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How to Make Systems Mapping More Accessible

Systems thinking is a far more accessible approach than you might think. People are often discouraged from applying it because they equate it with drawing very complex systems maps. They are further deterred by their assumptions that useful maps take a long time to develop and are then hard to make sense of or act upon. The purpose of this post is to make mapping more accessible to funders, institutional leaders, and consultants by answering six questions:

  1. What is the purpose of a systems map?
  2. What is the primary value of a systems map?
  3. Who are the best mappers?
  4. How detailed does a good map need to be?
  5. How long does it take to build a useful map?
  6. Should maps show problems, solutions, or both?

We’ll answer these questions by distinguishing principles and practices of effective map-making from common misunderstandings that tend to get in the way. These are all shown in the following table:

QuestionsMisunderstandingsPrinciplesPractices
Purpose?Systems maps are designed to capture complete systems.Effective maps provide answers to focusing questions (beginning with “Why?”) instead of depict whole systems.Help stakeholders align around a “Why?” they want to answer, e.g. “Why have we been unable to achieve this goal or solve that problem, often despite our best efforts?” The question establishes boundaries for a useful analysis.
Value?The primary value of map-making is in the map itself. Maps provide definitive solutions to chronic, complex problems.The process of map-making is as important as the map itself. Maps are effective because they catalyze productive conversations about root causes of problems. Furthermore, they stimulate a viewpoint of personal responsibility for these problems as well as for their solutions. Finally, they provide hypotheses about how to move forward.Use maps as tools to stimulate collective curiosity, heightened awareness, personal responsibility, and continuous learning.
Who?The best mappers are objective observers of something “out there” that needs to change.The best mappers are part of the system they want to change.Engage a professional initially to help people in the system create a map. Encourage the people in the system to view themselves as part of the problem so they are more empowered to be part of the solution.
How
detailed?
The more comprehensive and detailed the map, the more useful it is.Effective maps make a situation’s complexity in Einstein’s words “as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Maps based on recurrent systems archetypes (classic stories) tend to be easy to understand and incorporate sufficient complexity.Use your map to tell a human story which distills why people’s well-intentioned efforts have been insufficient to achieve desired results. Build the map as a storyboard using archetypes where possible.
How
long?
Comprehensive maps take months to build.Useful maps can be developed in a matter of weeks or even days.Plan for a process of map-making that involves sufficient time for engaging and building ownership by key stakeholders. This process requires many conversations that take more time than the actual map-making.
Show?It’s okay to combine maps that explain problems with those that identify solutions.The first leverage point in shifting a system is deepening people’s understanding of why a problem persists despite their best efforts to solve it. Therefore, it is best to establish a map of current reality before creating a map that shows how people want the system to evolve.First, help people fully appreciate why the problem has persisted and their personal responsibility, however unwitting, for perpetuating it. Once they have fully absorbed these insights, help them develop maps of how the system could perform better.

Remember: it’s not what the map is, it’s what the map does. The next time you consider systems mapping, use the practices described in the right-hand column to get effective results.

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