Nov 26, 2013

Map and Territory

engineering enlightenment

 Figure 1: crop circles
Lean Startup, Agile Engineering, and Design Thinking are One.
These approaches, from the fields of Business, Engineering, and Design, seek to find optimal solutions through repeated cycles of hypothesis and experiment. They are all essentially the same thing, and that thing is the Hermeneutic Circle. Understand the Hermeneutic Circle and you will understand why Lean, Agile, and Design Thinking are a good idea.

The Hermeneutic Circle

Imagine yourself standing in an unfamiliar landscape, with a map in your hand. You look at the map to orient yourself in the territory, you look at the territory to orient the map. As you set off in a direction, you compare map to territory and territory to map as you proceed, orienting one to the other, to understand the reality of your situation. This back-and-forth movement between map and territory is a Hermeneutic Circle.

Figure 2: the map is usually a work in progress
 (Michael Landy: 24th Kaldor Public Art Project)
Now, imagine your map is a jigsaw puzzle. This is a better analogy to the hermeneutic circle as experienced in Business, Engineering, or Design. Usually, you can't see all the pieces, or know you have them all.

Hermeneutics is the formal study of how we make sense of reality. Hermeneutic Circle is the process of moving between abstract models and concrete evidence in order to grasp the real meaning of a situation.

The idea of a Hermeneutic Circle was proposed by the philosopher Spinoza in 1670 to describe how we come to understand religious texts: holy scripture is interpreted in the light of the lived world, which is then re-interpreted in the light of the scripture, which is then re-interpreted in the now enlightened view of the world ...and so on.
There is an analogy, Spinoza claims, between our understanding of nature and our understanding of the Scriptures. In both cases, our understanding of the parts hinges on our understanding of a larger whole, which, again, can only be understood on the basis of the parts. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
No map: aimless. No territory: pointless.
Maps are abstract, sacrificing detail to reveal relationships. Territory is concrete, it's where choices happen. Maps give us direction; Territory gives us traction. We follow maps; we respond to territory.

We make sense of the world by continually re-orienting the one to the other, in a Hermeneutic Circle. It doesn't matter whether you start with the Abstract or the Concrete -- the important thing is the iterative movement between them. Neither map nor territory make much sense without the other.

Figure 3: Hermeneutic Circle (adapted from Gadamer via Helme 2004
and  Gasson.)

Figure 3 shows the sense-making function of the Hermeneutic Circle. The map (theorising) phase of the cycle gives context and direction to the territory (practising) phase. Without a map, you're lost; without territory, you're pointless. Table 1 shows some examples.

Table 1: Concrete and Abstract Pairs
Belief Reason
Tactics Strategy
Objects Relationships
Reality Model
Doing Thinking
Real Ideal
Practical Theoretical
Instantiated Function Algorithm
Application API
Execution Vision

Software Spiral

In 1986, Barry Boehm published the first version of his influential paper: A spiral model of software development and enhancement, laying the foundation for Agile software development methods. The paper was a response to waterfall-style software engineering methodologies that assumed a sufficient understanding of requirements at the beginning of development. Boehm proposed a spiral-style model of software development (shown in Figure 4) that allowed for the reality that many critical requirements are only discovered during software development.
Figure 4: Boehm Spiral model of software development processes

The Boehm Spiral begins with maps, in the form of concepts and requirements, and moves to territory, in the form of prototypes. Experience with actual prototypes then feeds the iteration of planning. The cycle of planning and testing repeats until final release. This iterative movement between abstract plans and concrete implementations is a Hermeneutic Circle.

Agile Activity

Boehm's seminal paper was a precursor to Agile software development. The Agile manifesto of software development reads:
"We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more"
It's clear, if you put the Agile values in a table, that the Agile manifesto, like the Hermeneutic Circle, is about concrete and abstract perspectives.

Table 2: Agile Values
Territory Map
Individuals and Interactions Processes and Tools
Working Software Comprehensive Documentation
Customer Collaboration Contract Negotiation
Responding to Change Following a Plan

Although Agile puts more value on concrete Territory, abstract Maps are still essential to the process. An Agile iteration (shown in Figure 5) moves between Map (Planning) to Territory (Implementation). The Agile process is an instance of the Hermeneutic Circle.

Figure 5: Agile Software Development Process

Six Sigma Cycles

Six Sigma quality assurance methodologies, along with Lean manufacturing are the fore-runners to Lean Startup approaches. Deming's Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle (shown in Figure 6) is central to Six Sigma.

The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is essentially a business-oriented application of the scientific method, which can be expressed as Hypothesis=> Experiment=> Analyse=> Revise. The last stage of the scientific method, Revise refers to updating the hypothesis, which kicks off another iteration of the process. The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, and the scientific method itself, move between abstract speculation (Map) and concrete verification (Territory). They are instances of the Hermeneutic Circle.

Figure 6: Six Sigma PDCA

Lean Loop

The Lean Startup provides a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers' hands faster. The Lean Startup method teaches you how to drive a startup - how to steer, when to turn, and when to persevere - and grow a business with maximum acceleration. It is a principled approach to new product development. (
Figure 7: Lean Startup Loop (Eric Ries)
Lean Startup Methodology (Figure 7) is an iterative movement between business hypotheses and market experiments. When evidence from customers does not fit the business model, the startup must pivot, i.e., redefine the model. This loop is another example of iterative movement between abstract and concrete. The Lean Startup loop is an instance of the Hermeneutic Circle.

Design Dialogue

Design Thinking refers to a protocol for discovering new solutions through wider and deeper exploration of problem spaces. Design Thinking approaches are: human-centered, experimental, prototype-centric, and iterative. (Fast Company.)

Figure 8 shows a model of a representative Design Thinking cycle. The movement between abstract definition and concrete prototype is a movement between map and territory. The Design Thinking protocol is a Hermeneutic Circle.

Figure 8 Design Thinking (adapted from Stanford D-School)

Donald Schön, author of The Reflective Practitioner, describes the activity of Design as a reflective conversation with materials, a concise phrase containing all the elements of a Hermeneutic Circle.

Infinite Loop

Figure 9: Yin and Yang
The mantra of Lean Startup Methodology is minimise total time through the loop. Best practice in Agile and Design Thinking is also speedy iterations. What if the movement from map to territory -- from abstract to concrete -- was compressed to the absolute minimum duration, so that Thinking and Doing took place simultaneously? We might call this version of the Hermeneutic Circle Mindful Practice or simply mindfulness. A recent issue of The Economist contained an article on how Silicon Valley tech giants (among others) are turning to mindfulness:
Google offers an internal course called “search inside yourself” that has proved so popular that the company has created entry-level versions such as “neural self-hacking” and “managing your energy”. The search giant has also built a labyrinth for walking meditation. EBay has meditation rooms equipped with pillows and flowers. Twitter and Facebook are doing all they can to stay ahead in the mindfulness race. Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s founders, has introduced regular meditation sessions in his new venture, the Obvious Corporation, a start-up incubator and investment vehicle. (The Mindfulness Business. The Economist Nov 16th 2013)
Mindfulness, according to Buddhist and Taoist traditions, is a path to enlightenment. By constant application of considered action and reflection, the practitioner herself is transformed. Whichever path you choose -- Engineering, Business, Design, or Holy Scripture -- keep your goal in mind, and your feet on the ground.

The next post discusses the different kinds of maps used by Engineering, Marketing, and Design.

Thanks to Ivan Chardin, Adler Jorge, Shaul LeviAna McGinleyPaul Neervoort, Carolien Postma and Sajid Saiyed for inspiring discussions and critical comments on earlier versions of this post (although they don't necessarily agree with all of this).

Agile Design, Lean Engineering, Startup Thinking, Lean Thinking, Startup Design, Lean Design, Startup Engineering, Design Engineering, Agile Thinking.

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My other blog is full of personal rants.


  1. Great article - thank you for taking the time to write it!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it, Chef. I've had some interesting discussions since I posted this, leading to some new ideas, which I'll try and post next week. I hope you'll come back!

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. That's my reward.

  2. Here's another angle:
    Territory is about good observations.
    Map is about good questions.


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