Looking at objects is not a substitute for doing business. Metaphor can act as a way of looking, not necessarily as a way of doing. General Semantics scholar Alfred Korzybski famously stated: “The map is not the territory”, to highlight how we allow ourselves to confuse an image with reality.

This idea is neatly demonstrated by what we think of as the London Underground Map. Harry Beck, who created the iconic design, was keen to point out that this was not a map, but a diagram. It does not show the territory (underground or otherwise); it is not accurate in terms of terrain or proximity.

Johnson, Riddle & Co’s “map” (below) was an attempt to provide a more geographical representation. Even so, it’s still not the territory. You may notice that the Metropolitan line (marked red on this map) has been flattened, in order for it to fit into the space available and allow room for the text box.

Poster Map of the London Underground Johnson, Riddle and Co. Ltd. Photograph Copyright V&A Museum

Harry Beck’s original image is a diagram of connectivity. It is a practical illustration of how to use the network of connected lines to make one’s way from one station to another. You then have to “emerge” into the territory. It provides a shorthand. It is a partial, but pragmatic, view.

Original sketch for the London Underground Railways Map Beck, Harry, born 1901 – died 1974. Photograph copyright V&A Museum

Consider the organization chart – we use these diagrams to provide a navigational tool for our view of the organizations in which we work. Usually pyramid-like, they give us an overview of the power structure and the hierarchical relationships. The organization chart is a shorthand, a simplification. The larger our organization is, the further we want to drill down, the more detail we wish to provide, the more complicated the chart becomes.

Complicated refers to construction – tab A slots into tab B. And it’s also about comprehension. The Boeing 747 is a very complicated structure. However, we can still understand it by looking at the manual, at the build plan, a schematic.

Organizations are complex. Complexity is about relationships.

Adrian Mclean, in his latest book Leadership & Cultural Webs in Organisations: Weavers’ Tales, reminds us how a spider spins a web of sticky threads in order to catch its prey. However, not every thread is sticky. Only the spider knows which threads are, and which are not, sticky and is therefore able to navigate its way around without getting stuck.

I have a colleague, who, for a time, worked on the reception desk at the V&A. Because she is personable, she knows everyone at every level. She knows about their jobs, their work, and their families. Former directors and trustees of the V&A know him. Hence, when you want something done, you ask her. She knows who to ask. She knows the subtext of the organisation. She knows the short cuts. She knows which lines are sticky and which are not.

If we were to plot the real connections, the shortcuts, the ways to “get things done around here”, our chart would begin to resemble a map of international flight routes – a dynamic picture, firework-like, of the number of connections. These are lines of relation, rather than authority. They are active. They are moving.

An organization chart is a static construction; an organization is active, living. Just like the tube map, the organization chart gives us an idea of where things might be. If we want to find something, we need to come out from underground, walk about and make connections.

This piece appeared in Dialogue magazine, March 2015