Stepping Into The Map

In the summer of 2008 I interrailed around Europe over the course of four weeks, covering many countries and even more cities. It was a wonderful way to travel and has supplied me with some entertaining anecdotes, ranging from how a burley Australian firefighter’s presence rescued me from being mugged on an overnight train between Venice and Zagreb, to being flooded out of a tent when camping in Split and sleeping in an outdoor utility room with a family of frogs.  I’d be happy to share my experiences over a beer, sometime.

What I really loved about arriving in each city and stepping off the train, was grabbing a map and attempting to orientate myself in a large metropolitan hub. Without fail, I stepped into the map. Not literally. Joey Tribbiani modelled the benefit of that when he visits London (in London?!) in a Friends episode, placing the map on the floor and, you guessed it, stepping into it. This, he argued, was the most effective way to understand when to turn left or right, and get a sense of scale. The image, and its sound logic, flashes to mind every time I pick up a map. It makes perfect sense.

I’ve always felt that we could apply ‘stepping into the map’ into other areas of our work. Let’s consider the benefits for a moment. Standing in the map immediately immerses us into the world and perspective of the map; we essentially become one with that environment instead of our own, and see with new eyes. We gain a sense of empathy. We consider things closely that felt distant when we were outside the map. In other words, we zoom in to the smaller details and perspectives that perhaps eluded us from afar.

Well, it helped me navigate Budapest and Berlin, so how can it help us in our work as leaders, teachers, or in other roles?

Prevention is better than cure

When I was a Head of Year, my line manger would often repeat the phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’. The repetition started to grate after a time, and yet I found the sentiment profoundly useful. Her point was, of course, that pastoral roles shouldn’t be reactive alone, and that there are vast areas of our work that can be considered in advance; risks mitigated, methods anticipated. She encouraged us to hypothesise and anticipate how our year groups might behave or react to things coming up that week, therefore giving us an opportunity to create the narrative and culture that would pre-empt what would likely occur. In other words, stepping into the map gave us an edge.

Sure, we can create systems that help us to react to moments in the day, but if we can think ahead and anticipate those moments, we start at an advantage. This might not sound like rocket science, but often our planning extends to the main details, a bit of optimism, and then draws on what we think we know from previous experiences. What I’m proposing is a more in-depth method of thinking through the nuts, bolts, and angles of something to anticipate the best bets of success and failure.

How to step into the map:

  • Think through the chronology

When I’m anticipating something, I like to go chronological. What will happen first, then what will follow. How will those things transition between each other? In a lesson that could be how two tasks link; at an event it might be how the delegates move from one session to another, and so on. The point is to think of small details and how they link together. This method also means I remember to pack my toothbrush and phone charger when I go away… Think small to win big!

  • Every stakeholder counts

Stakeholder is a clinical, corporate word, but what I mean is to consider every person involved in the situation, even indirectly. Let’s say you’re planning a whole-school assembly: how will the children know what to do? How about the teachers? What about the support staff? The site team? Have you communicated parents about theme or vision of your assemblies?  When we are ‘in the map’, we are blessed with the perspective to notice and consider everyone around us, not just how the situation may impact us or those directly involved. The daily intensity of our work means that we can become blinkered by ourselves and those we immediately interact with, but it’s vital to think of those beyond that proximity.

  • Empathy, always

Along with considering who the key players are and what they will be doing or learning, we should also consider how they’ll feel about this. I don’t have a large teaching timetable, but I regularly make decisions with or for those who do have a full teaching load. When I’m in the map, planning and anticipating, I must consider their needs. How will they feel to be asked this? Have I given them enough warning, training, preparation, or communication? There’s no good being in the map if you don’t consider how it feels for others to be in there, too.

  • Think in tradeoffs

Building on empathy is  empathy plus action: compassion. In this instance, our anticipation is going to add some workload to ourselves and others. Tweaking small details of a plan, or managing something closely, adds to our to do list. But we should keep in mind: if I’m doing this, or asking this of someone, what am I not doing or not asking them to do? There must be balance.

  • Put the brakes on – is the juice worth the squeeze?

The ‘stepping into the map’ process I have outlined so far takes an investment of time – an investment that is worth it if you gain greater perspective about an upcoming event or plan. However, this investment of time should also help you gain clarity around the worth of what you are planning to do. Put simply, is it worth it?

  • Invite others into the map

At the risk of stretching this metaphor thin, it’s worth inviting others along into this reflective pre-game process. Putting your heads together as a group to share ideas and anticipate collectively, will help you see things through angles that reach beyond your own.

If you’re used to reading my evidence-informed blogs about high-performing teams, or more factual book reflections, then let me apologise: this is what my head actually looks like! I’ll step out of the map, now, deny overusing the metaphor and encourage you to think strategically, with empathy and anticipation, when you plan future projects, events, or training.

Prevention is better than cure, she says.

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