You Are Here

You may know strategically exactly how and where you’re taking your organization. But that doesn’t mean everyone on your team knows how to get there.

Everyone who works in an organization is perpetually trying to determine how best to get where they are meant to go. 

In creating and then leading the strategy, the CEO is looking at the bird’s eye view—a complete map of the terrain if you will. He can turn it around, see it from different angles and levels of generality–as part of the entire economic solar system, or only within his target vertical market. Those different ways of seeing reveal both the current state of the organization and the various paths toward the destination.

But individual employees—even leaders of functions may only be seeing a small portion of the trip –the equivalent of the next 2 turns—and nothing beyond that curve in the road.

Because so few organizations provide significant guidance, employees often have no real wayfinding assistance –neither road signs nor maps—that give them ways to understand and make good choices. Instead, they simply follow instructions from a manager: perform this task, finish that chore, hit that number.

Does this matter?

In our modern world, we have flattened the idea of wayfinding. We drive to every new location with turn-by-turn instructions. And it’s easy to relate to all navigation that way –as a simple sequence of linear steps, one after the other.

I am old enough to vividly recall the world before GPS; mostly because I inevitably get lost. Since my sense of direction is poor, I’m unusually vigilent—not relying solely on GPS because it is too narrow a view. That narrowness makes it hard to assess whether I’m in the right place. So, I look up destinations in advance, surveying them on maps, relative to other locations.   

When I fail to do that homework, inevitably, I find myself in a state of anxiety, certain I have taken the wrong turn —or five—with no sure way to find out if that’s true or not.

But, if I have some sense of the “lay of the land”, I can avert the panic and find my way.


If you were stranded in a forest without a cell phone, how might you find your way to the nearest town? What would you need to know even to begin walking?

To start, you would want to be able to imagine both the forest and the town from the air. Which position are they in with respect to each other? Is one north of the other? Higher or lower? Closer to the sea or the mountains?

If you knew that, it would tell you how they would line up when the sun was highest in the sky. That would give you the context to know which direction to walk, and how to ensure you continue walking true rather than in a circle.

Having the view from space would also help you glean the distance and therefore, how long the walk would be. An hour? 6 hours? These things matter if you’re lost in a forest!

As an employee, it can feel a bit like standing in a dense forest, unsure of where the town is. You have been tasked with collecting kindling for the fire. But beyond that, you don’t know what is for dinner, how long you’re staying, or how far away the road is. That makes even the small decisions hard, like how much wood to collect.

In terrorist organizations they deliberately demand blind oberdience and create knowledge gaps. Each person performs discreet tasks and never knows who else is doing what or how it all fits together. That makes sense in a criminal enterprise. But it doesn’t make sense if you want to build a creative and strategically aligned team of decision-makers.

If you’re the kindling gatherer, having a map of the area, and knowing that you are staying one night and hiking out to find a new campsite in the morning let’s you make better decisions today –despite still being tasked with collecting kindling. You now know how much to collect, how much to cook, and that you need to locate a place to pitch a tent.

Where’s the Toilet?

Wayfinding is a vast subject matter. The Victoria and Albert Museum has been one of the world’s most visited museums almost since it 1851 when it emerged following the Great Exhibition. Over its hundred plus year history it has added, built, moved, annexed and acquired in so many locations that it has become an impossible maze for museumgoers.

The V & A recently reinvented their wayfinding system, “unifying seven miles of galleries across three interconnected buildings, five temporary exhibition spaces, four shops, three cafés and 60,000 objects”.

The concerns that went into the project far exceeded what I imagined. For example, they had to consider whether signage should direct people to specific objects or to some other category—like period, or a type of object or a theme. That would mean the difference between signs that told you where to find “1950s Advertising” versus the “Cocoa Cola Collections”.

But the signage also had to direct visitors to more prosaic destinations like the car park and the toilet—easily and transparently; and do so in a way that was consistent with the museum’s design sensibilities. It turns out that is a challenging mission.

Wayfinding with a Purpose

Maps can have lots of different purposes. They can be used to understand where things are relative to each other—as the world globe does. But they can also be used to find your way to a destination, like to a buried treasure, or to the correct subway train. And they can show you how things connect to each other—like how to get from the plane through the terminal, onto a shuttle train, through immigration, on a people mover to baggage, through customs, down to the Uber pick-up spot and to your hotel.

In an organization, we want our employees to understand all of those phenomena –where things are relative to each other and how they fit into a bigger picture; but also, how to get to a destination, like a milestone—and how other teams are getting to related milestones.

Different kinds of instruments do those different jobs. A strategy map can be extremely helpful to understand the relationships between the big goals and the main paths that will achieve them. At a broad level, it provides context—and one can trace a path through the major causal chains that will produce the desired strategic position and ultimately, the financial goals.

A Less Big Picture!

I always imagine a strategy map like a map in the mall that says, “You Are Here”, marked with a star. It shows your relative position in space and gives you the sense of how to get to the restrooms or Bloomingdales.

But in a complex organization, a strategy map may not be specific enough to help an individual understand the detail of how to achieve their own portion of the bigger puzzle.

Imagine you were in Geneva and looking at a map of Europe that said, “You Are here”. It would not help you get from there to London—even though you could identify London on the map. But it would suggest that you need different instruments. Maybe a train or airplane schedule, or a road map.

So, what kind of map or signage does an employee need beyond a strategy map? They need something that is granular enough to help make decisions within their purview—decisions that are additive to the strategy, but relevant to their own job.

The maps that provide useful guidance of what to do, why and how to do it might each provide a greater level of magnification as you descend through the operational hierarchy. For example, the first level of magnification after the strategy map might be at a department level.

A product team might have a complete roadmap for the next 3 years. That roadmap was generated by zooming in on the strategy—and understanding how the company intends to distinguish itself to customers. The product team uses the product roadmap to define the phases of development and to understand the dependencies that dictate the order of operations. The roadmap is inferred from the strategy.

Look, A Beetle!

But each individual product manager will need more granular tools to make specific decisions about the piece of the product they manage. Their guidance comes from both the strategy—and the product roadmap—but must also consider technological concerns that constrain development.

At their level of magnification, they are more like a naturalist looking for 3 species of beetle that are known to be within the forest. They have reference tools that they can use to find the ideal ecosystem for the beetles, like tests to assess the PH or nutrients of the forest floor. If they find the right conditions, they will likely find the beetles.

Viewed side by side, the Google map of the forest’s location relative to nearby roads, and the naturalist’s matrix of habitat characteristics seem unlike each other.

But each is an essential wayfinding tool. And each describes the same terrain, albeit to different ends and through different lenses.

The challenge in organizations exists in connecting these various view to each other.

Zooming In and out

It’s common for the CEO to develop the strategy and understand the over-all map. But, beyond knowing the lagging indicators of sales, revenue or cost, he is unlikely to have the same awareness of the details of the supply chain.

Equally, the supply chain director is aware of the strategy, but doesn’t necessarily understand the consequential relationship between her work and the strategy’s success.

If the strategy depends on a promise of speedy delivery, or instant product exchanges, then supply chain alacrity is a key component of the strategy’s success. If the supply chain director prioritizes cost over speed (to keep to budget), and the sales team is left with unhappy customers who are waiting for exchanges, the strategy is flailing.

Yes, budget matters. But saving money must be stacked against the strategy’s key differentiator. If the strategy depends on speed, then the budget cuts must come from some other part of the supply chain.

These kinds of conflicts happen all the time. Aligning the different maps takes focus and commitment. It means that every department head must ensure that she and all her team members are deeply aware of the strategy writ large—but equally adept at resolving conflicts between priorities.

Those priorities are usually memorialized in various kinds of wayfinding tools—maps, roadmaps, project spreadsheets and program process maps. None can live in isolation. They are all variations of each other—at different levels of magnification, from different angles or through different lenses. When we make that explicit, people can better understand how to orient themselves and do their best work.

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