How to use the Salviati approach to business growth

What you notice most about the Salviati world map is what it doesn’t depict. Created in Spain around 1525 and named in honour of a cardinal, the map leaves large blank spaces for parts of the world not yet discovered. Where other maps guessed at what landmasses might exist, the Salviati map provoked explorers to actually find out.

As author of Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari puts it:

“The eye wanders south along the American coastline, until it peters into emptiness. Anyone looking at the map and possessing even minimal curiosity is tempted to ask, ‘What’s beyond this point?’ The map gives no answers. It invites the observer to set sail and find out.”

We are driven to fill gaps

The Salviati map taps into “completion bias” (a.k.a. endowed progress effect), or our desire to continue on a path once we are given a start. The map effectively gave its explorers a start and said, “the rest is up to you”.

A modern day study demonstrated the power of completion bias when recipients of a car wash loyalty card were found to be more likely to return when their card was pre-stamped with two washes (34%), than if they were given a blank card with the same number of stamps to get (19%).

Completion bias drives us to act because we don’t want to let go of what has already been accomplished. Sometimes this means we persevere when it may not make sense (for example, finishing a book or movie you don’t enjoy), but it can also mean we are encouraged to see things through.

The danger in completion

It’s one thing to drive towards completion, but what happens when we’ve made it? Completion has two behavioural downsides.  

First, when something is unfinished it creates cognitive tension. Our mind circles back to it, distracting us from other tasks. That may be a problem if you want to move on, but can be very useful if you want to remember something or keep an idea top of mind. As soon as you finish working it through your brain is likely to tick it off the ‘to do’ list. Once I’ve written this blog, for example, I won’t any longer be nagged by the idea to use the Salviati anecdote.

Second, because completing something resolves this nagging tension, it can make us feel good. That may encourage us to focus on achieving small, ‘quick win’ tasks rather than chipping away at larger, seemingly insurmountable ones.

Implications for you

In 1492 Columbus thought he’d reached East Asia when in fact he’d landed in the Bahamas. He was using a “complete” map based on erroneous assumptions, and couldn’t comprehend the landmass was not what he was looking for.

Like Columbus, in business we can be seduced by seemingly complete artefacts even though we may not really have the answers. A detailed slide pack, business strategy or spreadsheet can give a false sense of security and leave us vulnerable to being blindsided. Until we accept “I don’t know yet” or “I’ve changed my mind” from our leaders, colleagues and ourselves, we are complicit in maintaining the status quo and stymying curiosity, creativity and growth.

Tips for working with completion:

• Encourage customers and staff to proceed by giving them a kick-start and telling them they are further advanced than they think (“you’ve already done more than you think…”);

• For important decisions or plans, make a start but leave them unfinished for a time. That might mean deliberately leaving the final paragraph off a draft email or document so you will be keen to revisit it;

• If you have a to-do list, consider starting with a couple of easy tasks before quickly moving into more challenging, important tasks; and

• Promote a culture of Salviati maps. Energise yourself and your team by including plenty of scope for curiosity and exploration – that’s how you can discover new opportunities.

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