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.
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
Mind Maps
Actor Maps
Journey Maps
Value Chain Maps
Causal Loop Diagram
Stock and Flow Diagram
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.
Mind maps can help us identify key ideas, and organize them. They help us see a group of ideas in a hierarchy that also shows their relationships with one another. This is a useful visual tool for brainstorming and validating understanding of the system. Preliminary issues maps are often created or discussed as mind maps.
Example of a mind map. Source:
For more information on mind mapping you can visit:
Actor maps show which individuals and/or organizations are key players in the space, how they influence the problem and one another. They are often the second type of system map a lab will develop.
Actor maps help us answer the questions of who has influence on the problem, who is impacted by the problem, what changes to which influences might help solve the problem.
Actor maps provide data for stakeholder mapping. Stakeholder maps help us answer the questions of who is important to the success of solving the problem, how and when we need to engage them. For more information on stakeholder mapping click the link below:
You may sometimes see actor maps and stakeholder maps mentioned interchangeably. Strictly speaking, they have different purposes and answer different questions.
See the FSG Guide to Actor Mapping for steps in developing an actor map:
A system journey map shows how different users and stakeholders experience the system through multiple possible pathways. System journey maps help to:
  • Uncover and build shared mental models about how and why users perceive and experience a system differently, where the system's objectives are supported, and where they are not.
  • Surface key assumptions, potential gaps of understanding and uncertainties about user and stakeholder behaviours.
  • Identify opportunities for further investigation into gain creators, pain relievers, barriers or gaps.
Substance Use Treatment Journey Map. BC Patient Safety & Quality Council, 2018-01-04.
A user journey map shows the experience of a user through one particular pathway of using a service or product. These maps are rich in information, showing multiple dimensions of the user experience at each touchpoint on the journey. You can read more about user journey maps in the Design Research section:
A customer journey map. Source: Polaine, Løvlie, & Reason, 2013. Service Design: From Insight to Implementation. New York: Rosenfeld Media.
Value chain maps focus on where and how value is created, extracted and destroyed in the system. They also:
  • Identify key actors, conditions and issues
  • Model how the actors, conditions and issues, and their connections affect the value chain
  • Surface key assumptions, potential gaps of understanding and uncertainties
  • Identify potential points of intervention and levers of change
See more about Value Chains in the link below:
Or here, on Global Value Chains:
Causal loop diagrams focus on explicating the feedback loops (positive and negative) that lead to system behavior or functioning.
For more on causal loop diagrams, visit:
Stock and flow diagrams model the causal structures that produce behaviors, or the system dynamics. They are the foundations of simulating or modeling systems.
Source: CLExchange,

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.