11 September 2015

I have had this nagging thought about Wardley maps. Don’t get me wrong, I love Wardley maps! For example I have found the concept of evolution to give me insight into a lot of both recent and older events both generally in the technology sector as well as in business aspects of companies I have worked for and worked with.

But: There’s this thing about almost all the practical examples I have seen on Simon’s blog:

They are examples from large companies and large public organizations.

I work mostly with smaller companies — startups. Can Wardley maps be used with them? Would mapping offer any benefits?

It is possible to argue both ways — startups are resource constrained and would greatly benefit from increasing their leverage (more bang for the buck), yet the same resource constraints may make it difficult to actually execute strategic manipulation plays! There’s also tremondous variability between different startups. So,

  1. Is it possible to use Wardley maps with startups? (I think: Most likely)
  2. If so, are there any benefits of using them? (Probably)
  3. Finally, what are those benefits and how are they influenced by the company size?1 (Maybe)

Does size matter?

Does size matter? (Source: Miguel, CC BY-NC 2.0)

I am pretty new to using Wardley maps within organizations, so it is possible that I’m doing everything wrong, or being biased, and regardless my sample size that I’ve studied with this question in mind is only three companies so far, and even then the feedback is from short hands-on introduction sessions to Wardley mapping. These sample companies were soliticed from my current customers and professional network and included:

  • A small team forming a virtual startup within a larger organization, being responsible for a commercial web-based B2B service recently introduced to the market.

  • A medium-sized group at a startup with MVP development in progress in a healthcare segment. This segment is likely to face disruption (war!) due to digitization of its services within a few years.

  • A larger group at a startup in very early forming phase — they have a business idea but no clarity of a MVP at the time of the session.

So something between a few people to at most about ten people, okay? I think it possible to define an early startup’s size only after the fact when the difference between contributors and hang-arounds has become clear.

Using Wardley maps

Once you have a Wardley maps of your business and the surrounding business ecosystem, there are several possibilities on how to use it:

  1. Manipulate the playing field to your own advantage.
  2. Anticipate developments that will occur and potential actions by competitors.
  3. Decide what to purchase or outsource and what to do internally.
  4. Select best models to use for internal work.
  5. Choose appropriate purchasing models for external sourcing.
  6. Define teams, their goals and responsibilities.
  7. Define roles and hiring profiles for different teams.

Wardley map benefits

What I found out is that in this sample of startups:

  • Manipulating the playing field was felt to be out of reach and anticipation of playing field changes and competitor actions were similarly felt to be “too far out”.
  • Having multiple teams, defining hiring profiles and deciding internal work model were also mostly out of scope as hiring and teaming is driven by immediate tactical needs more than any long-term planning effort2. It is pretty pointless trying to create artificial team divisions among five people or less, or try to run a single team in different operating modes.

However there were things that the audience found useful:

  • “Eye-opener” was a frequent comment when talking about “purchase, outsource or develop internally” decisions.
  • Differences between purchasing models for different evolutionary stages was also appreciated.
  • Although I suspect the understanding of evolution was superficial at this stage, comments were made about how this helped visualize potential risks of relying too heavily on early stage technologies (leaning too much on the “bottom left quadrant”).

What to make of this?

Although it is nice to have provided useful insights to participants in these sessions, the relevant question really is did this offer more value than using the same time on some other strategic method (self-study or facilitated)?

Answer: Yes and no and it depends.3

  • Yes, it clearly provided insights for people on topics they might have come across only by chance.

  • No, as these insights were common knowledge. Different project, development and organizational models are nothing new and neither is the knowledge that there’s no one-size-fits-all method.4 The same situation is with outsourcing methods — hey, this stuff is introductory business course material.

  • It depends — I have found out that a consultant, a facilitator or a teacher often is paraphrasing common information that the audience already knows but has not yet understood. Helping with this step between knowledge and understanding can be valuable in itself.


Based on feedback and my own observations from these relatively short introductory sessions with early-phase startups, I would say the benefit of using Wardley maps for small, early-phase startups is inconclusive.

There are clearly some benefits, but these benefits might not be attributable to Wardley maps specifically. There is a possibility these benefits could have been reached with some other method too with comparable effort. Even then the benefits appear to be more tactical than strategic.


Well… there is definitely a possibility for early-phase startups with little resources, with enough drive and willpower, to manipulate the strategic playing field to their advantage. For most? Probably not.

After some contemplation I thought of one situation where Wardley maps might prove very useful for early-phase startups: when it is looking for funding. Putting effort into using Wardley maps and understanding the strategic business environment, at least I believe so, would help a company put forward a much better story about the company and its business for potential investors.

I think the case for “strategy” in startups faces the same problem as any “X” that could help them plan and execute better: there are too many “X”s, too little time and not enough money and time to throw around. It just is not feasible to evaluate and use every “X” that might or might not work. I think that founders who realize their need to understand the strategic playing field and the will to manipulate it are already in the “better off” category — they probably are more experienced with better connections and better access to funding, too.

For a next step, how about looking into still-quite-early startups with seed funding, and an MVP on the market?

  1. Here I am using “company size” as a proxy for its resources. This is just a heuristic, as said, there’s tremondous variability between startups. 

  2. There is of course a lot of effort put into hiring “the right people”. This hiring just is not driven by any understanding of bimodal- or trimodal IT. 

  3. My favourite answer to all yes-no questions. 

  4. Most people I know and value have no illusion that any variant of agile, lean or six sigma would be a fit for all needs. This view is supported by plenty of research too. 

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