Systems Mapping Cautions

A systems map is a useful means of visualizing connections between ideas, actors, institutions, and activities. Systems maps can be designed using many different conventions and methods, but the basics are the same. The point of mapping systems is to get a lot of information on a single page.

System maps can help generate insight into patterns that influence behaviour and outcomes. In short: they help us see things better.

A system map is also a potential trap. Maps can lead us into false beliefs about the subject of systems and what the real system is. It’s much like the Buddhist phrase about the finger pointing to the moon: we confuse the system map for the system itself.

Luke Craven, a designer and systems consultant, has remarked on the paradoxes found in system mapping. Among these paradoxes are the tendency toward generating a single, over-arching map. This article reminds us of many conventions we recommend in using system maps.

System Map Suggestions

  1. Diversity in Form. Systems Thinking has many different schools of thought and systems mapping often follows conventions generated from these schools. These forms or conventions are the visual languages of the system. For example, System Dynamics emphasizes causal loops and stocks-and-flows. Social Networks use nodes and links to represent a system.
  2. Awareness of Form. Merging forms together can be useful but must be done mindfully. When we deviate from a convention, we violate certain rules (while creating opportunities). A systems mapper needs to be aware of what is lost and gained when using multiple visual forms. Hybrid maps require coherence to be useful.
  3. Volume. Multiple maps using multiple forms can generate insights that can’t be found when using a singular approach. It’s important to create the time and space to generate multiple maps. Too often we find organizations fail to do this.
  4. Validation. Every map reflects the map-maker. Thus, the more map-makers involved the more the map reflects the diversity of the system and different realities. Show your maps – in any form – to others. Feedback is fuel for system diagrams.
  5. Continuation. A system map’s value changes over time. It’s important to recognize that as the context changes, so does the map’s utility. We recommend updating and revisiting a map over the life of the project.

Map-making can be a powerful way to learn, explore, and illuminate relationships and patterns in a system. It is because maps are so powerful that we must be cautious in making them.

Good map-making requires thoughtful consideration to what a map is and how it is to be used. When you have done this, you have a remarkable pathway for shaping change.

If you want to make system maps and see what they can do for your organization, contact us. We will help you chart a path toward insight and impact.

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