Your Maps Are Wrong

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Almost a century after Columbus is credited with defying the conventional wisdom that the Earth was flat (which wasn’t actually the case), an inventive mathematician and cartographer figured out a better way to map the Earth by flattening it. In 1569, Gerardus Mercator developed his cylindrical map projection, which enabled him to map the globe in a way that longitude and latitude lines all intersected at right angles, thus making nautical navigation a more precise exercise.

450 years later, we still use Mercator’s maps … to teach children world geography.

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There’s just one problem: while Mercator’s maps brought precision to sailing, they necessarily distort the geography itself in the process: because of the reality of the Earth’s curvature, the further away from the equator you move on the map, the larger and more inaccurate the land masses become. This is most evident when actual land masses are compared against the massive scale of the continent of Africa:

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Somebody smart has even turned this phenomenon into a Google Maps-based puzzle.


Unless you’re leading a geography bee team (yes, that’s a thing), what does this have to do with you and your organization?

Because for too many companies, the maps used to shape their organizations and understand the world they inhabit are wrong. Underlying them is a way of thinking that was developed during the Industrial Revolution — a time when the assembly line was an innovation that allowed the output capacity of human labor to be multiplied exponentially, and when necessary information was tough to find and slow to travel. In that world, compartmentalization of effort and centralization of decision-making made sense: while a low-skilled worker focused his effort on a single, repeatable task to the level of mastery, managers and planners assimilated the available data to maximize the efficiency of the process as a whole. The explosion of production capacity is still a marvel to consider:

On this day [December 1] in 1913, Henry Ford installs the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile. His innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes.

Most corporate organizational charts and the rules governing how decisions are made continue built around that model, even though they aren’t in the business of manufacturing and — more importantly — we don’t live in that world any longer. We live in the age of the “Knowledge Worker,” yet we cling to outdated “command and control” organizational philosophy.

A bank in Britain has told a leading software vendor (I won’t name the bank or the software provider, because the latter shared the story with me in confidence) it wishes to stifle communication and collaboration among all but a small, elite group of employees. The bank blocks Internet access and restricts functionality of tools. The reason: The bank considers only 5 percent of employees information workers. These are the people who develop marketing campaigns, produce products, create strategy, and supposedly think for a living. Management considers them the only team members whose opinions count. The bank considers the other 95 percent of people “costs to be optimized.”

In other words, the bank pays a few people think. It pays everybody else to follow orders.

Sure. Go with that map. I’m sure you’ll get somewhere … eventually.