Systems Maps: Cautions and Consequences

Systems maps are useful for visualizing connections between ideas, actors, institutions, and activities. They are a means to showcasing relationships and boundaries: the things that make social life — community, markets, learning, ideas — what it is.

Systems maps can be designed using many different conventions and methods, but the basics are pretty similar. The point of mapping systems is to get a lot of information on a single page. By illustrating these abstract ideas into a space they create a frame that allows us to narrow our vision and see patterns that are too difficult when they are simply floating in our heads or in our words.

System maps can help generate insight into patterns that influence behaviour and outcomes. 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 actual, 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. His article reminded me of the recommended conventions I use in discussing system maps with clients and students.

System Map Suggestions

I’ve five suggestions for anyone looking to develop and use system maps in their work.

  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. Study the language and it can help you communicate clearly.
  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 within the same space. Hybrid or synthesis 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 in creating the map the more the products reflect 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 me at Cense. I can help you chart a path toward some insight and options. This post is based on an earlier version posted on the Cense Learning blog.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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