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Don’t Just Adapt — Shape the Future!

In today’s volatile and uncertain world “adapt or die” isn’t your only choice —
you can also start shaping the future to your advantage instead


Success used to depend on how well you implemented “best practices.” Yet in

a rapidly changing and more unpredictable world this is no longer enough.

But while organisations are continually being told to “adapt or die!” if the old

ways of working aren’t producing reliable results what should they do?

Facing uncertainty on the battlefield the military adopts a “search & discover”

approach — seeking to explore and exploit new opportunities in the unknown.

Maps are a key weapon for this as they improve awareness of a situation,

reveal options for movement, aid communication and track progress.

For organisations we introduce Power Maps to help you see your current

situation more clearly, anticipate the future better and challenge assumptions

so you learn quicker — all critical in a dynamic and uncertain environment.

In a “Digital Age” you should aim for more than just to “adapt or die.” If you

can sense what’s really happening and respond effectively you can shape the

future to your advantage instead. Power Maps are your guide on this journey.


Even Turkeys Fly in a Tornado

Business used to be simple. You knew who your customers were and what they wanted.

You also knew how to organise people, processes and investments to generate revenue.

The aim was clear: build a well-oiled machine where you could forecast profits at the

start of the year and strictly monitor performance against KPIs to ensure it was delivered.

This world was predictable. Success came from copying “best practices” presented in

case studies and mastering techniques taught in leading western business schools.

Implementation was a challenge, but in a rapidly growing market with unthreatening

competitors and undiscerning customers success was relatively easy to come by.

New Realities
Successive crises and anaemic GDP growth has meant many businesses are now having

to do more with less. Increasingly, industry “best practices” are past practices showing

how businesses used to be successful, but providing little guidance in how to respond

to nimbler rivals using newer technologies to provide customers with better choices.

Being successful in today’s more competitive environment requires more than blindly

adopting the latest meme (“Go Agile!” or “Digital Transformation”) peddled by western

business schools and management consultancies (both large bureaucracies also

struggling to adapt to a new age). Their “silver bullets” — promises of a single answer to

solve all your problems — can lead you down a vicious (and expensive) ‘death spiral’.

”Meme-as-Strategy” Death Spiral

Your organisation may be in a “death spiral” if it’s struggling with any of these:

1. Business alignment issues

2. Communication failures

3. Concerns over disruption

4. Issues with new competitors

5. Lack of innovation

6. Expensive project failures

7. Inertia to change

8. Struggles implementing “big data”, “agile”, or “digital transformation.”


Stop Fighting the Last War
Rather than copying what others did in the past organisations need to outline what

they’re going to do now and why. Strategies must represent a real choice between

equally valid options explaining “why this move and not that one!” Chest-beating (“we

aim to win in market X!”) simply isn’t good enough. If there’s no real choice (e.g. is it

feasible to try lose in market X?) there’s no real strategy people can get behind.1

Real strategies address technical challenges (who does what, when and how), which are

often known to subject-matter experts who can help. But strategies must also address

adaptive challenges (why and where), which are specific to your context and therefore

unknown to external experts, whose advice — based on someone else’s context — can

actually be harmful. For what works in one place can be a disaster in another.

High-Sensitivity of Human Systems

A project seeking breakthroughs in mining safety in South Africa revealed that
while safety experts focus on technical challenges (infrastructure maintenance,
process design, compliance & training) in conversations with miners
‘management-miner relationships’ and ‘societal attitudes’ played a more
significant role in issues of safety.

A portfolio of inexpensive, safe-to-fail experiments (probes) were run to try and
nudge behaviour in positive directions. One probe saw management provide
miners hot, nutritious soup before each shift. The aim was for management to
show empathy with miners working in deep and therefore very cold mines, but
also to ensure miners were well-nourished, as some conversations suggested a
a small minority of miners were spending wages on partying and alcohol and
coming to work hung-over, which increased the likelihood of accidents.

1 Dave Aron. The Essence of Strategy (2016)
This probe showed early success — the miners appreciated the soup and plans
to monitor the impact on safety were launched. However, management
decided to immediately launch this as a full-scale pilot project in other mines.

When miners in other mines (where no initial conversations had taken place)
came to work they reacted with suspicion to the offer of hot soup. Faced by an
unexpected management move they sought their own explanations. They
decided this must be bribe to try and undermine the miners support for their
trade union in upcoming salary negotiations. So the miners threatened a strike.

Copying something that worked is ‘outcome bias’ — the tendency to look only
at the outcome and not the process by which it occurred — and it provides no
guarantee of success elsewhere. Even very similar contexts (e.g. mines in
South Africa) will have different adaptive challenges that also need to be met.

Context is King
In a volatile and unpredictable world leaders must make big decisions despite having

no time to prepare thoroughly for every contingency. Doing this well in business

requires new approaches. The military use a “search and discover” approach where

they “observe, orientate, decide, act, or OODA — a recurring cycle of decision making

that acknowledges and exploits the uncertainty and complexity of the battlefield.”2

The OODA Loop

The OODA Loop is central to the “sense & respond” approach of modern Complexity

Theory, which offers practical guidance for navigating uncertain environments:

1. SENSE (observe, orient) what’s really happening in your context to distinguish
between known (technical) challenges and unknown (adaptive) challenges

2. RESPOND (decide, act) appropriately by using experts for technical challenges
but intelligent experimentation for adaptive challenges by launching multiple, small

probes to scan the surrounding environment, safely test new ideas and gather

contextually-relevant data before committing to major decisions.

2 Peter Ho. Coping with Complexity (2012)
Use the Right Tools

A plan of action can be rigid and inflexible, which is why people, in an unknown territory,

find maps more useful than a plan. Maps provide options (“which routes can we take?”)

assist in times of change (“the road is closed, is there an alternative?”) and help track

progress (“we should see X up ahead soon”). A Muscovite may not need a map to get to

Red Square but might if arriving in London and needing to get to Tower Hamlets.

London Underground Tube Map
Harry Beck's map of the London Underground was introduced in 1933 and
was criticised for being too simplistic and diverging too much from the
physical geography of London. However, this map today represents 11
lines covering 402km, serving 270 stations, and handles up to 5 million
passenger journeys per day (20% of whom are visitors who’ve never
ridden the Tube before) and helps answers questions such as:

“You're in Heathrow terminal 4. How would you get to Tower Hamlets?”


Maps appear to be quite common in business but it’s only Power Maps3 that possess the

six key characteristics real maps must have or be:

I. Visual — you can see it

II. Context-specific — a map of your situation

III. Anchor — customer needs that provide common purpose

IV. Components — activities that meet customers’ needs

V. Position — visibility of components to customers

VI. Movement — how components evolve over time.

Power Maps take an hour or two to create and reveal how evolved components in your

value chain are (horizontal axis) and how visible they are to customers (vertical axis) —

meaning you can quickly gauge the current state of any business line or project,

challenge assumptions and identify any risks or opportunities.

3 Based on Wardley Maps, distributed under Creative Commons 3.0 license
Any Map is Better Than No Map At All

A group of troops were camped in the Alps during World War I. The
Commander sent a small group of men on a scouting mission but shortly
afterwards it began to snow heavily and continued for two days. The squad
didn’t return and the commander believed he’d sent his men to their death.

Unexpectedly, on the third day the long-
overdue scouting squad returned and
there was great relief in the camp. The
Commander questioned his men
eagerly, “How did you survive, how did
you find your way back?” The sergeant
who had led the scouts replied, “We got
lost in the snow. We’d given up hope
and resigned ourselves to die. Then one
of the men found a map in his pocket
and we used it find our way back.”

The Commander asked to see this wonderful map and the sergeant handed it
over. But to this amazement it wasn’t a map of the Alps, but of the Pyrenees!

Start with Customer Needs

Maps display magnetic north to aid navigation. Power Maps use customer needs to

provide direction as success comes from meeting these needs better, quicker, and more

reliably than rivals so customers pay you a premium. Needs are a common purpose the

entire organisation can align around, as exemplified in the famous story about President

Kennedy’s visit to the NASA space centre in 1962. Noticing a janitor carrying a broom

he walked over to the man and said, "Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”.

"Well, Mr. President," the janitor responded, "I'm helping put a man on the moon."

Mapping the Future

Power Maps reveal how everything your organisation does (and how it does it) is

evolving from state of uncertainty to certainty (moving from left to right on the Map).

This has significant implications for your strategy.

No-one has a choice about evolution — supply and demand forces everything towards

commoditisation and lower margins — but, if you can sense the weak signals of where

your industry is evolving to, you can respond early and gain an advantage over rivals.

As components evolve towards a commoditised state (i.e widespread understanding

and acceptance) they become reliable enough as platforms that others can build new

components on top of them — electricity as a utility enabled computers, and computers

are enabling AI, which will enable future industries to emerge. This is a common

economic pattern driving innovation that your organisation can now harness.

Key questions to ask about the future when using Power Maps:

1. Which current products in your value chain are moving into the commodity phase?

2. What might happen in your industry if these become utility platforms?

3. How will this affect your organisation?

4. What sort of resistance will you need to overcome to exploit or defend against this?

Armed with Power Maps you can use a library of 30+ other common economic patterns

to start exploiting the future landscape of your industry. Success doesn’t come from

following past practice but by getting ahead of the curve — what hockey great Wayne

Gretzky called “skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” With

Power Maps you can anticipate this future and start shaping it to your advantage.

Mapping “Context—Specific” Strategy

Now you can see how the future landscape is evolving you can start out-competing

those rivals who are still struggling with “context-free” and “meme-based” strategies.

With Power Maps you can make strategic moves that rivals can’t easily see or respond to.

Mapping Amazon’s strategic moves:

1. Commoditise a value-chain component — build protections around it (open source)

2. Make platform efficient enough that others are encouraged to use it to innovate on

3. Leverage customer-metadata to sense where the pick up on the market is

4. Respond by incorporating innovations into the platform to move up the value chain.

A “sense & respond” strategy allows Amazon to compete on efficiency (the platform),

customer focus (responding to needs) and innovation (from its ecosystem)

simultaneously. And while it would take a lot to become as good as Amazon, crafting

your own context-specific strategy with the aid of Power Maps is your starting place.

Mapping Fitness

Even with the best strategy many executives believe they lack the teams to execute it.

Although the reality is that strategy and execution are two sides of the same coin (if your

team can’t execute your strategy it’s as much a fault of your strategy as your team)

almost every organisation would benefit dramatically from a simple ‘get fit’ program.

The Fifth Man

During World War II the firing drill of an artillery crew was being reviewed by a
senior officer. The drill was expertly conducted by a four man team running
through precise, well-rehearsed movements, but the officer noticed a fifth man
standing off to the side, seemingly doing nothing.

“What does he do?” — the officer asked. The crew answered that he was “fifth
man” but no-one could explain what his role was.

The senior officer was curious and after he returned to headquarters continued
his inquiries, but no-one could explain what the role of the “fifth man” was.

Then he came across an old picture from the Crimean war, a hundred years
before, which was the first time this artillery unit had been deployed. In the
photo he saw a four man team, in similar uniforms firing an older but similar
gun. And towards the edge of the frame he caught sight of the “fifth man.”

He was holding the horses.

Despite the artillery unit becoming motorised and requiring no horses to move
it the “fifth man” was still included in the crew.

“Digital Transformation” is less about investing in technology (organisations have been

doing this for years) and more about how your business evolves in the “Age of Digital.”

Unfortunately, previous investments have been made without Maps of the wider picture,

resulting in IT jungles of mass duplication and legacy systems run by hordes of 5th men.

Few organisations have cleaned up this mess because so few have been able to see it.

Multiple Maps of the organisation can help identify and clean up these toxic legacies,

allowing resources to be re-invested in areas that will improve returns on investment.

This is one of 40+ methods based on universally-useful principles that are used with

Power Maps to make the organisation fit enough to execute context-specific strategies

and avert the many problems of applying “silver bullet” solutions in the wrong context.


Learning to create your own Power Maps takes only a few days and one small team can

Map even a large organisation. Power Maps quickly provide the clarity leaders need to

not only better understand a world that everyone finds more complex and uncertain, but

also to get their organisation fit enough to start shaping the future to their advantage.

Organisations that use Power Maps:

1. Articulate problems, solutions, and designs with uncommon clarity

2. Wield a superior understanding of their context in everyday decision-making

3. Systematically notice strategic opportunities others miss.

How Maps power a “Sense & Respond” loop:


1) In a more volatile, uncertain and complex world there are no “silver bullet”
solutions, methods or cultures that will guarantee you success

2) Success comes from finding new sources of value in the uncertainty — and maps
of the landscape are a far better tool for exploration than rigid plans of action

3) Power Maps are a lite-touch, hi-impact tool that organisations can quickly deploy
to reveal what’s happening in their industry and what their future options are

4) Strategy and execution are two sides of the same coin and organisations need to
get both right simultaneously — Power Maps can guide you on this journey.

For more information on our services please contact

General References:
The works of Simon Wardley

The works of Dave Snowden

The works of Gary Klein

The works of Col. John Boyd

Specific References:
Dave Aron. The Essence of Strategy (2016)

Peter Ho. Coping with Complexity (2012)