The map is not the territory

Musings on complexity, people and models


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management

United Kingdom


In a recent article, we explored the potential use of a map in enabling decisions and facilitating forward movement and progress, even in a foggy or highly challenging contexts. The point made was that the process of mapping, as opposed to blindly following a map, enables reasoning and adjustments to emerge so that corrections can facilitate improved performance and a more purposeful journey.

Indeed, mapping and navigation provide the basis for a journey into less certain and less recognisable terrains, with a general goal or overarching purpose’ (Dalcher, 2018; p. 6).

This article explores the issues related to both maps and mapping in complex and unpredictable terrains.

So what is the problem with maps?

Maps have been in use for centuries. The Oxford Dictionary defines a map as a ‘diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.’, implying that they offer a depiction or a picture of the earth.

Maps are known to represent key facts, often extending beyond location information to feature temperature, rainfall, prosperity, education or any other pertinent facet or feature. Maps are thus utilised to emphasise particular relationships that the cartographers consider to be of interest. Consequently, it is important that the users recognise the intended purpose of a given map and select an appropriate type (e.g. physical, political, geological, climatic, relief, thematic, topographical, economic, resource, road, navigational chart), projection (cylindrical, pseudo-cylindrical, conic, azimuthal, gnomonic, etc.), and scale. In other words, the choice of a map needs to be fit for the observational or navigational purpose and the expected goal.

People utilise maps for many varied reasons, including (Hessler, 2015):

  • To find their way
  • To assert ownership
  • To record human activity
  • To establish control
  • To encourage settlement
  • To plan military campaigns
  • To demonstrate political power

While maps have enabled humans to comprehend their surrounding environment, they have also played a critical part in labelling, establishing and claiming power across neighbours, regions and resources. Hessler’s list of reasons seems to comprise only a single item focused on guiding the journey. Indeed, Rankin (2016) reasons that maps provide the means for governments to understand, manage and defend their territory, pointing out that during the two world wars maps were produced by the hundreds of millions. Barber and Harper (2010) note that maps use size and beauty to convey messages of status and power, while Monmonier (2010) observes that some maps control behaviour by providing the basis for regulating some activities and prohibiting others (for example, by designating residential zones and locating chemical plants outside cities).

Maps hold immense value, and are often taken to be a rational, unbiased and objective representation of reality. However, Wood (1992) asserts that maps, like photographs, represent a subjective point of view. King (1996) concludes that there can be no such thing as an objective map reproducing a pre-existing reality, as powerful choices will always have to be made about what to represent and how, and what to exclude. Black (2000) affirms that maps are coloured by the political purposes of their makers, therefore arguing that map-making and map-using cannot be divorced from aspects of the politics of representation. Monmonier (2014) maintains that maps lie, and the choices that mapmakers make – either consciously or unconsciously – mean that a map, far from being objective, can present only one version out of the range of possible stories about the places it depicts.

Why is Europe at the top half of maps and Africa at the bottom? Although we are accustomed to that convention, it is, in fact, a politically motivated, almost entirely subjective way of depicting a ball spinning in space. As The Power of Projections teaches us, maps do not portray reality, only interpretations of it. To begin with, they are two-dimensional projections of a three-dimensional, spherical Earth. Add to that the fact that every map is made for a purpose and its design tends to reflect that purpose. Finally, a map is often a psychological projection of the historical, political, and cultural values of the cartographer-or of the nation, person or organization for which the map was created.’ (Klinghoffer, 2006, back cover)


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge. Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM. Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ.

About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
United Kingdom


Darren Dalcher
, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI SMIEEE SFHEA is Professor of Project Management, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK. He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 200 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series Fundamentals of Project Management. Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, A Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the British Academy of Management. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Member Advisory Group, the APM Research Advisory Group, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board. He is the Academic Advisor and Consulting Editor for the next APM Body of Knowledge. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at [email protected].

To view other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.