Working with and especially changing complex systems is difficult. Systems Mapping makes this challenging task easier. Systems maps visualise the components and relationships that make up complex systems.
The main application for systems mapping is finding places and ways to intervene to move complex system towards the desired state. Other applications are impact assessment, communication of complexity and the coordination of tasks within complex systems.
Systems mapping is a versatile method that can be used in many contexts, from personal, to organisational to societal challenges. From diversity and inclusion, over the circular economy of solar panels to the ability of organisations to learn and adapt.
Systems maps come in all shapes and sizes. What they look like depends on the people they are made by and for and the purpose for which they were made.
You might have heard the saying: All models are wrong, but some are useful. That also applies for systems maps. They are not an exact representation of a system, but they help us to think and talk about complex systems and develop strategic interventions, to move the system towards the desired state.
Below I describe many aspects of systems mapping.
You can read through them step by step or jump directly to what you are looking for.
Benefits of Systems Mapping
Connect sources of information
While working on complex projects, we can easily find ourselves with a jumble of information and it becomes difficult to understand how these pieces of information are connected to each other. Systems mapping brings all these pieces of information together in one place and allows us to draw connections and see how elements influence each other.
Gain overview and see the structure of the system
Sometimes while working on complex projects, we can feel a bit powerless and like we are lost between the trees and "can't see the forest because of all the trees". Systems mapping helps to gain back that overview, making it easier to see the structure of the system.
Combine perspectives and build a shared understanding
With complex challenges, every one individual only has a partial view of the system. Systems mapping allows us to bring these perspectives together and helps the group to build a shared understanding of the situation. Throughout this processes, conflicts are likely to be uncovered and can be discussed together, using the systems map as a framework for dialogue. This builds trust, an important foundation to taking action together.
Identify reinforcing interventions and cooperate to implement them
If individuals or groups come up with and carry out interventions independently from each other, there is a risk that these interventions will hinder each other. Systems mapping allows us to identify reinforcing interventions and makes it easier to cooperate to implement them.
The systems mapping process
Systems mapping is not a linear process, but includes many iterative steps. Still, it helps to distinguishing between the four main activities that we move between throughout a systems mapping project.
1. Define purpose
Every systems mapping project should start by defining a clear purpose for the project. This entails formulating a challenge question that specifies which variable within the system we want to change.
A clear purpose helps us to identify and motivate stakeholders, design the following steps in a way that is fit for purpose and evaluate the success of the project at each step. Throughout the process, we will frequently check back in with the purpose to help us make the right decisions.
2. Gather information
In order to create a systems map, we need to gather the information that we will visualise in the map. We can get our information from many different sources, from books over stakeholder interviews and workshops to experiments. Usually we will combine multiple information sources in a systems map, to make our understanding of the system as diverse and complete as possible.
The information gathering process can also meet additional needs, such as supporting the connection and trust between stakeholders and fostering feelings of ownership and responsibility. Important foundations for taking action together.
3. Structure information
Once we have gathered information, we need to draw connections between elements and structure the information in a way that makes it easy to recognise patterns.
We will usually go through multiple cycles of gathering and structuring information, using the systems map to guide and support further exploration.
4. Draw conclusions and plan actions
Once the systems map is sufficiently complete, we can begin to search for places to intervene in the system, think about corresponding ways to intervene and plan how to carry out and coordinate the implementation of these interventions.
We need to remember that the intended outcome of a systems mapping project is not the systems map itself, but the insights on where and how we can intervene, in order to move the system towards the desired state.
We use the systems map to support communication throughout the systems mapping process, for example:
To help us to, together with key stakeholders within the system, identify the main variable we want to influence and formulate the challenge question. To communicate the purpose to others and motivate them to participate in the mapping project. To guide the conversation in information gathering workshops or help us formulate questions for interviews. To communicate the insights and needed actions to people who were not involved in the mapping process.
When is Systems Mapping the right method to use?
Systems mapping is a very versatile method, but of course it is not the right method for every challenge. The flowchart below helps you to determine if systems mapping is the right method for your challenge.
Four types of applications for systems mapping
The goal of this type of systems mapping project is to find places and determine ways to intervene, in order to change the state of their goal variable within the system.
Goal variables could for example be the level of diversity and inclusion within an organisation, the number of homeless people in a city, the water quality of a lake or the productivity of an organisation.
For systems mapping projects of this type, people generally know what needs to happen to move their goal variable in the desired direction, but they lack the overview needed to coordinate tasks effectively.
The goal of a systems mapping project of this type is therefore to create a visualisation that allows to optimise the coordination of processes and resource flows in a system.
The goal of this type of systems mapping project is to determine what the potential impact of changes to elements of the system is.
For example the impact of rising temperatures on the frequency of extreme weather events. The impact of online schooling on the mental health of children. The impact of a new policy on the competitiveness of an organisation
For systems mapping projects of this type, the person carrying out the project knows what needs to happen to move their goal variable in the desired direction, but they need to help others to understand what needs to be done and why, in order to get them on board for the implementation .
The goal of a systems mapping project of this type is therefore to create a visualisation that helps to communicate the reasons for the needs for specific interventions to others.
Application examples for systems mapping
The method of systems mapping can be applied in many different contexts and at different scales. From challenges within a team, a department, a whole organisation, to partnerships and governments and from inclusion and diversity, over freshwater ecology to the circular economy of solar panels.
Many of the systems maps I am involved in making are confidential, but here are a few examples I can share with you:
What are the challenges of systems mapping?
Systems mapping makes many aspects of working with complexity easier, but of course, the method also comes with its own challenges. Below you see some examples of challenges we have to face throughout a systems mapping project.
How I can support you
Learn systems mapping in a five week live online course, with a group of maximum 15 peers.
Custom Group Training
Learn systems mapping in a custom training for your group or team.