Mapping for Team Alignment

How Can Wardley Mapping Help Team Working?

In our work with technical teams we often need to discover where thoughts and assumptions lie and whether these are common within the group. When working with others we sometimes need help to align and come to a common understanding of the landscape, both technically and in other areas of the work. This is particularly important at the start of new activities, which are sometimes difficult to grasp.

I am always looking for tools and techniques that help with effective technical communication. I find these tools even more interesting when they also provide some structure when approaching organisational challenges. About three or four years ago, when hunting around for new ways of communicating technical strategy, I discovered Wardley Mapping. After some investigation and experimentation with using mapping in different areas and contexts it has grown into a vital element of our toolkit.

What is Wardley Mapping?

At a high level, Wardley Mapping is a process of assessing the value chain of an activity in terms of evolution. The maps themselves are visual descriptions of components and interrelations and attempt to show the evolutionary stage of each constituent part. Mapping is best done as a group as the process of producing the map requires in depth consideration and discussion of the subject to break down components sensibly and determine positions in terms of maturity. There is often disagreement and discussion around the detail that requires some work to resolve. The result of the mapping activity looks something like this:

Figure 1: A Simple Wardley Map

Figure 1: A Simple Wardley Map

Facilitating Technical Conversations

I find the process of mapping helps to facilitate conversations within a group. What’s sometimes needed is an activity to support the agreements and disagreements that help to create alignment on a project. Mapping can be a scaffold around which important conversations can happen, often in an indirect manner. The maps themselves provide an anchor for the discussion without explicit focus on a particular technical question.

Without mapping it’s more likely that other conversation starters will be used such as posing a technical question or proposing a straw-man solution. These are easily misinterpreted as suggesting or pushing a preferred approach, which can have the effect of shutting down a group’s ideas on how to proceed. The mapping process allows the team to own the generation and refinement of strategies, plans and techniques.

Gaining Multiple Perspectives

As a team is establishing an approach, interaction and engagement with the mapping process can help broaden everyone’s perspective. For example, the concept of evolution of components is sometimes new to people. Considering components in this way may bring up new questions and perhaps offer a different viewpoint altogether. As the group maps out a domain on a whiteboard, and a component is in a particular evolutionary phase, the team may highlight how this relates to a particular problem and are able to discuss that in new terms. When information is in front of a group in a visual format it can help clarify the finer points. The mapping activity allows everyone to work together and often the key components of the work arise as emergent properties of this interaction.

Highlighting the Shape of Work

For new teams, recognising the need to explore something further is key. A team with the ability to say, “let’s map this!” has a tool to shine a light on different issues as they arise. The map also serves as an indicator of the shape of work as understood. It can help a team identify where there’s a cluster of effort in the ‘custom build’ phase meaning effort to produce novel work. Alternatively an abundance of ‘product’ and ‘commodity’ components may highlight a heavy integration overhead. The map gives form to these patterns and becomes part of the team’s overall shared understanding.

Figure 2: Mapping the Shape of an Activity

Figure 2: Mapping the Shape of an Activity

Clarity of Approach

I see Wardley Mapping as a tool for generating clarity of approach. A set of maps is not a magical artefact and a team must still determine how to take action in each specific area. Where members of a group are establishing areas of alignment, the process of mapping can help people think and work together. The resulting maps are invaluable for clarification, understanding and communication and a team may use them in both internal and external contexts.

Where to Start?

The best way to start learning this technique is by reading the book by Simon Wardley. Once you’re up to speed with the basics there is a wealth of other material to explore.

Thanks to Ben Mosior for the discussion that formed the basis of this article