Org charts and the Underground: The map is not the territory

I’m a fan of London and one of my favourite activities in the city is to walk.  I try to walk everywhere if at all possible and it is through many years of doing this that I’ve got to know how the different parts of the city join up.  I’ve discovered that places I thought were far apart from each other are actually only a 10 minute walk. I’ve discovered new parks, pubs, restaurants and other interesting places by walking down roads I never before new existed.  I’ve discovered a plethora of short cuts, alleyways, dead ends and wrong turns, all of which turn my time in the city into an adventure.  Through walking more I’ve also learnt how inaccurate the tube map is as an above-ground navigation aid!

Despite its flaws, I am a fan of the tube (The London Underground Network).  The majority of the time it is quick, efficient and provides a great service for those journeys where I simply don’t have the time to walk.  One of the things I love about the tube is its design.  The whole experience feels, at varying points, like a museum, an art installation, a futuristic subterranean city or a insight into the London of the past!  However, the piece of design I love the most is the tube map. Compared to other rail networks I have used around the world, I find the London Underground map to be the simplest, the most logical and the most aesthetically pleasing.  The main reason why Harry Beck’s masterpiece works so well is that it only bears a passing resemblance to the landscape above ground.  Whilst the overall orientation of North, South, East and West are roughly correct the distances between stops have been normalised, curves have been perfected and everything else turned into equally spaced straight lines and simple intersections.   However if one were to look at a geographically accurate map of the tube that has not been corrected in this way it is drastically different. Rather than looking like a neat wiring diagram it looks more like a central nervous system.  More organism than machine.

tube actual
Harry Beck’s “normalised” tube map
tube map large
An accurate tube map

All of this reminds me of when I started my first full time job aged 18 in a factory. As part of the induction process I was given a copy of an organisation chart for the department I was working in.  Using a series of neat lines and boxes it showed the Operations Manager at the top, the three department managers underneath, then the supervisors and, right at the bottom, a box for each production line labelled “Operators”.  It was tidy, simple, logical and gave me a good idea of the interfaces and pecking order I was about to walk into.   However, it soon became apparent to me that the organisation chart bore only a passing resemblance to the day to day reality of the shop floor.  People interacted in a far less linear and far more improvisational manner.  Most people made decisions outside of the lines of the chart. People didn’t always follow the instructions of the person above them. Most interestingly of all, the power dynamics in reality were drastically different to those that were suggested on paper, with ‘live’ power relations being negotiated moment by moment based on a variety of factors over and above formal seniority such as length of service, knowledge of the equipment, age and even physical stature!  (I remember a firm but fair packing operator in her late 50s being all-powerful due to her length of service, her imposing build and her no b******t way of speaking.   She took on a  ‘mother hen’ role for the rest of the front line staff and management were terrified of her!)

From this point on I became fascinated by the incongruence between the theoretical organisation and organisational reality and the problems that this mismatch creates when people try to design and change things.  Nowadays I try to establish what a more accurate map of the typical patterns of relating are in order to compare and contrast with the suggested ones.  I strive to treat the official organisation chart as no more than a helpful navigation aid, like Harry Beck’s tube map, knowing that if I use it for ‘live’ orienteering I’m going to get very lost and confused.  As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski said “the map is not the territory.

Despite this all being rather obvious I regularly come across a plethora of organisational change efforts that use the map to make key decisions, believing that it is an accurate portrayal of day to day organisational life.  When it comes to culture change efforts it seems that many unintentionally set out to only change the map, perhaps secretly hoping that the territory will fall in line as a result (a mistake I have made many times in the past!)  As unpalatable, unpredictive and resource intensive as it may be, the only real way to get a sense of the live, vibrant, messy and continually shifting nature of an organisation is to get out, walk around and see what one notices, spotting the glaring inaccuracies and omissions of the theoretical organisation chart, noticing patterns and activities that take place in the white space between the lines and boxes, witnessing how people really interact and, through doing so, discovering the short cuts and dead ends that you would never have known about if you’d just looked at the map!

1.  Even the “accurate” tube map is a flawed metaphor for organisational life as power, status and identity are negotiated live in whatever that momentary context is for each individual and not static and permanent. I have written before about organisations not being “things“.

2. Alfred Korzybski acknowledges the origins of his famous quote as coming from mathematician Eric Temple Bell‘s phrase “the map is not the
thing mapped.”  Artist René Magritte illustrates these ideas brilliantly with his work Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

3. I can’t find the source of the ‘accurate’ tube map I used in this
piece so can’t credit them. If anybody knows then please let me know.