System Mapping for You

What is a System Map and why should I care?

Global reach, massive diversity, fast pace of change, interconnection, interdependence, unintended consequences, surprise, disruption . . . How many ways can we describe the unpredictability and confusion we face today?  It would be easy to feel hopeless and helpless in the midst of this chaotic change, but you have options. Simple tools help you see patterns in the chaos around you, understand those patterns in helpful ways, and take decisive action, even when you don’t know what the consequences will be. In our 2013 book, Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization, we share theory and practice for engaging with complex, emergent environments.  

What is a system mapA system map is another tool that supports decision making and action taking in complexity. We think of a system as a collection of parts that are connected to form a whole. A bicycle is a system, so is a human body, a community, and an assembly line. In complex systems, there are so many parts, and the connections are so subtle, it is hard to understand how the system works or to know how to influence its future. When you are confused about what a system is or how to interact with it, a map of a system helps you:

  • Identify the pieces that form the systems puzzle of your environment.
  • Define how those pieces connect with each other to form the interdependent system.
  • Find ways to change the parts and/or connections to create real, sustainable, systemic change.

Experts use many different kinds of complicated tools to map everything from global conflict to supply chains and family dynamics, but not all mappers are expert, and not all maps are complicated. We have created System  Mapping for You to help you use simple mapping processes to see, understand, and influence the complex systems that surround you.

What do I need to map a system?

Four things will help you make useful system maps.

First, you need some way to record your map. It doesn’t really matter what you use. Mark in sand with sticks. Place objects on a table in relation to each other. Write shapes and arrows on paper. Use a computer program to capture objects and their relationships. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you have some way to take the understanding of the system’s parts and relationships out of your head and represent them so that others can see what you are thinking. Anything will work, but in this guide, we assume you are working with:

  • Big sheets of paper
  • Pens of different colors
  • Sticky notes of different sizes and colors

Second, you need a group of people to map with you. While you can “go it alone,” your map will be much more useful if it includes the systems intelligence of many people, rather than just one. As you build the map together, others will add their perspectives, give you ideas you didn’t have, reveal new information, and challenge your old assumptions. An old systems saying is that the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” and this is definitely true when you map with others. What you learn in mapping and what you see in a map will be much, much more informative if it emerges from the sum of many parts.

Third, you need to prepare for Adaptive Action by:

  • Asking for what is “agreed or not” and what is “useful or not.” Don’t ask what is “right” or “wrong” in the map. No map is ever completely correct, but many of them might be useful.
  • Representing a perspective of a group of people at one time and one place. Another group, time, and place will create a different map for their own use.
  • Mapping a problem or question, don’t try to map the whole environment. The problem is complicated enough. If you try to capture the world, you will soon be overcome with detail.
  • Staying unstuck. If you feel yourself or the group going in circles or simply stuck, step back, take a breath, and shift your focus to a different question about a different part of the map.
  • Focusing on influence, not understanding. The purpose of mapping is to inform wise action for individuals and groups. When the map is detailed enough to inform action and identify major risks, it is detailed enough. Stop mapping and start acting.
  • Creating maps with partners, not showing them finished maps. You can show a finished map to others, but don’t be surprised if they don’t understand. Instead, invite them to map their own picture of reality.
  • Mapping the current situation, because that is what you know. You create a future map by making specific changes to objects and/or connections in the present system, and seeing how the rest of the system responds.
  • Using your passion and responsibility. All action is first person—you have to do it yourself or you and your group will do it together. Your system map will not be useful at all if it tells someone else what you wish they would do.
  • Working in the present to influence the future—the past is important, but you act in the present. Your system mapping process and product will not be useful if it focuses on what has gone before. Keep your focus on today’s potential for tomorrow’s action. We say, “Action is present future.”  Placing blame for past actions may be perfectly true, but it is not useful. Your most useful question is what you can do NOW to move the system to a better place tomorrow. 
  • Never stay stuck!  If you find yourself unable to move forward down a particular path, choose a different path. Consider one or more of the following options:
    • Explore the nature of the stuckness.  Do you need more information?  Is there a fundamental misunderstanding or disagreement? Are assumptions not fit to reality? Let the nature of the challenge inform your path forward.  
    • Put a big question mark (?) on that spot that has you stuck, and go to another part of the map that is not controversial.
    • Rip up the map and start over, maybe some underlying assumption needs to be changed.
    • Flip a coin to pick one possible path. If it doesn’t work you can always come back and choose the other.
    • Create a second (or third or fourth) map that includes the alternative explanation. You can test them all and see which is most useful.

Fourth, you need a simple, straightforward process.

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