Map and Terrain – The Limits of Planning

Belgian surrealist René Magritte created a series of paintings known as The Treachery of Images. One painting depicts an image of a pipe with the declaration Ceci n’est pas une pipe (It is not a pipe) painted below.

Magritte’s image reminds us that any abstracted symbolic representation is by definition, a limited view. Magritte commented

 If I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!

Alfred Korzybski, developer of the theory of general semantics, remarked

The map is not the territory.

There’s a difference between a model of something and the actual thing. Author Jerry Weinberg tweeted an applicable heuristic that inspired this post

If the terrain and the map do not agree, follow the terrain ~Swedish army manual 

Similarly with software, we can plan ’till the cows come home. But, once the action starts, stuff happens! Are you going to follow the plan or react to unforeseen circumstances? Often the map and the terrain don’t agree.
Given Patrick Reilly‘s recognition that the optimal model of a system is THE system, and his admission that that ill-formed premises can be modeled and validated, why do we spend so much time planning, designing, and modeling?
I admit I have a soft spot for software prototyping.With prototyping, discrete activities of planning, designing, and modeling are compressed into cycles of develop and review. It’s been my limited experience that the closer the review is to the user, the better the software.
During the cycles of develop and review, stuff happens. Inevitable stuff. Stuff like important discoveries. Valuable discoveries occur that we likely wouldn’t have or couldn’t have known before hand.

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. ~Albert Szent-Gyorgi

Planning isn’t always amendable to discovery. Planning usually occurs before action occurs. And before action, there might not be anything to critically observe.

Highfalutin plans can often be condensed into a concise phrase similar to the military concept of Commander’s Intent (cf. my post Team Decisions and Commander’s Intent). Troops in the field must often act without a script because stuff happens.

Most of us are adept empiricists. We understand things best when we experience them…

Instant message:

Bob says:
  i have a THANKING cloak that bounces THANKS back to the emitter
Steve R says:
 what does a “you’re welcome” do?
Bob says:
  just threw an unhandled exception
Bob says:
 that was an edge case I couldn’t have planned for.

10 thoughts on “Map and Terrain – The Limits of Planning

  1. Bob, based on my life experience I came to believe this:

    “Always have plan B”

    I hate to have one and only one option in life.

    I think the reason why plans do not work is because they don't work like Feynman's sum of histories. A plan is just a single historical path. Any divergence from that path creates a new future path, and more possibilities for further divergent paths. Like in quantum mechanics perhaps we should treat macroscopic events occurring in space-time as “sum of histories” and learn not to be hard on ourselves. What is happening “now” is just an outcome of a probabilistic experiment, not a certain thing. There is no certainty really, just as there is no platonic triangles with invisible zero-width lines. Plans always fail, the degree of failure varies.


  2. Ergun,
    I resonate to “Always have a plan B”, particularly if you permit me to amend it to “Don't fret so much about plan A, but always have a plan B”. That sounds more like “be prepared to change”. I think that's what you meant, but a dim bulb like me needs it spelled out. 😉


  3. I had a sailboat that had the tentative second name of “Plan B” – had the lettering all done on a decal, but then decide we liked the original name and never changed it.


  4. Sailing could probably lend many a metaphore to agile, since there's a heck of a lot of 'adapting to conditions' that goes on. You might for example have planned on light winds, and put up particular sails, but then the winds change and you have to change to a storm jib (.e.g reduce sail)

    And as someone that's stood out on a yard-arm, some 100' above the ocean, in a gale, working alongside a bunch of other hands to reduce sail, I can tell you it's a hell of a lot easier to do if you notice the need for change early, than if you find yourself reacting after you've been surprised because you failed to notice conditions where changing.


  5. Chuck,

    Thanks for extending the sailing metaphor (my sailing experience is limited to a solo cockpit Sunfish on a docile 6’ deep lake).

    I suspect it’s possible to practice an explicit acceptance of the unexpected. Rather than trying to make better guesses, perhaps we seek an approach (or favor approaches) that have a reasonable chance of working not matter the outcome.

    Zen practitioners have mindfulness. If it’s possible to have a mental posture that expects the unexpected, and if it's possible to practice that mental posture, then we might find, as golf legend Arnold Palmer intimated, “the more I practice, the luckier I get”


  6. I love the sailing analogy.

    You plan to leave port and you publish a plotted course but you constantly amend your remaining course depending on where you actually find yourself.

    If you find yourself in dire straits, you run for cover by changing course (any port in a storm) just to meet your primary objective (of staying alive).

    Sailing is about good high-level 'plan-ahead', having the right expertise on board, adapting as things develop and keeping the objectives in mind (not just getting to the destination but arriving and arriving in good shape).

    How many sailors have perished through maintaining an inappropriate course ?


  7. Gerald,
    Presumptuous, yes – but we are human. The only animal that can image a future, that has developed its whole society around the imagined future.

    One problem with this ability is that it works so poorly. Yet it is only about 2.5 million years old (genus Homo). That's only 0.05% of the time of existence. In the scheme of the universe this future imagining organism is just a recent experiment, it may not work out to be a big advantage to the universe.


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