Map the System

Systems mapping is a powerful tool for understanding and visualizing a system’s complex interrelationships and dynamics. The “system” can be anything from an organization to a social issue, a market, and everything in between. By visually representing the components of the system and their interactions, systems mapping provides a holistic view of the entire system. This holistic perspective enables us to identify patterns, leverage points, and potential impacts of changes within the system. Additionally, systems mapping requires extensive dialogue, which creates a shared understanding of the challenge. As such, it offers valuable insights for decision-making, strategy development, and innovation. Systems mapping can be a game-changer for anyone navigating complex environments or challenges, turning complexity from a hurdle into a resource.

As a best practice, collaborate and co-create with the network to map the system. However, a core team will need to decide the level of resources dedicated to systems mapping and how extensively involved the whole network will be in the process. Here are a few practical steps for thinking about systems mapping:

This step is crucial, or there will be no clear indication of where and when to stop mapping. When this step is not done well, it leads to “analysis paralysis.” This step can also be difficult and confusing for teams. The definition of the system may be influenced by powerful stakeholders, donor priorities, etc. It can become political, so you’ll need a strong facilitator.

There are many tools you can use to map systems. The difficulty of these methods can depend on many factors, including the mapped system’s complexity, data availability, and the skills and experience of the people involved. Your goal should be to choose the most suitable methods for your specific context and objectives. Here are a few examples, along with a few of their pros and cons. Some of these might require expert facilitation.

Consider the expertise needed to guide the network: This is often the most accessible method for beginners. It involves identifying and understanding the interests and influences of various actors within a system. While it requires careful thought and consideration, it doesn’t involve complex diagramming or specialist software.

  • What is it?

Used to identify and understand the various actors within a system and their roles, interests, and influences.

Lays the groundwork for understanding the system’s complexities and dynamics.

  • Pros
  • Provides actionable information for engagement, communication, and collaboration.
  • Helps identify potential risks and conflicts of interest among stakeholders.
  • By identifying all relevant stakeholders, it ensures that diverse perspectives are considered and included in the decision-making process, leading to more equitable outcomes.
  • Helps prioritize stakeholders and decide whom to connect with and when.
  • Cons
  • The process involves a degree of subjectivity, particularly in assessing stakeholders’ interests and influences, which could introduce bias.
  • Stakeholders’ interests and influences can change over time, so the analysis must be updated regularly to remain accurate.·       There’s a risk of overlooking non-traditional or less obvious stakeholders, such as those indirectly affected by the project or system.

Consider the expertise needed to guide the network: This process involves tracing a problem back to its source. It’s more complex than stakeholder analysis as it requires understanding the chain of events that lead to an issue. Still, it’s often intuitive as it mirrors how we naturally think about problems and solutions.

  • What is it?

Used to identify the fundamental cause or causes of a problem or issue.

Instead of simply addressing the symptoms of a problem, RCA digs deeper to understand the underlying factors that set the entire chain of events in motion.

  • Pros
  • It helps identify the underlying cause or causes of a problem rather than just addressing symptoms.
  • It can lead to more effective, long-term solutions by addressing the root cause.
  • Cons
  • It can be time-consuming and may require extensive investigation.
  • It can bias participants to focus on individual causes rather than systemic issues, limiting its effectiveness in complex systems.

Consider the expertise needed to guide the network: Challenge mapping builds on root cause analysis, which is easily understood by non-experts and participants.. However, it links critical systems thinking insights to design thinking prompts, which requires at least some fluency in both systems thinking and design thinking, in addition to strong facilitation skills.

  • What is it?

Used to identify, understand, and visually represent the complex challenges within a system.

Challenge Mapping encourages collaborative problem-solving by facilitating a shared understanding of challenges, their causes, and their potential solutions.

  • Pros
  • Encourages collaboration and collective understanding of the system.
  • Visual representation aids comprehension and communication of complex problems.
  • Can help uncover hidden or non-obvious relationships and challenges.
  • Directly translates challenges to “how might we?” questions, which provides a direct link to design thinking methods and co-creation
  • Cons
  • The quality of the map heavily relies on the knowledge and perspectives of the participants.
  • The complexity of the challenge map may make it hard to identify a clear path forward or prioritize interventions.

Consider the expertise needed to guide the network: These diagrams require a higher level of abstraction and systems thinking than the previous methods, as they involve identifying and visually representing the relationships between different system elements. However, they are more straightforward than causal loop diagrams as they don’t usually involve feedback loops.

  • What is it?

Used to depict the key elements within a system and the directional relationships between them. It helps clarify the influences and dependencies within a complex system, showing how one factor may impact another. This tool provides a high-level overview of the system’s components and interactions.

  • Pros
  • They provide a high-level overview of the factors at play in a system and how they interact.
  • They can simplify complex systems, making them easier to understand and communicate.
  • Cons
  • They may oversimplify relationships, failing to capture complex dynamics or feedback loops.
  • They may not clearly show the direction of influence, making it harder to identify leverage points.

Consider the expertise needed to guide the network: This approach requires a good understanding of network theory and often involves using specialized software. It can be challenging for non-experts, but it helps understand network relationships and flows.

  • What is it?

Used to examine and understand the relationships and structures within a network. It focuses on identifying connections, patterns, and the flow of information or resources among individuals, groups, or entities in a network. SNA is particularly useful when trying to understand complex social structures, identify influential actors, or uncover hidden patterns within a network.

  • Pros
  • It is a powerful tool for understanding relationships and influence within a network.
  • It can identify central actors, clusters, and gaps in a network, which can be valuable in developing interventions.
  • Cons
  • It can be resource-intensive, requiring substantial data collection and analysis.
  • It doesn’t provide information on the nature of relationships (e.g., positive or negative) or their dynamics over time.
  • The findings may not be surprising to a network that is already visible or well-known to each other.

Consider the expertise needed to guide the network: These are likely the most difficult for non-experts as they require a deep understanding of systems thinking concepts, particularly feedback loops. They involve creating a detailed, dynamic picture of a system which can be challenging without prior experience or training.

  • What is it?

Captures how different system components interact, often revealing feedback loops that can either reinforce or balance processes within the system. CLDs are particularly useful when dealing with complex systems where cause-and-effect relationships are not immediately apparent, helping to untangle these interdependencies.

  • Pros
  • They visually depict a system’s cause-effect relationships and feedback loops, making complex systems more understandable.
  • They can help identify non-linear relationships and patterns, including delays and indirect effects.
  • Cons
  • They can become overly complex when depicting large systems, making them hard to read.
  • They require a deep understanding of the system, which may only sometimes be feasible or accurate.
  • They will likely require expert facilitation.

Even if you expect a high degree of co-creation with the network to create the systems map, some background research, likely a combination of desk research and key informant interviews, can be helpful to inform and validate the systems map. Key informant interviews and desk reviews are also tools to ensure that your recruitment strategy has brought the right group together and that you are aware of critical stakeholders. Since some systems mapping tools are more complex and time-consuming, creating a draft map and iterating with the more extensive network is often best.

To begin the open innovation process, consider combining a systems mapping exercise with a kickoff event. There is often broad interest from various stakeholders in being involved in open innovation programs and challenges, and collaborative systems mapping can be a way to leverage that diverse interest and momentum.

Doing systems mapping in real-time with a large network and physical elements may seem elaborate, but it can yield “aha!” moments and spark dialogues that cannot be achieved without the process.  Read more about UNDP Accelerator Labs’ learning about integrating interactive systems mapping tools here.

“Physical tools tend to create a different type of engagement with the problem if for no other reason than it allows participants to ‘step’ into a space that defines critical structural elements of the issue they are working on. This tends to expose entry points and insights that might otherwise get buried in the pages of word documents.”

Once you’ve created the initial systems map, share it with the stakeholders for their input. Adjust the map based on their feedback to ensure it accurately represents the system. It’s also possible to have a representative group work on the systems map and validate it with the broader network. As you validate the map, be prepared to navigate different perspectives that may be equally valid.  

Example validation questions:

  • Is any additional explanation required for the cause and effect to be understood?
  • Is any additional explanation required for the cause and effect to be understood?
  • Is the connection between cause and effect convincing at “face value”?
  • Do parts of the map need more detail?
  • Where can we simplify the language?
  • What are the knowns, unknowns, and assumptions of the map?
  • What do you know to be true on this map?
  • What do you know to be untrue on this map?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • What assumptions are missing?

You can identify critical leverage points once you understand the system and its dynamics. These are places within a system where a slight shift in one thing can significantly change everything. To spot these areas of opportunity, you can ask:

  • Where is the system frozen? 
  • Where is there pent-up energy for change?
  • Where do you see bright spots? 
  • Where might there be ripple effects?

These answers will be the jumping-off point for the next step, Defining the Challenge.

Decisions that will set your direction

  • How will you define the system?
  • What systems mapping tools best suit the level of expertise and resources available?
  • How much of the co-creation of the systems map is needed to build a shared understanding of the issues system and opportunities across the network?

People you will need to find your way

  • Experts in systems thinking and mapping

At a minimum, the core team should have a solid grasp of systems thinking principles and some experience using more straightforward tools. Depending on the tools’ complexity, you may need to bring on short-term expertise or assistance to support the mapping exercise.

  • Strong facilitators

You’ll need to guide the group through the mapping process, which can be complex and may involve dealing with disagreements or confusion. You must explain complex concepts in simple terms and help participants collaborate effectively. Understanding and valuing diverse perspectives is crucial in systems mapping. You must create an inclusive environment where all participants feel heard and respected.

  • Researchers and Data Analysts

Depending on the methods used, you might need skills in data analysis to help design, collect, analyze, and interpret information about the system. You may need skilled qualitative interviewers to do key informant interviews beforehand.

Review your plan for these critical elements

  • Have you consulted with systems-thinking experts to help you choose the right tool for your purpose, timeline, and level of resources?
  • Have you clarified the system you are mapping and defined key terms?
  • Have you made a plan with your facilitator(s) to ensure diverse perspectives during the mapping process? Do you have a plan to elevate historically underrepresented or marginalized voices?
  • Does the team feel comfortable asking the network for this level of effort?

See the warning signs first

  • Poorly defined systems will lead to “analysis paralysis”!
  • The systems mapping process is complex, and the outputs are not always easy to translate into action. While valuable, the key is to balance acknowledging complexity with practical action.
  • Systems mapping often requires specialized knowledge and skills. It can also be time and resource intensive. Again, finding a balance to serve the needs of the network is critical.
  • Social Network Analysis may not be helpful if the network is relatively well known to each other already.
  • Some systems mapping tools require extensive data collection. The network or key informants may need more motivation and incentive to respond to lengthy surveys or inquiries.
  • Everyone involved in the process will bring their own biases and perspectives, influencing the final product. Be conscious of who is involved, who others consult, and who provides the most input.

These resources can help you on your journey

*These resources come from GKI’s Accelerating Innovation for Resilience Bangladesh program.

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