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Personal Maps, the #1 Tool to Get to Know People

Personal Maps

Genchi Genbutsu, to Go and See

To be able to work together effectively, people need to understand each other. And to understand each other, they need to know each other. The same goes for managers. To effectively manage their staff, managers need to know and understand them. What are their wants and needs? What makes them tick?

Managers of all shapes and forms have been struggling with this notion ever since the sheltered hierarchical structures of the Industrial Age came crumbling down. In my days as an army instructor, way back in the 1990s, we would often be ‘in the field’ and spot a colonel or general wandering around, looking lost. These senior officers were trying to practice a management style commonly referred to as Management by Walking Around, all the rage at the time. This idea of being where your ‘workers’ are had originated in Japan and rapidly made its way into business colleges and even military academies all over the globe.

Although the concept of  genchi genbutsu, to go and see, sounded great in theory, a problem was that it often felt too contrived to the staff and most senior managers were just too uncomfortable with making blue-collar chit chat. The solution to this was quite logical. Instead of descending to the work floor every now and then to ‘mingle’ with their staff, many forward looking managers decided to leave their ivory tower offices and move their desks down to ground level; they were now Managing by Sitting Around.

Why Personal Maps?

So now many managers sit amongst their staff, but do they really know and understand them better? The answer is, probably not! Although interaction between management and their staff is likely to be less stifled when the ‘boss’ is always around — one gets used to it — we should keep in mind that people observed will always be influenced by the observer. Also, any conversations taking place will probably stay in the safe-zone of weather, sports and nonspecific work related issues. Not quite the topics to really get to know each other. But then what should you talk about?

This is where Personal Maps come in. In his book Managing for Happiness (2016), author Jurgen Appelo, introduces personal maps as a tool based on mind mapping, a visual brainstorming technique. The key idea is that when you start creating personal maps about your colleagues — it’s not an idea limited only to managers — you’ll quickly find out how little you really know about them. Who are they? What’s their backstory? And what do they really want? Now you know what to talk about.

It might seem a bit creepy and intrusive to ask people personal questions about themselves, but you’ll be surprised about the appreciation most people will have for questions asked with genuine interest. After all, don’t we all expose our inner thoughts, successes and failures on social media all the time in the hope of a like or retweet?

Personal Maps at My Workshops/Trainings

At my workshops, I use personal maps in a slightly different way. They are a tool for participants to introduce themselves to the group. Whereas traditional introductory sessions tend to put a lot of pressure on participants by putting them on the spot to share something interesting about themselves, I’ve opted for the maps.

Instead of people talking about themselves, often scrambling for words and sometimes unable to stop and just rambling on, I invite participants to draw a small personal map. They begin with their name in the middle of an A3 paper and work outwards from there. They are asked to write abstract statements related to categories like: family, education, interests etc. to encourage questions from the other participants. They can make their maps as abstract, extensive and creative as they want (see mine below, taken from my slidedeck).

Personal Maps

This is where using personal maps differs from more traditional forms of introductions. Instead of participants coming to the front, face a group of strangers, and talk about themselves (with the aforementioned risk of them going on forever), they simply display their maps and it’s up to the other group members to ask compelling questions, using the prompts they see.

Because the participants chose the prompts they wrote down themselves, they’ve thought about the stories that lie behind them. This makes it a lot easier to talk about themselves and so everyone will get to know each other much more in depth within the given time-frame than they would otherwise.

Experience has taught me that the maps also lead to engaging conversations between workshop participants long after the introductory session. The glimpses given into one’s personal life via the maps often create an interest leading to genuine questions about a person’s background during coffee breaks or lunch. As mentioned earlier, most people appreciate questions asked with genuine interest and happily share more about themselves.

All in all, whether used to learn more about your colleagues or as an ice-breaker introduction exercise at a workshop, Personal Maps prove to be a valuable tool for people to better get to know, and thus better understand, each other.

[T]here you are.


Appelo, J. (2016). Personal Maps in Managing for happiness (pp. 39-58). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Appelo, J. (2017). Management 3.0 Employee Engagement Exercises. Management 3.0. Retrieved 11 June 2017, from

Philosopher-in-Residence | Executive Coach | Workshop Facilitator
Reading great thinkers, thinking deep thoughts, and whiling away the days surrounded by books, a hot mug of coffee, and some inspiring jazz in the background.

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