note: this article is an automatic translation of the article I posted on OCTO Technology’s blog

And more generally: should you invest time in understanding Wardley maps?

Rather than giving a straightforward answer, this article will describe Wardley maps as a tool to help make strategic decisions.

Wardley maps are a way to organize knowledge of a situation to gain clarity and be able to make informed decisions about all necessary actions to achieve a goal.

This article is divided into two parts:

  • A general part on the foundations of the method
  • A more concrete part that describes the maps and provides elements for creating them.

At the end of your reading, you will, I hope, have found your own answer to the question posed in the title. More importantly, you will be able to materialize and share the why of this answer through a map that you will be able to construct.

Part I: the strategic cycle

We have just stated, in the introduction, the promise of materializing why maps are important in decision-making.

Thus, in this first part, we will bring out the purpose of “Wardley maps”, namely: to get moving, one must understand the context and situation in which one operates.

The Two Whys

Simon Wardley was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company Fotango in the early 2000s (which offered an online photo-sharing service). He was responsible for the company’s Why. Furthermore, his role as CEO was to make decisions to support the what and the how. In summary: his role was to set a strategy.

The problem is that he rarely felt capable of answering the question: why did you make this decision?

The answer to this question is not directly provided by the Why defined by Sinek; Simon Wardley then proposes to differentiate between two types of Why:

  • The Why related to the goal we defend. This is our fight: why are we doing this. This is the endgame. For example, in chess, we play to capture the opponent’s king.
  • Then there is the Why of each action: why do this instead of that: why do I move my knight at this point in the game? This is the “why of movement.”

Simon Wardley then focuses on the “why of movement” because a strategy is a “set of coordinated actions, skillful operations, maneuvers aimed at achieving a specific goal.” So a strategy is a set of movements.

The underlying question for this need is: “what strategy to adopt to win the fight?”. To answer this question, Simon Wardley sought inspiration in military strategies and the art of war.

How to act to win: John Boyd’s military strategy

The first source of inspiration for Wardley is the military strategy conceived by Colonel John Boyd of the US Air Force.

It is a loop called OODA for “Observe, Orient, Decide and Act”. A simplistic representation would be as follows (in the original model, each of the elements Orient, Decide and Act feed Observation).


Let’s focus on the elements that feed the decision: observation and orientation, in order to highlight the salient elements that will serve us later.


Observations are based on quantitative and qualitative elements.

Among the observable elements are:

  • Human (organization, behavior, demand)
  • Data (facts or results of experiments)
  • The result of applying models to a particular situation.

Regardless of the nature of the elements, it is important to note that observation is:

  • Constantly evolving
  • Partial and incomplete
  • Dependent on the observer


The goal of orientation is to make sense of observations. Orientation is the application of our know-how to observation. Boyd describes the elements that a human uses in the orientation phase.

Among these elements, we find for example:

  • Culture
  • Analysis results
  • Past experience

Observe, orient, decide and act: Sun Tzu’s ancient method

Simon Wardley also drew inspiration from another important reference in the art of war: the writings of Sun Tzu.

In addition to the objective defined previously (the first why which could be summarized as “winning the war”), Sun Tzu exposes a few factors that allow him to make decisions:

  • Terrain: that is, understanding the landscape
  • Climate: understanding external factors that will have an impact on the landscape, regardless of our actions
  • Doctrine: a set of universally recognized ways of operating that are independent of the terrain and climate
  • Leadership: to make decisions

Wardley matches the first two elements, terrain and climate, to Boyd’s observation phase.

The orientation phase, on the other hand, requires knowledge of the profession and is assimilated to doctrine.

Wardley then synthesizes all the elements into a strategic cycle illustrated below:

The basis of the strategy is to understand the context and situation, observe and understand the climate, and orient oneself. To do this, Wardley needs a tool.

Part II: Building a Map

We will now detail what a Wardley map is and what it is composed of.

Understanding the landscape (first part of observation)

As we have seen, the starting point of the strategic cycle is observation, which aims to enable orientation and movement (let’s remember that we are in the “why of movement”).

The best way humanity has found is to make maps.

Maps are an imperfect representation of a landscape that have two main characteristics:

  • The notion of space has a meaning (a scale)
  • Orientation is done in relation to one or more landmarks (a compass)

To meet his “strategic” need, Wardley believes he needs the following elements:

  • One or more landmarks
  • Components that are typed and will be placed on the map:
  • activities (the things we do or use)
  • knowledge (our understanding)
  • data (in the sense of “data”, how we measure)
  • practices (how we carry out activities)
  • A definition of the vertical space that measures the value of a component relative to the landmark.
  • A definition of horizontal positions that shows the evolution of the components. Evolution is characterized not by a quantifiable time scale, but by a qualifiable level of maturity.

Let’s now detail each axis.

The value chain (vertical)

The vertical axis represents a value chain.

We have seen that a map is an imperfect representation of a landscape; therefore, the organization of elements relative to each other takes precedence over their exact coordinates.

The value is therefore qualitative. In a Wardley map, this value is measured by a visibility index:

The further a component is from its landmark, the less visible it is, and the less value it will have relative to that landmark. Let’s take an example that will allow us to illustrate the concept. This “Hello World” example of Wardley mapping is a tea room.

Imagine yourself as an entrepreneur in charge of a tea room for which you want to make strategic decisions.

You analyze the needs of the public and your business. The most visible thing about your business and the public is, of course, the cup of tea you will sell.

This cup of tea needs a cup, tea, and hot water. Depending on your ambition, you will decide that the cup is more important than the tea (you want to differentiate yourself through marketing), or that the tea is more important than the cup (if you are starting a tea room that promotes fair trade, for example).

The hot water needs water and a kettle, and the kettle needs energy.

Here is what the value chain could look like:

Let’s now move on to the second axis.

The Evolution axis (horizontal)

The second axis is that of the evolution of components over time.

The challenge is to be able to compare the different heterogeneous components (activities, knowledge, data and practices).

To do this, Simon Wardley relied on Rogers’ innovation diffusion curve, which is represented below:

Rogers’ innovation curve - number of adopters over time This curve represents the number of adopters over time.

A cumulative projection gives the graph below…

Cumulative frequency of individuals who have adopted the innovation over time One interpretation is that each innovation evolves over time (horizontal axis) from something “rare” (innovative) to something ubiquitous. We can therefore adapt the vertical scale to move from quantitative to qualitative by replacing cumulative frequency with ubiquity.

This model works well in the context of the evolution of a single component. However, on the map, we place multiple components, and they are also heterogeneous. Therefore, the temporal dimension does not apply in the same way to all components and therefore does not allow them to be compared (10 years in IT is a long time, whereas it is short in construction).

Simon Wardley therefore worked on another way of representing the temporal scale, based on the notion of “certainty”.

To facilitate understanding, let’s use the following intuition: the more a component is diffused, the more certain it is that it will work.

By using the quantitative scales of ubiquity and certainty on the Rogers model, and applying it to the different components, Simon Wardley obtains the following curve and identifies 4 phases of evolution:

Note: For the sake of brevity, this article does not detail how Wardley moves from diffusion to evolution; for more information on this topic, you can refer to this article: On Diffusion and Evolution

By combining this model of segmentation of evolution with the different types of components and by qualifying each phase (based on his research), Wardley obtains the following result:

Phase I Phase II Phase III Phase IV
Activities (and products) Genesis Custom built Product Commodity
Practices Novel Emerging Good Best
Data Un-modelled Divergent Convergent Modelled
Knowledge Concept Hypothesis Theory Accepted

The Map

We can now go back to our value chain and distribute the components on the horizontal axis according to their maturity (i.e. their level of evolution).

Let’s take the example of the tea room; by applying some common sense, we can place the components on the map:

  • The cup of tea is a product, not all tea cups are the same, but it is not an artisanal product.
  • Tea is a “commodity” (it is a product sold in bulk), just like the cup and hot water.
  • etc. up to energy.

In representation, this gives the following map:

One of the primary benefits of the map is to identify aberrations. And we note an important point: a map is not an illustration element of a story that you want to tell: it is an element that directs the story.

Thus, you take the elements of your tea shop, and you realize that you are making your own kettles for design and efficiency reasons. The corrected map is as follows:

How to place components

While the example of the kettle is obvious (you know it is made in a handcrafted way), it is not the case for all the components that you will have to place on a map.

To place the elements on the map, Wardley has formalized a set of principles that he qualifies as universal. The principles are included in the following table:

It includes the characteristics in each state of the notion of certainty and presence that we have seen before, as well as a set of properties applicable to the components at each phase of evolution:

Stage of Evolution I II III IV
Ubiquity Rare Slowly increasing consumption Rapidly increasing consumption Widespread and stabilising
Certainty Poorly understood Rapid increases in learning Rapid increases in use / fit for purpose Commonly understood (in terms of use)
Publication Types Normally describe the wonder of the thing Build / construct / awareness and learning Maintenance / operations / installation / features Focused on use
General Properties
Market Undefined market Forming market Growing market Mature market
Knowledge management Uncertain Learning on use Learning on operation Known / accepted
Market perception Chaotic (non-linear) Domain of experts Increasing expectations of use Ordered (appearance of being linear) / trivial
User perception Different / confusing / exciting / surprising Leading edge / emerging Common / disappointed if not used or available Standard / expected
Perception in industry Competitive advantage / unpredictable / unknown Competitive advantage / ROI / case examples Advantage through implementation / features Cost of doing business / accepted
Focus of value High future worth Seeking profit / ROI? High profitability High volume / reducing margin
Understanding Poorly understood / unpredictable Increasing understanding / development of measures Increasing education / constant refinement of needs / measures Believed to be well defined / stable / measurable
Comparison Constantly changing / a differential / unstable Learning from others / testing the water / some evidential support Feature difference Essential / operational advantage
Failure High / tolerated / assumed Moderate / unsurprising but disappointed Not tolerated, focus on constant improvement Operational efficiency and surprised by failure
Market action Gambling / driven by gut Exploring a “found” value Market analysis / listening to customers Metric driven / build what is needed
Efficiency Reducing the cost of change (experimentation) Reducing cost of waste (Learning) Reducing cost of waste (Learning) Reducing cost of deviation (Volume)
Decision drivers Heritage / culture Analysis & synthesis Analysis & synthesis Previous experience

Simon Wardley refers to this table as the cheat sheet.

To illustrate the usefulness of the table in a more IT context, let’s take the characteristics related to publication types:

  • If you browse the web and only find articles that describe the wonders of a method or tool on a particular subject, then this practice or tool is likely in phase I of its evolution…
  • If you find writings that focus on “how to build” a practice or product, we are probably in phase II (remember Kubernetes the Hard Way).
  • If the literature talks about how to implement a solution (“help me become like Spotify” or “install a Kubernetes platform for me”), that’s phase III.
  • Finally, if you find writings that explain how to use a solution or practice, we are in phase IV.

We will come back to this table later when we study how to build a map.

Understanding the climate (second part of observation)

Now that we have established a map, we need to understand and apply all the rules that will constrain the components of the map.

These rules will impact the components of the map, regardless of the actions we take.

Wardley calls this part: understanding the climate (analogous to the work of Sun Tzu that we saw earlier).

To illustrate this part, we will detail two of the climatic patterns described by Wardley in his book that we consider important for overall understanding (the exhaustive list can be found here).

First pattern: everything evolves based on supply and demand

The first pattern is fundamental because it is a direct consequence of the market economy:

Each component (activity, practice, data…) starts from phase I of evolution (i.e., genesis) and evolves to phase IV (commodity) or dies on the way.

Two causes are at the origin of evolution:

  • Competition: it drives the improvement of components (evolution of supply).
  • Market evolution to maximize profit from components (demand evolution).

Let us below review the phases of evolution of supply and demand:

Second « pattern »: Characteristics change with evolution of capability

As we have already mentioned, the characteristics of a component evolving in an exploratory space (phase I) are not the same as those of the same component in the industrial space (phase IV).

This pattern is important to help us make decisions later on as it will have an impact on the level of certainty of the decision.

While it is interesting to have differentiating components, they are also in a less predictable market; the converse is true: a stable component in an essential market will bring a weaker competitive advantage.

It is fundamental to remember the importance of transition phases in evolution and therefore not to orient our choices by only looking at the ends of the map.

Below is a table of qualifiers for components based on their position in evolution.

How to build the complete landscape

Now that we have all the tools to build a Wardley map, let’s go through a step-by-step process to create one.

Start with the anchor

The anchor in a geographical map is the compass that indicates the north. In a Wardley map, the anchor is the user need.

Users, in the literal sense, are the people (or entities) who will use the system we want to represent.

It is possible to have multiple users on a map. For example, in the case of a tea room, the users are the business and the public who use the tea room. The business profits, and the public consumes tea.

Next, we need to find the user’s need. Note that the Wardley map does not allow us to find the user’s need; it is a task that must be done beforehand.

This need does not need to be explicitly represented on the map. Let’s take the example of the tea room: the tea cup is not the public’s need; their need may be to hydrate.

Note: this page offers 5 ways to represent user needs on a map.

Build a value chain

Once the user is set, we can describe the value chain. At this stage, we don’t care about the evolution axis.

To fill in the value chain, we need to think about the needs of each component. The vocabulary we use will help us set up the chain.

To make a cup of tea, we need a cup, tea, and hot water.

Or in a more IT world: high availability of the application depends on the redundancy of the hosting.

Place components on the evolution axis

The first component to place is the user (and possibly their need).

To effectively place components, we can refer to the cheat sheet mentioned above.

For each component, we can explicitly tag observed properties that will, on average, allow us to assess its maturity.

Applying Climatic Patterns

Not all climatic patterns can be physically represented on the map. Two elements are generally represented:

  • The current evolution of the components
  • Inertia related to past successes (which is important, as sometimes one must address inertia by making choices that are not in the vision at the risk of doing nothing at all)

For example, on this map, it could be indicated that the standardization of energy will favor the rapid evolution of kettles.

Conclusion: Which Path to Take Now? (Deciding and Acting)

The first part of this article established the why of the approach.

The second part of this article was structured around the exploration and understanding of maps, as well as the artisanal development of initial observations.

In summary, by applying the evolution theory described in this document, this article started from phase I where it describes the subject, to arrive at the beginning of phase II, by providing some elements for making your first map in an artisanal way:

Now, it remains to decide and act. No tool can make decisions for you, but knowledge of the situation and context is essential to understanding the issues and making informed decisions.

So, if you are still wondering whether you should read this article on Wardley maps, I propose a little exercise:

Build a map based on one of your needs to determine whether you should cultivate knowledge of a tool or practice.

You can start with your need as a professional: the one that leads you to consult articles (need to understand a subject, need to decide if a particular technology or practice is a viable choice over time, etc.).

Or start with the need of your company or customers in a specific domain (hosting digital applications, for example).

Place the components according to their visibility, then distribute them on the evolution axis and try to understand if you are at the forefront or behind the hype.

Let’s end this article with a quote from Simon Wardley:

You get better with practice. You learn more patterns and over time you become good at this stuff. It’s a bit like chess. Unfortunately, just like chess, the downside is it requires some effort and practice.


Now it’s your turn to play.