Almost Every Company Falls Into This Thinking Trap

Handing someone a map does not equate to them understanding the terrain.

The world Ortelius' Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564.
The world Ortelius’ Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

“Giving someone no map is much, much better than giving him a wrong map.”  — Nassim Taleb

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Success often sows the seeds of its own destruction.


One reason is that people make decisions on out-dated “maps” and they fail to see the changing “terrain.”

They don’t realize the game has changed.

Let me explain.

I used to work for an intelligence agency that was a petri dish for how organizations—big and small—are run. Like others, as I moved up the ranks, I wanted to get my MBA so I could “make better decisions.”

I went to school and learned all about financial statements, budgets, and dashboards. I learned what numbers to count and how to count and automate them. I could strategize about businesses that I knew nothing about and sound confident.

In theory, I could run any company I wanted from an excel spreadsheet, swiftly judging progress at a glance. I knew that when things trended the wrong way, I needed to start asking questions.

I acquired a lot of “chauffeur knowledge.

To sum up two years, I learned how to talk to the talk and sound like I knew what I was doing.

The only problem? I had no fucking idea.

(Realizing this in my first semester, I stopped doing homework and started Farnam Street, which has become one of the most popular blogs in the world.)

School taught me “maps,” but nothing about “terrain.”

I had to go out there and walk it (which is what I’m doing as the Chief Operating Officer with

Business school, and a lot of management theory for that matter, is all about handing each other “maps” which is why people are so often out of touch with what’s actually happening in the business on the ground.

Maps Vs. Terrain

In 1931, in New Orleans, Louisiana, mathematician Alfred Korzybski presented a paper on mathematical semantics. It’s not for the layperson, however, it contains a gem.

In his string of arguments on the structure of language, Korzybski introduced and popularized the idea that the map is not the territory.

Maps distill reality, they are necessary but flawed. They allow us to rapidly orientate, communicate, transfer and apply information. We need abstraction. The only way we can process the complexity of reality is to make generalizations

There are two basic problems with maps. We fail to understand their limitations, and the world they are based on is liable to change, often rapidly.

1. Even the best and most useful maps suffer from limitations; or as statistician George Box put it in 1976 “all models are wrong.

Korzybski gives us a few to explore:

(A.) The map could be incorrect without us realizing it;

(B.) The map is, by necessity, a reduction of the actual thing, a process in which you lose certain important information; and

(C.) A map needs interpretation, a process that can cause major errors. The only way to truly solve the last would be an endless chain of maps-of-maps, a trap of infinite regression which he called self-reflexiveness.

The Treachery of Images
The Treachery of Images René Magritte/LACMA/Wikimedia Commons

Rene Magritte illustrated the fallibility of representation through his piece “The Treachery of Images”, 1929. This is not a pipe. It is a picture of a pipe.

2. The world is dynamic. And most of the time it’s changing fast. Maps are static until updated which requires deliberate re-evaluation and effort. Nothing is more dangerous than basing decisions on outdated maps.

We are so reliant on abstraction that we frequently use an incorrect model simply because we feel any model is preferable to no model. (Reminding one of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight because “That’s where the light is!”). Having a map in hand can be falsely reassuring.

Furthermore, knowing the description of the thing is not knowing the thing itself. So handing someone a map does not equate to them understanding the terrain.

Richard Feynman, one of my heroes, grasped this intuitively. As he pointed out, knowing the name of something does not mean you know something about it.

Financial statements are maps.

Strategic plans are maps.

Dashboards are maps (of maps.)

The longer you operate a business based on maps the more likely you are to be out of touch with reality. Remember, maps abstract reality, by definition smoothing out detail without necessarily reflecting change.

Interestingly, founders are often in touch with the “terrain” of their business as they have lived and breathed it. It’s easier for successors to get into trouble as they are merely handed the map.

Questions to ponder…

Where are you using maps in your business? In your relationships? How did you get them? Has the terrain changed? Is it time to reassess and re-chart to get a better grasp of the underlying reality?

If you’re interested in Learning more about Maps and Terrains try “The Map is not the Territory.

Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. If you want to work smarter and not harder, I recommend subscribing to The Brain Food Newsletter. You can follow Shane on Twitter and Facebook.

Almost Every Company Falls Into This Thinking Trap