No wonder so many new companies die before they know what hit them. Not
able to find their way, they stagger in circles, burn cash, lose team members,
and expire from exhaustion or walk off a cliff.
There is an answer.
Wayfinding is a methodology for understanding the world and getting around in
it. It has other names that may be more familiar. Wayfinding at sea or in the
air is called navigation. In nature, competitive wayfinding is known as
Polynesians for hundreds of years
have been expert oceanic wayfinders.
Employed by geographers, architects, environmental designers, and others
whose focus is on spatial awareness, wayfinding helps individuals to discover
where they’re at and how to get where they want to go. Wayfinding describes
how people perceive and orient themselves to landmarks and other features in
the environment. It prescribes how to facilitate this process using natural and
The most obvious manifestation of contemporary wayfinding is the layout of
public places to manage crowd flow, and the signage that enables visitors to
quickly discover their location and destination.
A typical geographic wayfinding map.
In business, however, there are no designers and no signs to show the way. So
how is wayfinding valuable to the founder/CEO and his or her shareholders?
Because the executive who employs this most powerful innate skill – the ability
to perceive, understand, and act in the world around us – has a distinctive
competitive advantage over executives who are still struggling to make sense
of things based only on reports and spreadsheets.
The fact is, the ability to wayfind has been part of human experience since the
first hominid migrations. Before there were compasses and sea-going clocks
(for telling latitude), Polynesian navigators were crossing vast ocean reaches
literally by the seat of their muumuus. Sensing the tides under their keels,
learning to navigate by the stars when they were visible and the wind and
clouds when they were not, and paying special attention to the behavior of
seabirds and sea creatures, these explorers in their open canoes settled the
entire South Pacific – no mean feat! We inherently know how to find our way.
We just need to look for the right environmental cues.
We do business constantly invoking spatial metaphors. The spatial metaphors
we use for getting around in the physical world are powerful tools for
expressing relationships in the business environment. Unconsciously, they
guide us in what to look for, to find our way.
Spatial metaphors express our world.
A simple example is the concept of the business “field,” meaning a virtual
“place” where companies contend with one another for supremacy and
success. When we talk about the “competitive landscape” and “defensible” IP,
we imply a system of virtual ramparts and moats whose strength and integrity
will be tested in the “field.” A complete list of spatial metaphors used in
business (with new ones being invented all of the time) would be lengthy – and
speak volumes about the current state of the business mind.
Linguists tell us that 80 percent of all spatial metaphors – phrases like, “over
the hill” – are shared by cultures across the board, because our human
experiences are fundamentally alike. Because cultures vary, however, the
remaining 20 percent of spatial metaphors are quite different. The Inuit have
dozens of words for snow, for example. We have one. In the Arctic, without a
guide, despite an abundance of resources, we would die.
The same is true of business cultures. Company leaders must be aware of the
unique, even idiosyncratic metaphors characteristic of their business. These
metaphors shape how they think about business. Being aware of this bias may
enable the company to “out-wayfind” competitors in its niche.
Not all business metaphors are spatial. For example, in investment parlance,
to “ratchet down” is a mechanical metaphor. The inevitable allusion to the
thumbscrew is not far off the mark.
But for the purposes of wayfinding, it’s our ability to use spatial metaphors
that matters. Here’s how it’s done.
Our goal is to compose an accurate interior virtual world that is a reliable basis
for decisionmaking – and not a singular vision, but rather a dynamic model that
can be employed by anyone in the company, keeping everyone informed and
aligned. According to Senge, the virtual world is also a place wherein the
company can assimilate information, test assumptions, and become a true
With wayfinding methods we can compose this rich model and use it to direct
Urban design theoreticians and practitioners have contributed the most to our understanding
of wayfinding, its relation to the real and virtual environments, and the convergence of the
two in design prescriptions for desirable real world solutions. Wayfinding is most thoroughly
described in the work of Canadians Arthur Frank and Romedi Passini, especially in their
summary treatise, Wayfinding: People, Signs, and Architecture (McGraw-Hill 1992). Kevin
Lynch’s groundbreaking Images of the City (MIT Press 1964) laid out a methodology for
capturing the emotionally salient features of a place, incorporated in mental maps; R.M. Downs
and David Stea explored cognitive filters associated with mental maps in Images and
Environment (Aldine 1973). Christopher Alexander and his student team compiled A Pattern
Language (Oxford University Press 1977), the first of several schemas proposed for ideal,
Each of these pioneering works has engendered a growing corpus of work, some of it – like this
paper – veering from conventional urban design into other fields, like business cognition. Three
contemporary geographers – Max Egenhofer (U of Maine), Andrew Frank (Tech U of Vienna), and
David Mark (SUNY Buffalo) are leaders in this “new geography,” exploring such topics as
A virtual world, like real world, has multiple dimensions; it comprises multiple
“strata,” or layers, of phenomena, populated by a variety of features
(organizations, technologies, events, environmental conditions, and so forth).
In the case of business, features in the virtual world may have geospatial
referents; but they may also exist in non-geographical spaces that do not
correspond to earthly locations – “places in the mind.” It’s our job to discover
how these features constitute a virtual world, and choose the most important
among them, so that we can map our way to success.
Strata in the physical world.
The following strata (and more) are relevant to wayfinding in a business
environment. I’ve listed these because they’re categorically representative:
• The competitive landscape
• Technology trends and developments
• Company internal happenings
• The financial market and capital flows
• Politico-economic trends and fault lines
• The industrial ether
• Fusion events (synergistic or “nova” moments)
These strata are dynamic; their features interact. Some strata, like the
competitive landscape, are easily defined and densely packed with discrete
features. Others, like the “industrial ether,” are almost gaseous, hints of
occurrence that may be far off or diffuse, whose reverberations are felt weakly
or are yet to be encountered.
“vernacular geography,” realistic GIS (geographical information systems), and the geospatial
origins of knowledge generally.
Our passage among these strata is directional: we move forward, but also
sometimes sideways, with time. To correctly survey the strata and find our
way, we can use these parameters to characterize and evaluate their features
(again, this is an indicative, not exhaustive, list):
• Salience and significance
• Distance and proximity
• Volatility (velocity of change)
• Duration and temporality
• Affordability (can we affect the feature?)
• Consequence (the feature’s meaning)
As we set about the process of mapping a virtual world that represents the real
world (in this case, the real world of business), it’s easy to appreciate how
weak spreadsheets and published reports are as representations of the real
world. This is true even within the thin slices of reality – for example,
company and suppliers’ inventories – that typical real-time information systems
purport to accurately represent.
For our virtual-world building and wayfinding to be highly effective, we require
multidimensional surveying and analytical tools, and displays that can richly
portray the results of their calculations. Such tools will make wayfinding in
virtual worlds a highly scalable management activity. In some cases, their
development is in progress. But building virtual worlds on which we can rely,
even without optimal tools, is useful for two reason:
1. It raises our awareness of the environment and disciplines our ability to
detect strata and react to their features.
2. Even an imperfect virtual world, so long as its limitations are known, is
more useful for wayfinding than no virtual world at all, or one
thoughtlessly constructed, is better than no virtual world.
For now, one-off representations built on poster paper, spreadsheets, and flat-
screen displays are adequate. When we have the tools we need, wayfinding
within virtual worlds will become the next-generation management paradigm.
The combination of wayfinding/virtual worlds methodologies with scenario
analysis and Boolean algebra – the rule of intuitive statistics – we will define
the 21st Century’s first new management paradigm.
To build our virtual world, we first define the terrain, the underlying economic
situation in which our business must operate. This terrain, like a physical
terrain, is dynamic, though often at a pace and in dimensions that elude human
detection. Fortunately, we have tools for describing the economic terrain just
as geographers can map tectonic movements in the physical world.
We next determine the strata for which this terrain is the foundation and the
objects that populate each stratum: companies, technologies, political events,
and so forth. We characterize these objects in terms of the features described
above and also their interaction. It’s important to quantify these relationships,
even if they are subjectively perceived, so that our experiential map is an
accurate representation of the business environment.
Using a multidimensional “spreadsheet,” we can then create a cockpit with
charts, graphs, “radar,” and controls for manipulating the virtual world we are
building and navigating. This cockpit need not be literal. We can work at a
computer and input variables with more conventional outputs available to us,
as we do in scenario analysis.
But constructing an actual virtual world offers us a chance to use our full
sensorium to determine where we’re at and where we intend to be going.
Then it’s a matter of plotting an optimal path, with as few hazards and pitfalls
as possible. As we move along the path, variables that relate the objects in
the virtual world change to reflect business rules that embody our
understanding of how things work, to the best of our knowledge.
Today’s business planning environment…
Business wayfinding is an art informed by science. As computer-based tools for
wayfinding improve, the practice will become rationalized and easier to teach
and learn. For now, however, executives can employ wayfinding specialists to
help them find their way in an ever more complex, potentially confusing
Wayfinding is a new paradigm for business strategy and management:
powerful, exciting to implement, and well worth the effort.