A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a distinction between two types of
thinking – map thinking and list thinking.

In a chance’ conversation this week with a former colleague Mark, we started to explore how these two mindsets might apply to the thorny world of strategy.

To start off, there are many interpretations of what strategy actually is. Without getting into that complicated debate, I turn to my favourite working definition which comes from my interpretation of Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.

In Rumelt’s work, strategy consists of three key elements: a diagnosis of the current state, a set of guiding principles, and a plan of action.

List thinking, it strikes me, is very difficult to apply to much within the
Rumelt model other than the last part. Planning is often a list-making

To be able to analyse and diagnose a current scenario, however, is surely a map-based way of working for all but the most predictable of scenarios?

I can see how one could describe the sorts of checklists used in the aircraft industry as a diagnostic tool, and similarly things like maturity frameworks can fall into this category. Maybe that’s what maturity frameworks are – strategic diagnostics for list thinkers?

Strategy is going to be a bit one-dimensional, however, if all you can
perceive are linear paths. Good diagnosis comes from the synthesis of data from multiple sources.

When it comes to guiding principles for change, again a multi-dimensional approach is surely required? Its vision plus prioritisation plus an appreciation of multiple stakeholders that need to combine for a successful strategic approach.

If such a thing as map and list-based thinking exists, I imagine that people exist on a continuum, with different preferences in different circumstances.

The key, though, is understanding when your preferred styles might not be appropriate and then acting accordingly.

I think there are also challenges of how to communicate map-type information to list-preferring people and vice-versa.This continues to be a work in progress.

Thanks to Mark Harrison for the phone call that led to this post.

4 thoughts on “Lists, maps and strategy

  1. The list is much maligned as a thinking tool, but it can serve as a great precursor to a map. Something I’ve found in my Systems Thinking study. A list is useful as a starting point to mapping something, for example. Who are the stakeholders? Where, or with whom, does the power and ethics lie? Without that list there is always a danger something gets missed.

    Equally, if you map something out and then don’t list the tasks needed to be undertaken there may be no clear direction for others to see.

    Is there a preferred cadence to this oscillation, or would it contextual? Not sure, personally, but I know that I cannot map without lists and I probably shouldn’t be using lists unless I’ve got a map.

      1. I think it’s probably contextual, e.g., Pros and Cons lists are useful and I’m not sure how I’d map those in a meaningful way so that they are also useful to others. Equally, lists would be terrible for understanding how things relate to one another as the information would essentially be one-dimensional.

        Hang on, maybe that’s it?
        Is this about dimensions of the info/data/knowledge?
        If you need more than one dimension then it simply cannot be a list (or a bloody Gantt chart, while we’re at it!)

      2. Gantt charts are dimensional. They go wrong when people think of them as linear lists (it’s why PERT charts can be more useful for critical path planning)..

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