When Aldo and I talk, it can feel as if we’re the only ones who really get what the other is grappling with – which has fueled our continued conversation long after our initial interview. We share a passionate vision about how the kinds of maps we build can make the efforts of change-makers & systems-shifters far more impactful. We each have a conviction about how the visual medium for grappling with complexity, combined with collective sense-making conversations can be a powerful pattern-shifter. And we also share frustration over the challenges inherent in the work we do and in trying to develop this new paradigm that is still too abstract for most people.
But what makes what we have in common even more cool is how we’ve pursued our passion and worked through the inherent challenges from very different angles, so that we have a lot to offer one another.
For me – it’s been a challenge of technology. I had this grand vision of ‘systems of connection’ and ‘the system waking up to itself’ being facilitated through a kind of mapping that existed in my mind. But the tools needed to support that connecting/system-seeing/sense-making capacity still hadn’t been developed, or parts were missing, or they were aimed in a very different direction. I wanted to get those maps out of my mind and into the world, to democratize what I could sense those maps could catalyze, to enable everyone to have access to the tools so that they could make their own maps and gain their own system-level insights. For me, the initial challenge was technical. There were technical hurdles I wanted to bring down.
But as we begin to lower those hurdles, the need for more, better, new process grows more and more apparent and crucial in my mind.
And luckily, Aldo has been busy developing a powerful process that meets the need I’m now seeing. We’ve been working toward the same vision, but Aldo’s been working on the process structure (or "ontology"), while I’ve been making tools. It’s been a gift - to me - to learn from Aldo, for us to develop a friendship, and to continue to explore how to bring our shared vision into the world.
I can’t do justice here to Aldo’s depth of experience & expertise, but I’m honored that he’s shared some of his process insights with me and is letting me share it with you.
CommunitySensor: Four Mapping Process Phases
In his work, Aldo focuses on collaborative community networks. Aldo’s mapping practice isn’t a rigid set of steps & methods. It’s not meant to overtake or colonize the community network's existing collaboration processes. He says mapping should latch onto those existing collaboration & development processes and catalyze them.
At the heart of the CommunitySensor methodology is the Community Network Development Cycle, consisting of an iterative, increasingly impactful cycle of Community Network stages - Mapping-Sensemaking-Building-Evaluation. Still, there is also a series of phases the CommunitySensor methodology typically proceeds through for it to organically take root in a community network, which he calls Scoping, Seed Mapping, Starting to Make Sense, and Embedding.
For each phase, Aldo identifies key ‘products’ and key ‘sources’.
Products are what is generated by the end of the phase.
Sources are the inputs used to generate the products.
Phase 1) Scoping: defining the context
Scoping is About Discovering the Conditions for Finding Common Ground and Creating Ownership and Legitimacy
We could view Aldo’s process as nothing more or less than an ongoing and reiteratively-visualized series of collective conversations about the collaboration eco-system. A conversation that starts with discovering ‘what does this collection of entities need to build common ground, that it doesn’t already have?’
Before he can produce anything, Aldo needs to deeply understand the community network through engaging in depth with the project team. What is the purpose of the mapping? Is it to support conference facilitation? To help develop networked communities of practice? To find common ground around "wicked problems"?
Who are the key stakeholders? What are the different cultures, sensitivities and ways of working? What processes are they're already using. What are their needs? What collective problems are they trying to solve? What outside support do they need? He learns everything he can about his client’s community network's differences, problems, needs, current processes, tools, language and patterns.
It’s is also about understanding the sources of information they already have and what needs to be acquired. How will mapping data be gathered? How will they make sure that the data are valid & meaningful and legitimately represent the interests of the community network as a whole? What functionalities in Kumu are relevant for their sensemaking processes? And beyond Kumu, what other tools are or will be part of their knowledge ecosystem. How will they use and communicate the maps?
Phase 1 ties the collaboration specifics to generic collaboration patterns
The underlying objective of all these conversations is to discover the most appropriate collaboration patterns (and the nature of the processes in which to make them come alive).
This universal metapattern is one of the most generic collaboration patterns conceivable. The art of the scoping stage is to define relevant collaboration patterns - variations on such generic patterns that match the specific characteristics of the community network at hand. Mapping without thinking through what one is doing can obscure those significant collaboration patterns with too much noise or poor structure, which undermines their relevance. On the other hand, maps that are grounded in such patterns are more meaningful and help enable sense-making by focusing conversations. That requires us to know what to look for and how to look for it and to design accordingly.
So, throughout the CommunitySensor Scoping phase, Aldo’s surfacing the collaboration patterns - because those are what will define the map’s architecture and make a map that can be read and understood. But at the same time, the collaboration patterns have to materialize in the reality of the map - because abstractions by themselves are useless (the ecosystem map itself is abstraction enough!).
The patterns to surface are both linguistic and visual - especially relative to mapping: What kinds of elements need to be mapped, what types of connections, what views are needed to help the community make sense of what is its essence?
Phase 1 Products include:
a) conditions for collaboration - rich interactions, deep listening, shared understanding, trust. And a beginning sense of navigating in complexity, and
b) a shared language that contextualizes the metapatterns of collaboration, as they currently exist within the organization / community / network. The specifically-languaged patterns that will define the architecture of the map to be developed.
Phase 1 Sources are:
Key "spiders in the web" people in the network, strategic documentation, and lots of conversations.
Phase 2) Seed mapping: the collaboration quickscan
In Phase 2, Aldo produces a ‘seed map’ through a "collaboration quickscan". The seed map previews the map’s ‘architecture’, or ‘structure’, and contains key elements, key connections, and key views. By providing a concrete snapshot of the community network around a typical problem or issue it is working on, it demonstrates the essence of what the community network is about, as it were. It can then become the starting point for the sensemaking activities in phase 3.
Phase 2 also entails exploring and processing more sources of information, including existing operational data, documents, proposals, etc. And at the same time, his exploratory conversations start to range more broadly, from the core members in the project team out to other nodes in the web of interactions.
The seed map contains real data that has real meaning and value within the community, but it’s not the full map of the territory - it’s only an approximation, a sketch of some relevant piece of it that its members currently particularly care about Including too much up front would just exacerbate the initial experience for viewers.
The Seed Mapping phase represents and tests Aldo’s synthesis of all he’s learned consulting the community network, , and it gives its members a beginning place for learning to read and sense-make the visualizations.
What emerges from seed mapping, if done well, may often still seem messy at first sight – creating the challenge mappers always face - the hazard of overwhelming everyone. Within limits, however, this complexity serves a purpose:
In mapping, we have the challenge and responsibility to recognize, represent, and help people see into the tension between the whole and the parts – and to design like trainers & facilitators in systemic thinking. Key is therefore to - together with the core community members - define relevant views on that collaboration ecosystem map that makes the map manageable and actionable to them.
Phase 2 Products include: conditions that help the membership learn to read these kinds of maps, and a meaningful seed map for them to start with.
Phase 2 Sources are: conversations with hubs outside of the inner core, operational documentation
Phase 3) Sensemaking: interpreting the map
Aldo builds the seed map around a main theme that’s hot within the network - where there is a lot of confusion or contention or frustration. Then he leverages that energy through the seed map, to kickstart the sensemaking phase. Seed mapping discussions naturally ripple out into focused Sensemaking Meetings. He meets with key people and convenes small groups around particular angles and views. With them, he compares what they already know & have documented with what is represented in the map. The process expands outward to include the rest of the community network, and connects additional themes, actors, actions, challenges, etc. & connections to the map.
Interactive activities for phase 3 could include a single large gathering or could consist of more interviews & smaller workshops. During this phase, Aldo works with a facilitator who is part of the community - who has their trust, speaks their language, knows the domain. The facilitator leads the discussion, while Aldo works in the background, showing relevant views and manually adding elements to the map as the sensemaking proceeds. During the convening, the map is projected live on a large screen to help focus the conversation and enable community interaction with Aldo’s map-making process.
Such sessions often start by going divergent, dumping everything on the table, piling on an abundance of interpretations and missing content, adding everyone’s points of view and issues surfaced by looking at the map. Aldo says this creates meaningful context for being able to arrive at consensus on what next actions to take.
This divergence is messy & much of it often seems insignificant - but it ensures that everyone is heard, that the process is fair, and that everyone learns things they didn’t already know, or now realize mattered to someone else. And sometimes what seemed insignificant at first turns out to be a crucial new learning a little further on - or in some future iteration of the process way down the road.
Having diverged, they then converge - on ‘common issues, priorities, and what’s the next things we can do together?’, ‘Where do we already see common ground?’. Those items get highlighted in the map - they become the key items for organizing around.
Phase 3 often includes what Aldo calls a 'Gap Analysis”:
By enabling a visual 'what is' comparison to what 'could or should be', mapped gap-analysis has a different kind of power than a pure visioning exercise, because the picture of the forces and actors at play in any specific context gives more insight into the counter-forces so we can make better-informed choices.
By the end of the sensemaking phase, the community can use the map to set an action agenda, and to define the next steps that have emerged from their sensemaking process. They can start to use the map for navigation and for evaluation of their collaboration. Ideally, this process is then continued as part of the ongoing Community Network Development Cycle.
Beyond mapping and sensemaking, the client may deepen their ‘system seeing’ practice and integrate the approach into their standing working culture and practices by choosing to move into Phase 4.
Phase 3 Products: a) a full, useful map of this moment in time, including detailed sub-maps & views, priorities, and stories. This interpreted and "owned" map can then serve as a common ground for thinking and action
Phase 3 Source: Collective interactions designed to interpret and extend the map
Phase 4) Embedding: integrating the mapping process into ongoing operations
The map is a small but crucial part of the whole thing. We’re never done mapping.
The thing with a map is - it’s doesn’t provide a ton of value if you don’t actually use it to help you navigate your journey. Left sitting in the car’s glove-box or rolled up at the bottom of your backpack, it can’t help you select the sights to see, determine the best place to set up camp, find an alternative route, discover a treasure you’d otherwise overlook, redirect when you’ve taken a wrong turn, locate traveling companions, or avoid 20-car pile-ups, treacherous crevasses, & tar pits.
Another way to say this: even if I look at the road-map as I leave Minnesota, by the time I’m in Colorado, if I haven’t re-visited the map again several times, I’ve missed a lot of opportunities & maybe even gotten off-track. Because I can only hold so much in my head at once, and the map represents far more than I can see from my present position, and the passing scenery overlays & muddies what I recall of the route, and the radio distracts me - I have to keep checking the map. Where am I now? Where is Denver in relation to my current location? Am I still on the right road? How far to the next gas station? How long until I need another bio-break? And what should I do about that construction detour up ahead?
At the end of Phase 3, the community has started to use their maps. They’re seeing more of the context, they’re connecting across the various perspectives, setting agendas, collaborating more strategically & defining next steps. They’re like me as I pull out of my Minnesota garage - heading out to pick up my traveling companions, with a shared destination we intend to reach, and the next few turns beyond the pick-up spot clear in my mind.
But for those long-term pattern-shifting goals to be met, what has been developed (‘a map’) now needs to become a process and not just a thing, it needs to be embedded into ongoing activities. When leaving your own known territory, you need to frequently refer to your map, and maybe even change maps, and it’s no different with collective system-shifting than it is with traveling around the globe. That map needs to be referred to as if it were your collective, systemic GPS.
Part of that embedding includes continually adding to the map. New members, new stories, new indicators, emerging themes, shifting hot-spots. It means repeating the mapping exploration (including occasionally changing the whole architecture of the mapping process) over ongoing iterations, and wrapping that exploration into the other regular operational, planning & development processes.
The maps themselves are not the silver bullet. A map does far less than it could, if it doesn’t become a component in the ongoing key conversations. And that doesn’t just happen on its own.
Stages 1-3 are powerful and crucial, but most of us understand by now that shifting a system rarely results from a one-time intervention. It takes small but sustained shifts in patterns of interaction over time. And like any pattern-shifting effort, mapping as a sense-making practice needs support, new learning and patience. The benefit that can emerge from this sustained support – and this is the vision Aldo & I share and devote our efforts to - is a true culture-shift.
Phase 3 Products: trainings, documentation and folding additional routines into existing management & communication systems.
Phase 3 Sources: testing mapping practices in concrete work situations, e.g. as discussion agendas for meetings, getting involved in strategic, tactical, and operational business processes and workflows of the stakeholders making up the community network.
If you’ve liked this post, check out the earlier posts from this series
And keep an eye out for the final take-away from my interview/ongoing conversation with Aldo - Considerations When Map-Making.