The finish on a wood carving depends directly on the quality of the cutting edge on the tool that carved it. It's very difficult to produce something beautiful with a chisel that is blunt or has a rough edge. Similarly, the quality of the cutting edge is directly related to the condition of the grindstone that sharpened it, and the technique used. It's difficult to get a good edge with a wobbly or glazed grinding wheel.
In case you are wondering if I have lost the plot, the above system also relates to software mapping tools and techniques. The carving represents your business project or result - the finished outcome. The grinding wheel represents the software itself, and the chisels represent the maps with which you cut and shape the business project or problem.
How does this strange analogy extend our understanding of the role of software mapping?
First and foremost, understand that you don't shape wood by grinding it straight on the wheel. You can try, but it's not very satisfactory. Instead, you use the wheel to create a tool sharp enough to carve your workpiece with. Software mapping tools are not directly applied to business problems, despite their marketing claims. They promise beautifully carved wood, and sell grinding wheels. The cutting edge is on the map, not the software tool. The final results you get are related to how sharp or blunt your map is. The better the underlying software, the better chance you have of producing maps that slice effectively into business problems.
Many of us have experienced maps that go "blunt". They start out well, but after a while they fail to make progress, and become frustrating to work with. Eventually they are discarded because you don't know what to do with them next, and they are not helping you produce the outcome you originally envisioned. As a general rule, the size of a map multiplied by the number of people working on it indicates the risk of bluntness. To use larger maps with groups, you need a good technique.
Chisels are not the final outcome. You could enter your beautifully sharpened chisels into a woodworking competition, but the judges would be confused. Likewise, maps are not the final result of your efforts. It's the effect that the map has that counts. This is a significant factor in the "bubble" syndrome that can haunt users of software mapping in the corporate environment. Their managers or colleagues are looking at the chisel, and not being shown the way it carves into the actual business issue. A beautiful map is not always a good measure of achievement towards a business goal, and can seem to be just a distraction when seen in isolation. You have to show them what the map does.
Like chisels, maps have different shapes for different purposes. Curves are hard to cut with a straight edge and vice versa. A good set of "sharp" maps for use in different situations is the goal of users of mapping software. The maps should keep their edge and continue to cut into the problem even when used continually. In the second part of this post, we will look at some maps that have cutting edges designed into them, and ways to sharpen up a blunt map.