Fix Your Map, Not The Terrain

I recently had the pleasure of joining Nat Eliason on his podcast ‘Nat Chat’ to discuss Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, which if you don’t know, is one of my all-time favorite books. During the podcast, Nat gave an example of a “naive intervention” that’s been percolating in my mind ever since: In response to children being distracted in class, doctors have, for years, been liberally prescribing Ritalin to “help” students focus. Instead of examining and redesigning the distractions and flawed class structure that leads to almost 20% of American boys being diagnosed with ADHD, the education and medical industries have decided to drug students into submission. And this naive intervention leads to long-term issues, as there seems to be a link between taking Ritalin and cocaine addiction later in life, due to the similarity between the two drugs. Nat referred to this overprescription trend as “trying to fix the terrain, instead of fixing your map”, the terrain in this case being children and their attention span while the map is the solution to capturing their attention.

To put it more broadly, your map is your model of the world while the terrain is the actual world. Models are always, always, always (I can’t stress this enough) an approximation of reality. When models are effective, there is very little difference between the model and reality. When models fail, there’s a large difference. And because the world is constantly changing, models require continual feedback loops and updates to remain effective. Changing the model is much more in your control than changing reality, yet many notable screw-ups (like the ADHD example above) happen when humans try to re-shape reality instead of re-shape their model.  

This terrain/map concept is so powerful and broadly applicable. Through the work I do, I see a ton of parallels with both corporate innovators and startups trying to force the landscape to adapt to their expectations instead of adjusting their solutions to the new reality.

Retail: Legacy Brands vs Adaptive Brands

In retail, the vast majority of legacy brands still base their strategy on a terrain that existed pre-Internet and pre-social media: namely, the supply-driven retail business model. Spotting these companies is fairly simple: they are the ones who are late to the game on almost every trend. Why? Because trends now emerge organically through “the public” (sometimes influencers but often just the dregs of the interwebz) instead of through corporate tastemakers.

The old model for retail was for a buyer or tastemaker to decide which products would be released in a given season. These buyers were/are extremely skilled at understanding consumer preferences and the model worked well for a long time. But now that we’re able to access products from around the world, taste has simply become too complex for any single human being (or in my opinion, an algorithm alone) to control or predict. Instead of a top down model of tastemaking, trends now generally emerge from the vast pool of humanity, without an easily determined reason – though people will try (and fail) to analyze trends in hindsight.

Brands that have embraced this new model (like Zara) are able to identify emerging trends through rapid piloting, kick the design and supply chain processes into action for successful experiments, and get products in-store before the trend has really taken off. Equally important, they can economically halt the process and respond to the next trend when the current one is over. Brands that have built processes like this to adapt to the new retail environment are exemplifying the idea of “fixing their map” to adapt to the new terrain.

Startup Sales Process

Likewise, over the years, I’ve seen plenty of startups miscalculate just how long and involved the enterprise sales process is, how many stakeholders there are, and the risks involved when a large company works with a small one. The startups who successfully navigate this process are the ones who, often through trial and error, develop an accurate model for the organization they’re selling to. This includes knowing who the key decision-makers are, what they are being judged on, what their top priorities are, and most importantly, how your startup fits into the picture.

The startups who get frustrated in this process are usually those who come into it with unrealistic expectations of how quickly a deal will get done, simply because of how much sense it makes…on paper. While mapping a deal on paper is important, it isn’t nearly enough to move things along.

To successfully close a deal with a large company, it takes an understanding of who in the company is actually buying your product, what that person or department is tasked with, what they’re succeeding and failing at, and so much more. All of this deep, detailed knowledge can only be gathered through research and many interactions with the target company. And this knowledge is then used to build and iterate on your map (i.e. model) for how to get the deal done.

But if a startup runs into a wall during the sales process and attempts to change the procurement process (i.e. change the terrain) – good luck. Those processes were likely created by a painstaking process involving dozens of people and months of debate. Most importantly, you – a little startup – don’t have the leverage to demand that the large company change their process. If the startup has a ton of leverage, it’s possible (though unlikely) that the large company may volunteer to fast-track the deal. But I have never seen a startup successfully demand that the large company change their process.


When things aren’t going right or are more difficult than expected, it’s easy to look externally and blame outside forces. But more often than not, it’s our model that’s flawed, driven by expectations which don’t match the reality of the terrain. Taking a step back and evaluating our map is often all we need to do to correct things. An even better tactic is to build in opportunities to check and adjust your map as you go along, for example interacting with customers often to continuously test your assumptions. These feedback loops are the only way to make sure the map you’re using is an accurate representation of the terrain and not a forced fit “solution” that has little connection to reality.

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