The map in your head

Pencil illustrations of woodcarved maps.

I’ve written four articles now about content ecosystem mapping. I’ve coached clients through producing them, I’ve led workshops on them, and I’ve given many talks about them (and their big brother, concept models).

A point I stress over and over, but is hard to make stick, is that the activity of making the map is more important than the map itself. This article brought it to mind again for me recently:

In Inuit tradition, the act of making a map was frequently much more important than the finished map itself. The real map always exists in one’s head.

Being able to make a map means that you understand something well enough to map it. Much like writing, mapmaking reveals where you don’t understand things quite as well as you thought you did. I encourage organizations to map their content ecosystems because, very often, there are many different maps in many different heads.

Mapmaking is effortful, and requires a different set of skills than organizing information into lists and spreadsheets. So I run into many people who are dismissive, even rudely so, saying things like “I just don’t get how you would use this thing.”

“How to use the thing” is something I cover in detail, and is also something that the mapmaker needs to decide for themselves. But it’s also just kind of the wrong question. The point of a content audit is to understand your content better, not to make a giant spreadsheet. The point of content ecosystem mapping (and organizational modeling in general) is to better understand your current state, and to better align on the truth of that shared reality with others.

The Inuits of Greenland primarily used their maps as storytelling devices:

[They] used carvings in a certain way—to accompany stories and illustrate important information about people, places, and things. A wooden relief map would have functioned as a storytelling device, like a drawing in the sand or snow, that could be discarded after the story was told.

I love that so much. Imagine carving a whole damned map just to tell a story and then saying, “well anyway, enough about that” and throwing it on the fire. You can always make another; after all, the real map is in your head.