The Map is Not the Territory


The “Map-territory relation” (Wikipedia) describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. This – in my opinion – is one of the most important mental models for consultants.

The Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked in 1931 that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself.

In consulting we often get “maps”, which claim to show the reality: Input from clients, briefing from third parties, knowledge from SMEs, system documentation, process designs, etc. To go with Dr. House, it is in our best interest to assume, that “everybody is lying”, which means we should carefully review and challenge everything we get. And we should realize, that the information we get (and the information we do not get) most probably only shows a certain part of reality, but never the territory.

But we already can read a lot out of the things we get. British statistician George Box wrote: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The picture to this post – a map redesign by Lee Willet – shows two maps – a detailed one and an easy-to-read one for runners. They are purpose-driven maps of the same territory. Discovering the use and purpose of the information is an important meta-information for our interpretation of it.

So, how can we consultants act to mitigate the map-territory-problem:

  1. Own Research
    Clients hire us, to get an external perspective and overcome their boundaries. If we found our hypotheses on given knowledge, we limit ourselves. It is always better to do your own research like conducting interviews or reviewing raw data.
  2. Visit the Shop Floor
    Nothing gives you a better impression of “how things really are” than reality. Visiting certain offices or production areas in a company and talking to people helps a lot. Pro Tipp: Sitting in the client cantina for an hour or talking to the people at the front desk can give you deeper insights than a conversation with the CEO.
  3. When Map and Terrain Differ, Follow the Terrain
    We commonly see in projects, that certain announced processes should fit client reality, but they do not. I found it helpful and highly valued to follow the work reality of the people and come up with pragmatic solutions instead of referring to some irrelevant things, which only exist on paper.

You can read a lot more about the map-territory relation in several books, but the best way to start is this article on Farnam Street Blog.