The Map is Not the Territory

The Map is Not the Territory

The focus of this article will be around one particular mental model - The Map is Not the Territory. A mental model is simply an explanation of how something works. We use mental models as thinking tools to help us understand new things, guide our behaviours and problem solve.

In 1931, Alfred Korzybski coined the term "The Map is Not the Territory" with a paper he gave at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Korzybski used this phrase to illustrate the differences between our perception vs reality. The 'map' is our way of interpreting the world around us but we must not forget that it is not true reality. It is simply a representation of what someone thought the land appeared like, but the territory is the reality.

Let's take Google Maps as a real world example. It is an application that is used by millions across the world. It has extensive mapping capabilities due to the wide range of data sources including satellite imagery, aerial photography, 360 views and more. Despite the fact that Google are a large company who update the maps regularly, these are always created at a snapshot in time. Therefore the map is not the reality, any number of things may have changed in the time since this data was collected and we need to know when to use the maps as a guide and when we have to assess the territory in the real world.

Maps are used to represent the world, but is not identical to the reality of the world. Even the best models require interpretation as by definition they are an abstraction of some larger complexity.

Example of outdated image capture from outside my house

Mental Model Example in Data

I'll be explaining this from my role as a Data Analyst, but this should be applicable across most data roles.

A typical day for a Data Analyst will focus on gathering data, organising data and analysing the data to draw meaningful insights. On a daily basis we are often plagued with multiple teams asking for reports or one-off questions that need answering.

In the BI teams I've worked in, often we take a waterfall approach to our work. This means we often are eliciting requirements for a report, and trying to interpret what our stakeholder actually needs in order to aid their decision making. We often do not find out whether we've hit the mark until we've delivered the report or answered the question. This is very common amongst many area of technology, and isn't just applicable to Business Intelligence / Data alone.

We know that our map will never be the territory, however, we can focus on continually adapting our map to match the territory as best we can. How do we achieve this? We iterate. We take an agile approach where we continually iterate on our output to create a territory that matches the stakeholders mental map.

Disclaimer: I am no expert in mental models and starting my journey to understanding / interpreting for my own use. If I've missed the mark on any of the above, reach out to me on Twitter - @jessxahmet. Open to constantly learning / evolving.

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