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This chapter is from the book

Central Position Maps

Another common mistaken map is what we might call central position maps. In the world of actual maps, this is the tendency to put yourself (and your country) in the center and have everything else revolve around you.

If you want to do something fun the next time you are in a foreign country, go into a map store and take a look at a world map produced by publishers in that country. Invariably, the map will place that particular country in the center of the world. This tendency has a long history. Perhaps it is best illustrated with an old map of the Central or Middle Kingdom—China. The two Chinese characters that constitute the name China literally mean "central or middle kingdom." As the map in Exhibit 2-6 illustrates, China saw herself at the center of the world then, as well as now.

EXHIBIT 2-6EXHIBIT 2-6 Ancient China as the center of the world.

We might think of IKEA as having also viewed the world this way. As its CEO pointed out, "We don't adapt to local markets." It is not the case that IKEA saw Sweden or even Scandinavia as distortedly large and the rest of the world as small. Indeed, it had an accurate map of the size of different furniture markets in the world. Still, IKEA saw itself and its metric measurements as the center of the world. Everything else revolved around it.

As we have already stated, you get a centered map established and accepted only if it works. Metric measures worked for IKEA. For example, IKEA effectively sold metric chairs all around the world, including in the United States. No one in the United States cared (or even knew) that most chairs IKEA sold were .78 meters from the floor to the seat. The more this metric map works, the more you begin to believe that the world revolves around you. With metrics at the center of the universe and with literally billions of dollars of success behind it, why would executives at IKEA not resist changing this strategic map? Of course they would resist, and they did.

We need to be careful, however, in providing so many large company examples that we create the impression that only big organizations are subject to these mistakes. These dynamics are just as true for individuals. In the case of central position maps, we also see individuals making this mistake all the time. For example, we knew of a manager sent on an international assignment who had "speak up" at the center of his mental map of interpersonal effectiveness. He explained that "speak up" was the phrase he used (and that the company used) to describe in shorthand the belief that the best way to make decisions, resolve conflicts, and communicate in general was to speak up, to say what you mean and mean what you say. This, he explained, included silence. If you weren't saying anything, it meant that you had nothing to say.

This manager was sent to Thailand. Unfortunately, most of his Thai workers did not share this same mental map of effective interpersonal relations. They were often silent when they, in fact, had things to say. Specifically, they were often silent when they disagreed with this individual. They even said yes when they really meant no. It did not take this manager long to discover that people said nothing when they had something to say because later their actions did not follow what he thought their silence meant. As these types of experiences began to pile up, he concluded that the Thais did not say what they meant and did not mean what they said.

Using his mental map with "speak up" at the center, he quickly formed interpretations of Thai workers and their behavior. He told us, "These Thais do not say what they mean and I can't trust them to mean what they say. I'm afraid that many of them are just dishonest, weak, and two-faced. With employees like this, I'm not sure we can be successful in this country." He was right. The company had difficulty being successful. However, the firm's struggles were not because of its Thai employees, but rather because of its country manager.

Given his interpretation of the Thai employees, the country manager's course of action was to send some key employees to a training program on speaking up. He pushed what he knew. Interestingly, the more the employees learned about speaking up from the training program, the more they resisted it because they did not think it would work with their Thai subordinates, and they did not want to try and fail.

Speaking up for this country manager in Thailand, like metric for IKEA, was at the center of his map. Things in the past had successfully revolved around this center. The common elements in these situations are that, when the map begins to fail, whether it is for Motorola, IKEA, or an individual manager, the first reaction is to deny the failure, and the second reaction is to try harder by doing even more of what you know how to do best.

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