Chapter 3: Compasses over maps
The principle of “Compasses over maps” from Whiplash: how to survive our faster future by Joichio Ito and Jeff Howe is a concept that challenges classic corporate culture and also our education system.
Many of us with experience in a large corporate environment spent years learning how to follow and then how to create “maps”. Maps could mean lengthy project plans, business requirements or wordy process documentation for compliance and behavior. And we all remember sitting in countless hours of classroom lectures aimed at filling our heads with ‘maps’ made for standardized tests. The problem is that the maps are less and less relevant in a fast-changing world.
“The decision to forfeit the map in favor of the compass recognizes that in an increasingly unpredictable world moving ever more quickly, a detailed map may lead you deep into the woods at an unnecessarily high cost. A good compass, though, will always take you where you need to go.” (from Whiplash)
The lesson here is to question the maps you may be following yourself or creating for your employees, and see if a compass would be a better tool.
An example of switching to a compass in software development is the rise of machine learning and algorithms in place of hard-coded logic. Trying to anticipate the behavior of every interaction with every user in a system and coding “if..then” statements to handle that is being replaced by artificial intelligence that learns from the patterns of behavior and adjusts accordingly based on algorithms for optimization. In the end offering a better user experience with less code, and even beyond that a dynamic and learning experience that continues to improve over time by leveraging machine learning. A compass over a map.
A creative thinker using a compass can manage all sorts of unexpected obstacles and changing terrain that cannot be managed with an outdated map.
Learn more: The principles from the book were presented in a Wired interview with Ito back in 2012. This idea was listed as Principle 5: You want to have good compasses not maps.