Do You Think in Compass Directions or Postcards?


Last week, at Agile 2007, I had a fascinating conversation about geography/directions with a colleague. I explained that I needed to visit someplace and walk or drive around until I really understood where everything was. He said, “Oh, you think in postcards.”

I can read a map, and write down directions. It all makes sense until I'm faced with reality. Sometimes, I can't quite see what he directions are telling me. (I think it's because of the greater Boston area. On one one-mile stretch of highway, you can be going South on 128, South on 95, North on 93. In reality, you're going southeast to east to east-northeast. There are no real grids in the Boston area.)

But realizing that I think in postcards (or at least, not directions), helps me understand how to approach other people when I want to give directions or explanations. If I'm talking to a compass direction person, a sequence might be the right way to start. If I'm talking to a postcard person, giving them the big picture might be the right way to start.

I was discussing this with Mark, who is a compass directions person. We compared how we learned to get around in Boston. He says, “Always keep the ocean on the east.” I say, “Always keep the ocean on the right.” He says he's able to manage his transitions to the west coast because the ocean is then on the west, but I always have the feeling the ocean is on the “wrong” side. (He laughed so hard, I thought he was going to have to stop driving.)

Giving directions is one small piece of life. I bet this difference is reflected in how we see how we transition from one area of the product to another (the GUI or architecture), how the code works, how to create tests, and especially how we manage the project portfolio in our organizations.

It doesn't matter that I'm a postcard person or not (although it's handy to know now). It does matter that we think differently, and understanding this difference helps me communicate better.

Labels: communications

3 Replies to “Do You Think in Compass Directions or Postcards?”

  1. I read something about this distinction a while ago. Women in general tend to be more postcard-directed and men tend to be more compass/map-directed.
    I read about an experiment, where they build up a maze with all kinds of pictures on the walls. Then they let men and women in to explore the maze for some time, until they could pretty much find their way around.
    Then they would exchange the pictures on the walls without altering the structure of the maze and watch how people coped. Women coped not very well. They find their way around by knowing information as: “Turn right at the yellow news stand”
    Men had no big trouble with that change, since they had a “map” of the structure of the maze in their head.
    I think on a second round they even changed the structure of the maze, but left the picture-clues somehow “in sync”. Of course now the men were lost and the women had less trouble.
    I think I read about this in:
    Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps: How We’re Different and What to Do About It by Allan Pease and Barbara Pease.
    Overall a bad book. But a 20 page summary would contain some interesting information. All the rest in the book is just clutter and repetition.

  2. What I’ve also discovered, is how important the sun is to navigation. I’m from the southern hemisphere (New Zealand) and spent a month in the States in July, including 4 nights in Boston. The number of times I would look at a map, understand where I was and needed to get to, and then walk or drive 180 degrees in the wrong direction was uncanny!
    I’ve figured out it’s because I’m attuned to the sun and warmth being to the north of me. Even though I consciously know it’s reversed in the Northern Hemisphere, unconsciously I would go where my body told me was the right direction. And be wrong. And have to resort to asking my wife directions 😉

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