When a Map is a Compass

March 16, 2007  

In Goal-Free Living, the first secret is “Use a Compass, Not a Map.”  Today, someone sent me an interesting article by Donald Berwick (President and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) that recounts a story told by Karl Weick in his book, The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.

Weick tells the story of a reconnaissance group of soldiers lost in the Alps on a training mission. It was winter, they had no maps, and they seemed hopelessly lost. They were preparing to die, when one soldier found a map crushed down at the bottom of his pack. With the map in hand, they regained their courage, bivouacked for the night, and proceeded out of the mountains the next day to rescue. Only when they were recuperating in the main camp did someone notice that the map they had been using wasn’t a map of the Alps at all; it was a map of the Pyrenees. Weick uses this story to point out that sensemaking is an act of its own, valuable in itself, and independent of any notion of reality. “This story raises the remarkable idea,” he says, “that, when you are lost, any map will do.”

The person who sent me the article, Brad Kolar, (a former Accenture colleague of mine, now with the University of Chicago Medical Center) commented, “While the story doesn’t specifically talk about a compass, isn’t that what this is about?  The soldiers probably had a vague sense of direction and certainly an implicit understanding that they were ‘up’ and needed to be ‘down.’  The map turned out to be more of a proxy for a compass than it was an actual map.”

This is such a powerful concept.  I know of too many people who wait to take action until they have all of the facts.  They intellectualize their decisions.  Unfortunately, this rarely leads to the desired outcome, because immobility is the often result.  Taking steps – in any direction – will lead you down new paths, giving you new experiences and insights.  If you choose to learn from these experiences, every step taken is a step taken forward.  Even if you don’t have a map in hand, what actions can you take today that will move you forward?

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