Illustrating action points within a complex system challenges evaluation users. Time to call on your friendly neighbourhood spidergram for help.
Visualizing complex systems is a challenge within strategy, foresight, and evaluation because each component of the system is interconnected with others. Influence on one of these is likely to influence others.
From an action standpoint, it’s easier to focus on one or two small parts of the system than tackle the entire system all at once. How do we reconcile this and provide a means to see the parts of the system without being reductionistic and neglecting the relationship with the whole?
One answer is: look to the spiderweb.
A spiderweb is a good entry-level metaphor for helping people see places they can take action within a system by creating distinctions between the parts (nodes, intersections) and the whole (branches, webs). There are two related, but different spiderweb models worth noting.
Spider Diagrams / Mindmaps
Spider diagrams (or spidergrams or mindmaps) are ways to connect ideas together through the branch-and-thread model akin to a spider’s web (hence the name). These are often called mindmaps and have been shown to facilitate learning about complex topics.
They enable the development of relationships between ideas and possible causal or associative pathways between ideas, concepts, or other data- or evidence-informed concepts. They also enable us to cluster related concepts together to identify sub-systems that may be more amenable to our intervention within the larger whole.
Spidergrams / Radar Diagrams
The other spider-related metaphor that is available to innovators and evaluators is the spidergram, sometimes called a Radar Chart or Spider Chart. These allow for the display of data collected along a scale presented alongside others that use a similar proportioned scale.
This hub-and-spoke model of data allows users to see a variety of performance indicators presented along a similar set of axes related to a common goal.
What this allows for is a view of performance across a variety of metrics simultaneously and can recognize how we make progress on one area often at the expense of another. Strategically, it can enable an organization to balance its actions and foci across a variety of key indicators at the same time.
This can be used with quantitative data such as the financial data above or social data, too.
Spidergrams/charts can also overlay data within the same domain (see example) providing even more depth into recurring or separated data points within the same topic or subsystem.
The web of engagement
What makes these tools powerful is that they display a lot of data at the same time in a manner that can facilitate engagement with a group of people tasked with making decisions. Visualizing data or systems brings the benefit of literally getting people’s focus on the same page.
People around a table can then literally point to the areas they are interested in, concerned with, do not understand, or wish to explore assumptions about.
Complex systems introduce a lot of data and a lot of confusion. Sensemaking through the use of visuals and the discussion that they encourage is one of the ways to reduce confusion and get more from your data to make better decisions.
If you’re stuck in the web of data and complexity, call on your friendly neighbourhood spidergram.
Want to learn more about how this can assist your innovation efforts? Contact us and we’ll gladly swing over and help (without the costume).