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Navigating to Success in Business

business mapI was just in Chicago, where the people were so friendly, you couldn’t stop them from helping you.

I was only standing on a corner for about 30 seconds (looking confused, as usual) when a small knot of people gathered to help me. I wanted to visit Wrigley Field but wasn’t sure of the best way; walking, taking the bus, what to do along the way – so many options.

Everyone became the ‘expert’ and offered what they deemed to be ‘useful information’: “Take the 22 bus…” “Wonders Cemetery…” “Cross the street and go north…” “Try the Rokit, just a couple of blocks away…”. In my mind, slowly, a picture began to form: a visual map of what the area was like and how to get there. Of course, the map was nothing like the reality.

This is the problem faced by many small business and entrepreneurs. We are bombarded by information, some of it useful, some of it not. This information forms a map, and, for each of us, the map is different. And the map is almost nothing like reality.

With no map or the wrong map, we get lost. About 50% of U.S. small businesses fail in the first 5 years, according to government statistics. One of the top mentioned common mistakes of entrepreneurs is lack of planning or making decisions using “wrong data.”

Ideas and information are not always useful. Entrepreneurship courses (which may be taught by non-entrepreneurs/unsuccessful business people), organizations that support entrepreneurs, and research studies on entrepreneurship do not agree about how to best maximize success in business. Theory and practice are in conflict.

If we could find a better way to make maps, would it be possible to DOUBLE our success rate? We MUST have a better way to get on the right track! Let’s take a look at the way we look at maps to see if we might gain a new perspective.

Maps, Scraps, or Complete Atlases?

A business plan is like a map. It is a critical tool to help us find out:

  1. Where we are (what is the business environment);
  2. Where we are trying to go (where are the opportunities);
  3. How best to get there (what are the strengths of one’s firm);
  4. How to avoid dangerous terrain (what threats do we face from competitors).

Better maps let us better communicate ideas and be more useful as guides. So, how do we make maps more useful?

Kuipers notes that some ideas in a plan may be disconnected from one another, providing a “scrap of a map.” For example, if one has a tiny scrap of a map – say just a dot and the word “Chicago” – that would not be very helpful. Similarly, in the business world, someone might have a great ‘idea’, but ideas that are unconnected are useless.

A long and skinny scrap of a map might include a dot for Chicago along with a line connecting it to a dot called St. Louis. That might suggest a clear path, but it leaves out many alternatives. And, when one is traveling (or running a business), one needs many options. A more complete map (as we see in real road maps) offers multiple routes to multiple destinations. Maps help you find new routes and change course, to adapt to changing circumstances. There are two problems here.

One problem is that the map in our mind does not always match the reality of the route. While this is generally considered to be a problem of not having enough data, new studies show data is only part of the answer. We also have to consider whether or not the data (or the ideas of a business plan) are carefully connected (more on this below).

The second big problem with starting a business is that none of us has a complete map. Each of us has multiple ideas (spots on the map or lines between dots). We each have a partial map and communicating those maps to each other is hard as I found out when asking for directions in Chicago.

Kuipers suggests that our minds hold multiple maps (more like an atlas). With a more complete set of maps, the business leader can discover better paths and have more options. It also means that you will be able to avoid dangerous terrain such as the “mountains” of equipment costs, the “quicksand” of recruiting costs, and the “road closures” of diminishing market share.

Just as two heads are better than one, two maps are also better than one. Imagine, for example, one map that has all the roads, and a separate map that lists the best restaurants. Referring to both maps, we build a combined map a single map that contains all the benefits of the two previous maps and is more useful than either of the previous maps individually.

A New Way to Assess Maps

As you might imagine, a great deal of work is going on at multinational organizations around adapting to complex systems, as Michael Quinn Patton discussed. However, start-ups need an approach that is fast and less expensive. Three key aspects of validating an idea are important:

  1. The map must be relevant to the terrain (supported by reliable facts);
  2. The map must be understandable (makes sense to you and constituents);
  3. Elements on the map must be connected with each other (contains inter-related causal statements; concepts are influenced by two or more other concepts in the map).

Importantly, all of these things are measurable. You might read some industry publications to find the terrain in which you operate. You might conduct an email survey to be sure you understand what your customers want and need. These are normal practices for a well-run business. However, one area that has received less attention is understanding the inter-connectedness within the elements of the map itself.

This is important because we can fool ourselves by having a lot of data – if the data is not well communicated or the “points” of the data are not connected. That means we need to strive to create maps with more inter-connectedness between the concepts. This kind of approach:

  • Means your map is more likely to be effective in the real world, because the real world is also interconnected
  • Helps to clarify what you know and don’t know
  • Suggests directions for future action
  • Helps you find effective strategies and create new and better solutions
  • Is more transparent, and supports more successful communication and collaboration within your organization and between organizations

Do you need help with your map? Or do you have any questions or ideas to share? Leave a comment below.

Oh, by the way, I eventually made it to my destination. Wrigley field is a lot smaller in “real life” than I expected. Still, in my heart, it is the biggest stadium in the world of baseball. Sure, that’s a prejudice, a values call. But it works for me.

About Meaningful Evidence LLC

Dr. Steven E. Wallis of Foundation for the Advancement of Social Theory and Bernadette Wright and Ladel Lewis of Meaningful Evidence, LLC collaborate together to help business and non-profit leaders get free answers from experts on using scientific techniques to find the best strategies to increase growth and impact.

9 thoughts on “Navigating to Success in Business

  1. This post made so much sense to me. As I was reading it, I imagined thought bubbles appearing above my head with each of the blog posts, websites, or online courses I have immersed myself in as I tried to build my own map. Moving forward I slowly figure out what is useful information and what doesn’t belong on my map. But honestly (and I am not an affiliate…just a student), Danny’s Audience Business Masterclass is the closest thing I have found to an atlas. Each lesson brought me a step closer to my destination without taking any shortcuts that would hurt or hinder my goals.

  2. Let me start out by saying that I loved the map analogy. My friends and family think I’m crazy, give me a map and I’m quite content to sit and stare at it for hours as though it were a good book.

    What appeals to me most about a good map is how easy it is to digest varying types of data that at a single glance, you can see terrain, the type of road, points of interest all at the same time. And now, with Google maps and street view, I can actually get to see what everything looks like before I even walk out my front door!

    The trouble is, I’ve never seen a way of overlaying all of the salient pieces of information about building a business in a way that speaks to me the way a good map would. Perhaps if I could discover such a mechanism, I could move beyond the analysis paralysis that keeps me from setting out on the business building journey in the first place. When do you decide you’ve got enough data and proceed?

    My heart agrees with what you’re proposing, that having “scraps of maps” is a recipe for disaster, but I wonder if there isn’t something to be said about business building, Lewis and Clark style. Sure, there’s the possibility of failure, but who can really know everything?

    I don’t want to be sat at home, bent over a drafting table while braver souls blazed a trail even though they didn’t have a full picture…

  3. I like the map analogy. My business coach recommended that I create a Mind Map to help me focus on my business. My problem, or maybe it’s not a problem, is that I can go in many different directions. Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to focus. I’m working on this, but… I need to be laser-focused.

  4. I too like the analogy of maps in reference to our business. I especially resonated with the idea that, “Elements on the map must be connected to each other.” So often we hear we should be doing such and such but never know why or how that fits into helping our business and moving it in the desired direction. It is also easy to come up with great ideas and implement them with little or no idea of how or where those ideas will take our business. I can see how sitting down and listing our business activities and discerning where they will lead us can help us streamline our activities and help us get where we want to go quicker. Thanks for the insights.

  5. Thank you Amandah. A mind map is great — a good first step to creating a Strategic Knowledge Map. A key thought here is to ask how each piece of the mind map is connected with the others. That way, you can focus on areas that will best support your success.

  6. Jason, Excellent points. Creating the map should go much more quickly than the actual journey! That is part of our job as “conceptual cartographers.”

    Another good point is about the exploration. A good map should be clear about what is known and what is unknown (calls out for exploration). This allows you to improve your map. An important service ASK MATT is our ability to analyze the map, integrate multiple maps to create a stronger map, and see if the map is improving over time.

  7. Linda, I agree. I was also a student of Danny’s Audience Business Masterclass. A big reason why I enrolled, after looking at many business marketing courses, websites, and other resources, was that it supports you to create your own audience building plan for your unique situation. This provides a more realistic map that is more likely to work to take you from where you are starting from to where you want to go.

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