None of us can see the future, but if we know the lie of the land, where the obstacles are located and where we are heading, then our journey will be much more likely to succeed. This is particularly true when we are in the midst of crisis. Knowing your territory so you have clarity of purpose is a key survival tool – for teams as well as individuals.
There is not much that we understand about human behaviour today that the ancient Greeks and their predecessors did not have a pretty solid grasp of several thousand years ago. The mass of knowledge that humanity has accumulated over the millennia since has created extraordinary progress for our general wealth and health, but little has changed in that time, in how we act and react as human beings to the activities of the people around us.
What irritated Alexander the Great would probably irritate the leaders of today; what made Odysseus angry would no doubt anger the great heroes of our time; what moved Michelangelo or Mozart still moves us in the 21st century. And in similar ways, what provoked Atahualpa, the Inca king, or charmed Ustad Ahmed Lahouri, the designer of the Taj Mahal, still affects us now. People as a whole do not change much – but individually we are all unique.
The quote at the top of the page is a well-known one from African lore. It encapsulates a universal truth - that when we work alone we can achieve speed and purpose, but if we want to gain scale and impact it is necessary to work as a team. The latter part echoes the thinking behind the English idiom, United We Stand, Divided We Fall. The Scottish geologist, explorer and missionary, Joseph Thomson, after whom the Thomson’s gazelle and the Thomson Falls in Kenya are named, added nuance to this quote, when he refined it in a letter to his cousin late in life – “he who goes gently goes safely; he who goes safely goes far”.
In 1883 Thomson led an expedition to Lake Victoria in Africa, to establish a route there from the coast. To get to the lake he had to pass through Maasai country. The Maasai were much feared as aggressive tribes people, and few thought he would successfully be able to cross their territory safely. In fact, not only did Thomson do so, he struck up a strong and enduring friendship with the Maasai – and legend has it introduced them to tartan, which is why the Maasai wear tartan-patterned shukas (their coloured shawls) today. Thomson forsook the predominant European approach of entitled expeditioning, and instead ‘travelled gently’, enquiring about and treating the Maasai with respect – and in return he received safe passage. He learnt to understand ‘the songs of those around him’, and respect them. In short, Thomson was able to achieve his objective by successfully engaging those around him. It was a gentle approach, a human one.
Today’s world is one of increased speed. Change occurs at an electronic pace, growth is exponential. However, as we have established, the human mind has altered little – it still operates at the speed it did in Thomson’s time, and indeed that of Mozart, Atahualpa, Ustad Ahmed Lahouri, Michelangelo, Alexander the Great or Odysseus – or any other time. This poses a problem for leaders of organisations and teams. We work in a world of complexity and velocity, but the essential instrument we use to achieve progress – people – is not optimised like the computers and other electronic tools we leverage. The result of this is that we increasingly find people burning out, either physically, or more probably mentally – and frequently both. Both come in a variety of forms, with the milder ones more prevalent. So prevalent, in fact that Gallup’s annual engagement survey indicates that some 65% of the US workforce is either actively (13%) or passively disengaged at work.
If we are treated like machines, we stop responding with purpose (service-oriented), energy and creativity – some of the essential attributes required of the modern workforce.
Territory Mapping is a way of gaining clarity and tackling this lack of purpose and in so doing helping align everyone in an organisation or team to be heading toward the same ‘north star’ or grand objective. With this purpose well understood across the employee-base, greater autonomy and responsibility can be devolved to the individual, which will enhance fulfilment, energy and, with the right support, performance.
Territory Mapping is a simple, intuitive process developed by Anthony Willoughby. Anthony is an exemplar of a life well-lived. Having embraced the unusual and the challenging since leaving school in the 1960s, he perhaps fits more the mould of the Victorian explorers, such as Thomson, than any current stereotypes, immersing himself in new cultures and experiences with an open and enquiring mind, driven by a curiosity about what makes people tick. His understanding of cultures is a classically ethnographic one, founded on close inspection of others’ lives through the simple activity of living with them.
On leaving his famous English public-school, where he was told he was too stupid to go to university (a euphemism for not fitting in with the expected traditions of the school), Anthony used his relentless energy to take him to theatrical photography, a short-lived encounter with bull-fighting in Spain and countless other endeavours, before purchasing a one-way ticket to Singapore, where he represented the Skipping Rope World Champion, Katsumi Suzuki. Anthony spent much of his next 30 years in Asia, exploring the wilder reaches of Africa, China and the Himalayas during long vacations, using his unique social skills to get him to extraordinary places – and back.
A big man has many feathers, but a bigger man is able to give away his feathers
The first was a camel trek through northern Kenya in 1980. As he recalls now “this was the first time I was wandering through indigenous tribes people, and I was struck by the way they walked with such confidence and a complete sense of identity. I wondered what they had and possibly we had lost.” Two years later he went to Papua New Guinea for the first time, and through an introduction from their Ambassador in Tokyo, spent a week in his remote village there. “We were fortunate to see in Papua New Guinea people who had not yet had their social structures and beliefs destroyed by ‘progress’. Whatever the reason, it was extraordinary to be walking down a remote track and approached by loincloth-clad, smiling, axe-carrying nationals who simply wanted to shake our hands” he recalls.
In his book, ‘In Search of Inspiration’, Anthony observes “Shortly after I got back to Tokyo I had dinner with [the PNG Ambassador] Joseph Nombri, and he told me a little about his village. His observations were fascinating. He described how his ancestors had lived in the valley ‘forever’ and how they had to fight to defend it.""
He provided a few insights into tribal life. For instance
"The more I spoke to Joseph Nombri the more I felt we could learn from studying village life and values. These learnings could be especially important to businesses and business people."
Towards the end of our talk I asked, “What is most important to a villager?” He replied immediately, “Territory: that is all that matters. They teach us from earliest childhood where it is and how to defend it.”
"He knew the boundaries of the system and that it must be defended by a group of people who trusted each other. From our discussion ‘trust’ appeared to be a key ingredient to the village’s prosperity and development. But initially I found this idea of collective trust difficult to grasp; it was also difficult to understand the relevance of his perception of territory to my own life.”
"I reflected that if territory is of extreme importance to the tribesman then it is equally important to me. Perhaps all the actions, needs and desires to secure my Peace of Mind are simply based on the primeval need to secure my own territory. This was something which the ambassador probably took for granted. I had just never thought of it that way.”
With this revelation from Sir Joseph Nombri, the seeds of Territory Mapping were sown. Sir Joseph was a man who straddled centuries of culture, having been born in a village with little contact with the outside world; a man who could recall the first white man to come to their village, and his first sight of a printed page but went on to become his country’s Ambassador to Tokyo and who had regular meetings with the Emperor, and was knighted by the British Queen in 1989 ; importantly though he was a man who was more educated than any of his forebears could imagine, but nonetheless was equally passionate about his heritage and tribal identity.
The more exposure Anthony had to nomadic people the more he realised that they had something we lacked – or had lost – in more economically developed societies. There is a sense of belonging that they exude; a confidence and stability of purpose that can be instantly seen in their posture, their speed (or lack of it) of activity, their sense of being.
Understanding your territory is an intrinsically human need, and without it we are unable to perform at our best.
Looking at a teenage Maasai boy, they tend to being upright and yet relaxed, and almost resolutely cheerful; in comparison to the hunched, angst-ridden prototypical youth of the west. What is it that their lives and society provide that allows them to have that sense of self, while those with far more opportunity, education and wealth in developed societies frequently lack it?
Anthony’s introduction to the concept of Territory by Sir Joseph Nombri catalysed a train of ideas that have coalesced around the notion that understanding your territory is an intrinsically human need, and without it we are unable to perform at our best. There are complex philosophical and psychological reasons for why this is the case, but at root, lie the concepts of clarity, purpose and trust or adaptability?
The layers of complexity that traditional societies face may be considerably less than that of senior executives of multi-national corporations, or indeed pupils graduating from high school – in terms of their breadth of choices and decisions they have available to them; but both require to achieve sustainability in their lives, it is just that the level that needs to be sustained may be very different.
That acknowledged, the result of failure to achieve sustained performance is very much more severe for those in a traditional society than for us in more economically developed locations. Failure of a business deal – or a business, is damaging but not life-threatening; failure of a harvest can be catastrophic. Competitive pressures in the market may force changes to your hopes and strategy, competitive pressure from disease or another tribe for your land, can devastate their existence. Our complexity allows for far more grey areas, than the more black and white outcomes in less complex ones.
Nonetheless, indigenous peoples the world over, whether they be on the Mongolian steppes, the Papua New Guinean or Amazonian jungles, the high arctic tundra of the Finnish Sami, or the nomadic tribes of the African savannah or the First People of Canada, have all survived as cohesive societies by following broadly similar codes of behaviour and practice. At their core these peoples tend to have flatter structures – the distance between headman or chief (if one single one actually exists at all) and the least important members, is small. Decisions are most often made collectively, and once made they are adhered to by everyone. Under-pinning all this is a deep understanding that the ‘tribe’ comes first, and the individual serves that tribe. It is only through that approach that it can retain its cohesion. Though there is some circularity in this. To be excluded from the tribe, traditionally, is akin to a death sentence, so self-preservation is closely connected to being part of the tribe, and this is a powerful motivation for ensuring the tribe is cohesive and sustained. It is part of its weakness too, as it effectively prevents the emergence of mavericks, maintains a conservative, consensus-led approach and so dampens the scope to innovate; but innovation can happen when needed, and quickly, it is just that it is not the background music of life as it has become in western organisations.
Maasai children, once they are four or five years old, are traditionally given goats to look after, to develop their sense of responsibility and also role in the village system. As they get older they are given more challenging tasks, until as ‘warriors’ the young men take the cattle (the most valuable assets of a tribe) out to graze. This can, in periods of drought, take them far from the village for weeks at a time – the critical point being that this is a necessary division of labour for the tribe, and also gives the young men a sense of purpose and responsibility. They have been brought up with an understanding of what they have to do, and have learnt through that period how to do it. There is a high degree of mentoring, though it happens unobtrusively through everyday interaction. The process is similar with Mongolian nomads and the Sami in northern Finland.
While no-one is suggesting that we try and replicate the lifestyles of these traditional peoples, which is extremely hard and uncomfortable, there are distinct lessons that can be learnt from their traditions that we could try and weave better into organisational behaviour back home. Core to these are the concepts of giving people clarity on their purpose – why they are needed, what their role is – and ensuring that they are given the space to do that, so ensuring trust, that great intangible sought by all.
Sir Joseph Nombri understood implicitly the importance of an individual having to understand his or her own territory, but for those of us who now inhabit a world largely detached from the natural world around us, where the changing of the seasons and the impact of the weather is essentially unimportant to us for achieving our daily tasks, this concept of awareness has become clouded, but having clarity still resonates as a valuable asset.
Territory Mapping is not seeking to re-engage us with those natural phenomena directly, but is a technique which allows us to identify, highlight and piece-together the important elements in our complex lives or work; elements which we intuitively know about but often find difficult to express or present in a cohesive fashion.
The Territory Mapping process has been used by hundreds of different people since Anthony Willoughby started to develop it over two decades ago – from school children to entrepreneurs to globally successful business people, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, at the time the richest and second richest people on the planet, as well as Jack Welch, the iconic CEO of General Electric.
While the maps are inevitably simple visualisations of people’s understanding of their current situation, they encapsulate and connect a lot of information. The great appeal of Territory Maps is that they are so diverse, allowing individuals to express, often without their active realisation, their key thoughts and feelings. As such they can vary in terms of the time periods they capture, the breadth of territory they incorporate, the perspective that they view situations from – but they all share the huge value that the creator of the map can talk others through it and quickly get them to understand their vision and perspective, in a way that just the spoken word mostly fails to achieve. Few people are given the time and focus to allow them to share their views of how the world around them looks – and so those they work and live with fail to appreciate the richness that these can bring.
AtAt their simplest, maps can locate the main elements and influences in people’s lives, and when they see them on paper in front of them, they can begin to visualise a route from where they are to where they want to be, and understand the obstacles they need to overcome – be they material, emotional or regulatory.
The map here is from an Executive MBA student, who has an analytical job with a US casino chain. Her map describes her route to establishing a reiki yoga business, the training, funding and personal obstacles, starting with crossing her ‘river of fear’. When she shared it with her manager, the manager had no idea of this side of her life, beyond her methodical, analytical approach to work. It opened new conversations at her current work, as well as creating a pathway forward for her venture.
At the other end of the scale, the workshop with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in 2003 on the Great Wall of China, was focused on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and its route forward in its mission to eradicate polio. The combined outcome of that session is captured in this map of the BMGF, with aid from China lifting Africa out of polio. A mission that has now, some 17 years later, been effectively completed.
Perhaps the most frequent use of Territory Maps is to align purpose and vision in teams and organisations. A common theme that maps often highlight is the disconnect between how leaders and followers see the same thing.
This is clearly shown here, in a map from a senior leader that shows an uplifting route to Paradise Island, against that of the employee’s map which links a more complex network of interacting functions with the likes of ‘bullshit bridge’ and ‘fantasy applications’.
Maps have a peculiar power, not only do they allow people to clearly represent their reality to themselves and share that with others, they also allow teams to see where their perspectives and visions of the current territories diverge, and so enable a more aligned, common vision and common language to emerge and be shared.
It has been well noted that ‘you cannot unsee a map’.
At the outset of this article, we noted that people, as human beings, have not changed very much physically, mentally or emotionally over the last couple of millennia and more. Our contexts have transformed radically however.
What we see with indigenous tribes, that represent perhaps a purer sort of human existence than the complex, technological one those of us reading this inhabit, is a confidence and strength of purpose that comes from understanding their individual place and role in their groups and societies; these are defined by their stage of life and informed by observance of traditional activities which are designed to accommodate the uncertainties of their environments. These uncertainties are their greatest risks, and they are finely attuned and mentored to react to their emergence – whether it be climate, disease or competitive.
Take a look again at Joseph Nombri’s map: in the top left, under ‘Duty’ he explains their main task is to ‘protect & defend their territory’, while their ‘Aims & Ambitions’ are to expand their territory ‘to ease pressure on land use’ and ‘increase wealth and prestige in the eyes of neighbours’. These lines could easily be written by the leader of any commercial organisation too.
The aligned nature of the tribe comes from their shared understanding of their territory. When we have asked traditional people to draw their maps, they produce maps that are very similar to each other’s, far more so than when we ask people in commercial organisations.
Perhaps the most compelling endorsement of Territory Mapping comes from those who have used it in their businesses, either for aligning the entrepreneurial strategy across the senior team, or in more granular teams lower down the organisation.
Territory Mapping provides a powerful tool to help us see our route forward and optimise our potential and our performance.
No matter where we are on our career journey, tuning into ourselves by creating our unique Territory Map is a liberating and simultaneously enriching act. By identifying our path, and the obstacles and opportunities that lie along it we gain clarity and the freedom to change our course. We get to recognise our purpose that seemed blurred before. And we can build our confidence to adapt our actions and reactions so that they align with that purpose and that of our larger tribe.