Systems Mapping

This section is about the methods and tools that can help us make sense of the ‘mess’ of complex problems, and uncover important relationships that control how the system 'behaves'.

Defining Systems Mapping

Systems mapping is a set of methods and tools to help us make sense of the ‘mess’ of complex problems, through maps of important relationships. A system map is a living hypothesis to help us guess where to intervene in a system in order to change the sum of what is happening; the outcomes. Systems maps can help us identify leverage points.

Leverage points are the places in the system where, like a lever, small, well-focused actions can produce significant, lasting improvements.

Leverage Points

A systems map is a representation of our collective understanding of why a system behaves the way it does, and how it can be changed. It is the shared understanding of the interdependencies between inputs, outputs/ outcomes, issues, trends, drivers and actors.

Systems maps come in many shapes and forms; what you will be using it for, and the questions you want to answer with it will determine which type of systems map to use. It’s important to strike a balance between mapping the detailed complexity and making it simple enough to be useful, at the right time to use it. Remember, it's a living map (not a static one) and will change over time.

Examples and Resources

Here are some examples below of different systems mapping approaches.

Issues maps present key (ecosystem) issues affecting the complex problem. These are often the first or second system map to be developed in the lab process. You may sometimes hear people refer to them as 'brain dump' maps.

Example of conducting an issues map (in this case, a STEEPV map, mapping issues related to Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Values types of issues).

Issues maps help to:

  • Identify key issues, contributing issues, and drivers in the system

  • Surface how partners and stakeholders prioritize issues, and their assumptions of what is important

  • Surface potential gaps of understanding

  • Form preliminary mental models of grouping issues in the system

  • Identify potential points of focused research and ways to frame the problem/challenge

Tips for Issues Mapping:

  • Start with a well-defined scope that is understood by everyone participating in the issues mapping, e.g. keeping in mind scope of constituencies, geography, time etc.

  • Use an externalities or trends framework to help stimulate ideas, e.g. STEEPV (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, Political, Values), PESTLE (Political, Ecological, Socio-Cultural, Technological, Economic, Legal), or VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity)

  • Focus on generating useful questions not solutions

  • Focus on uncovering shared understanding and surfacing disagreement, not right or wrong answers

Instructions: How to conduct an issues map

1) Identify the challenge statement Write down the challenge statement for your complex problem in the centre of a worksheet/flipchart. Try to be concise, but not too narrow in your description (defining the right problem scope is important in not going too broad or too narrow).

You can refer to the 'Challenge Statements' section to assist you with this process.

2) Identify key issues Brainstorm and describe the key issues that affect/contribute to that challenge. Make it concise. 3) Identify potential drivers Discuss what the drivers are behind each key issue. Write each driver down on the map. 4) Team discussion Discuss the relationships between key issues and drivers with your team, by drawing lines and linkages between them. Drivers can be linked to multiple issues. Identify any possible sub-issues that contribute to your problem but are not on the map yet. Write them down on the map and connect them with key issues and/or drivers. Try to be clear on how certain you are about the relationships and linkages, how strong (and resistant to change) they are.

Key Tools

MindMup is “free, online mind mapping”.

Kumu is “a powerful data visualization platform that helps you organize complex information into interactive relationship maps.”

Insight Maker is “a powerful simulation tool that runs right in your web browser”. It’s also free. It lets you express your thoughts using rich pictures and causal loop diagrams. It then lets you turn these diagrams into powerful simulation models.

Vensim PLE is the de facto software for learning system dynamics modelling.

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