Mental Model: The Map is not the Territory

We need maps and models as guides. But frequently, we don’t remember that our maps and models are abstractions and thus we fail to understand their limits. We forget there is a territory that exists separately from the map. This territory contains details the exist separately from the map….When we mistake the map for reality, we start to think we have all the answers. We create static rules or policies that deal with the map but forget that we exist in a constantly changing world. When we close off or ignore feedback loops, we don’t see the terrain has changed and we dramatically reduce our ability to adapt to a changing environmentMaps have long ben a part of human society. They are valuable tools to pass on knowledge. Still in using maps, abstractions, and models, we must always be wise to their limitations. They are, by definition, reductions of something far more complex. There is always at least an element of subjectivity, and we need to remember that they are created at particular moments in time. This does not mean that we cannot use maps and models. We must use some model of the world in order to simplify it and therefore interact with it. We cannot explore every bit of territory for ourselves.” – The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts

One of the most blatant examples of mistaking the map for the territory from history that I have read about was from About Face in which Colonel David Hackworth recounts his learnings from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. More specifically, he describes being a leader who is actually on the ground in Vietnam who is unable to get feedback up the chain of command who then continue to treat the territory like the map they see and game plans used in the past.

In my own experience as a manager with certain deliverables, many direct reports, and little time to dive into each territory it is all to easy to use the benchmarks I have preset at the map. The challenge to myself is to know when it is appropriate to dive into the “territory” and get, here comes the cliche, my boots dirty.

Easier said than done, but a useful mental model to keep in mind.