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Adopting Map and Compass: A New Route Down an Old Road

A couple of days ago I wrote a short piece about our company's journey adopting new practices, like a map and a compass. Though the names could clearly be interpreted as languages, frameworks, or many other computer science related things (MongoDb's Compass database management tool comes to mind as well as at least a dozen different things that do 'mapping'), the details are entirely fictional and are certainly not intended to refer to any one thing. Here goes:

"What if you were in possession of a map and compass, in a place where maps are not used? Perhaps they are not understood at all, or perhaps they are mistrusted because some previous maps showed an incorrect version of the landscape or the compass was not correctly calibrated. Maybe they were not known about at all. Perhaps there are other reasons. The essential point is that maps are not used.

Each day you embark on an expedition. Many days you blunder into swamps, or stumble blindly toward forests and ravines. To begin with you believe your map and compass are the solution. You speak to many people on the expedition about these items. You show them tests and explain how they work. Some people suggest that though they do believe these things work, nothing has been proven on this expedition, and probably they are more aimed at other people. Others say there are so many different ways you could read a map and compass, it would be difficult to know which to choose. Some become annoyed at your constantly mentioning the same two things, over and over. They tell you that you've become hung up on a triviality and you must focus back on the expedition.

Sometimes meetings are called. At one meeting it is suggested that after all, we may want to consider the map and compass. Significant objections are raised. What if the map gets wet? Another takes up their point: if the map gets wet and the ink is smudged it will lead us in all the wrong directions. Furthermore, either of the two things may get lost and the one is close to useless without the other. It is decided that though the idea might be good in theory, there are too many unknowns.

Instead, the group focuses on the overcoming of obstacles as they always have done. One person is very good at swimming, so whenever the group becomes lost in a swamp, she walks ahead first, then if she falls into water she swims out, doubles back and tells the group what happened. Another is good at climbing trees, so when they are in the forest he climbs up to the top of one and calls out to tell people which ways to go. This seems to work OK in the main…

You almost forget all about the map, but whenever someone trips in the forest and twists their ankle, or shivers a little at night after falling into dank water, you think of it a bit. Sometimes you bring it up again, in passing. What if we try the map, you say. Yes that is an interesting idea. I think you probably should ask a question about it to someone. Perhaps we should have a meeting to discuss...

Eventually you come to reconsider your perspective. Did we really need a map, you ask yourself. Doesn't it seem like things are fine as they are. I should spend more time learning to climb trees and swim better.

Over time you think that probably you were wrong about the map and compass. It was your arrogance and vanity that made you believe in them as of some vast importance to the expedition. While you suppose that in some ways your solution was best, you start to reason that climbing and swimming and mountaineering are all excellent for building stamina, and for overall health. While no-one mentions it explicitly, you think it is probably really for this reason the group do not use the map and compass, or some other similarly important reason, probably something complex you don't fully understand.

As you accept this way of thinking you become more accepted as a part of the expedition. You still hear from time to time of other expeditions in other places, who have a map that works. When this happens you feel a deep, subtle sadness that seems to pervade your being. Yet it is better now that you no-longer believe in maps and compasses. It is better now. It is definitely better.

One night you go wandering a fair distance from where you were camped, following your map. Several hours later you return. You followed every direction on the map and it led you exactly where you needed to go. Probably there is very little to be gained from telling anyone about this."

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