will do. Strategic plans are a lot like maps. They animate and orient people. Once people begin to act (enactment), they generate tangible outcomes (cues) in some context (social), and this helps them discover (retrospect) what is occurring (ongoing), what needs to be explained (plausibility), and what should be done next (identity enhancement). Managers keep forgetting that it is what they do, not what they plan, that explains their success. They keep giving credit to the wrong thing–namely, the plan–and having made this error, they then spend more time planning and less time acting. They are astonished when more planning improves nothing.”

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4 responses to “Maps and Plans”

  1. Gerald M. Weinberg says:

    Well, that second story, as I heard it, was the Italian army in the Austrian Alps, but it was a map of the Pyrenees. Only they didn’t realize it wasn’t a map of the Alps until after they’d gotten down to safety.

    All that simply adds to the point–the map, the story, to some extent the details don’t matter, but the overall structure does. Why? Because if there’s gravity, water flows downhill and erodes rock, no matter which mountains it is.

    The problem in software is finding where the gravity is, where the “universal laws” are, because software is pretty much arbitrary. That means it doesn’t have to make sense, at all. A single bit can turn a billion-maker into a human-killer, and that makes no sense that I can ascertain.

    So, I’m not sure that we can use “sense” in the same way in software building. I’m not sure there’s “developsense” at all–except in terms of the part that does obey the laws of physics, the human part.

  2. Gerald M. Weinberg says:

    Well, that second story, as I heard it, was the Italian army in the Austrian Alps, but it was a map of the Pyrenees. Only they didn’t realize it wasn’t a map of the Alps until after they’d gotten down to safety.

    All that simply adds to the point–the map, the story, to some extent the details don’t matter, but the overall structure does. Why? Because if there’s gravity, water flows downhill and erodes rock, no matter which mountains it is.

    The problem in software is finding where the gravity is, where the “universal laws” are, because software is pretty much arbitrary. That means it doesn’t have to make sense, at all. A single bit can turn a billion-maker into a human-killer, and that makes no sense that I can ascertain.

    So, I’m not sure that we can use “sense” in the same way in software building. I’m not sure there’s “developsense” at all–except in terms of the part that does obey the laws of physics, the human part.

  3. Michael says:

    Hi, Jerry.

    I’m honoured by your comments. (And yes, that is the way we spell “honour” here.

    There might not be developsense in that, uh, sense. But I’m hoping that we can develop ways in which we can sense things about the ways in which we develop, and in the things that we develop. (Parsing that sentence is left as an exercise for the reader.)

    To emphasize that there’s no sense to any of this, I got a message in email from you saying I liked your recent blog essay a lot, so much so that I wrote a comment. But google crashed before it posted, and I didn’t feel like writing it all over again. Sorry. Thank you for the compliment–but Google apparently stayed alive long enough to send three copies of your reply for moderation. The Blogger interface apparently made it easy for me to publish two out of three identical entries, instead of doing what I thought I was doing–publishing one and rejecting two.

    Your comment that humans obey the laws of physics gives me pause. The first law of physics that I thought of is that “for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” Yet that seems not to be the case; reactions are often unequal and disproportionate–and sadly, they seem not to oppose certain actions that I’d like them to oppose–or at least, not soon enough or directly enough for me.

  4. Gerald M. Weinberg says:

    True about people and physics, but perhaps the first law of human physics is that for every action, there’s some reaction–even when you think there isn’t. IOW, people form a system, so that you can’t do any “magic bullet” work, where only one thing changes.

    Testers are well aware of that, I think, in software, but often forget it when dealing with other human beings, like when delivering bug news to developers and managers.

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