Mapping Take-Aways – Part 6 of an Interview with Aldo de Moor

Part 6 of an Interview with Aldo de Moor

Reflecting On Our Discussions

It’s been over two years since my original interview with Aldo. That one interview was so rich, it generated six blog posts and an abiding friendship. We’ve met online semi-monthly ever since that first great conversation, to talk about our projects, challenges, ideas & dreams. While the Covid 19 pandemic has made dramatic changes to our collective daily lives since that first interview, what we observe and believe about mapping feels more relevant than ever. What holds our friendship together, through all the changes, is our nearly identical professional response to this question, whose urgency is only increased due to the pandemic:

What helps us become ‘Greater Than the Sum of our Parts?’

People all over the world are asking this question. In general, we’ve come to recognize that there’s a collective synergy, symbiosis, greater wholeness that we urgently need to learn to generate or open up and step into if we’re going to weather our current slate of crises and have any hope of regenerating all the crucial beings/systems/things that are currently being threatened, eliminated, degraded.

The point (I believe) for all of us, is about becoming. It’s ultimately not about solving a problem ‘out there’ or applying fixes to things that are ‘other’. It’s about how do WE become greater than the sum of our parts. How do WE change our understanding of what it means to be human together – with one another, as well as with all the other living systems we’re embedded in, including with those living systems we aren’t even aware of?

How do we change our understanding of ourselves? From the old Hobbesian/Newtonian narrative of ‘short, hard, brutish’-lived selfish dog-eat-dog machines – to the ancient and re-emerging narrative of inter-connected, interdependent, co-creative, and emergent living systems. A narrative that is both indigenous and lately (finally) being affirmed by science. A narrative that is critical to our future survival, let alone regeneration – how do we learn – IN SPITE OF our collective, normalized and traumatizing history of violence, exploitation, extraction, and oppression – to move into that?

How do we become what we know we need to become in spite of all the baggage we carry, and in direct contradiction to the constantly re-traumatizing mainstream narrative? That question underlies every conversation I participate in and everything I think about.

Of course, there are myriad important, valid, vital and transformational approaches to that question currently being explored – spiritual, visceral, cognitive, artistic, ecological, economic, behavioral. And of course, as individuals, Aldo and I each try, like everyone else, to move into the new narrative of wholeness, healing and regeneration through as many of those spheres as we can.

But as working professionals, he and I independently converged on the same core principle in response to that question – representing, visually, the dimensions of that new narrative that already exist in our current reality, but which we have previously not had a way of visualizing and thinking about together.

We converged on visually representing what already exists – in a way that highlights the aspects of reality that we’re not used to seeing – the relationships between people, intentions, actions, systemic elements; what may yet come into being – our visions, ideals, dreams, and goals; and the all-important possible and desired relations and actions which may help move us from our current state into that still imaginary but more whole-some reality.

We’re attempting to create and use a new visual language in a way that gets us out of our own heads and our isolated interpretations and enables us to share our perspectives and interpretations with others. We’re looking for generative visual representations that enable us to map, explore and make sense of these invisible dimensions of our reality together, from multiple perspectives, and work towards shared deep meanings and healing ways for re-generation that emerge from within rather than are imposed upon communities.

We converged on creating these visualizations to help us see hidden dimensions of what already exists, but also – because it’s a new visual way of thinking and working together – to help us imagine what could happen if we built on those newly-revealed layers of current reality. Our goal is to create visualizations that reflect us, teach us, help us imagine a different future together, and give us clear next-steps in a new direction.

As in any good collaboration – Aldo’s and my visions are aligned, but our foci are different. Aldo’s focus is on the conceptual foundation of the process, really uncovering the underlying collaborative dynamics, developing the representational language, doing a lot of explicit teaching and exploratory facilitation up front. Mine is on creating tools to make these visualizations both wide-spread and ongoing. Tools that enable these visualizations to stay up-to-date while emerging and evolving over time. He focuses on initiating; I focus on sustaining; we both focus on learning.

Because of our shared response to the question of ‘what helps us become greater than the sum of our parts’, mapping is the core thing either of us does. In terms of how we make a living and in terms of what we spend the bulk of our working hours focused on, this isn’t one of many offerings, one arrow in our full quivers, an item on our menus – this is it. We both put all our time, energy, attention, intelligence, creativity and passion into this one potential leverage point.

Therefore, we’re both highly motivated and invested in learning what is necessary for this potential leverage point to do its work. The one big hairy audacious goal for us both is making this mapping field as effective and impactful a leverage point as possible. And we’re both doing it outside of an institutional context, without institutional support. So we understand, in very detailed and lived ways and in ways others are naturally less likely to have given much thought to, the challenges the field faces. We’ve each done enough of these mapping projects to be keenly aware of the potential pitfalls lurking below the surface.

It was only natural that I ask Aldo about the challenges or potential pitfalls that he sees in mapping, which is what this post is about. Having extolled the powers of mapping in previous posts, it’s time to be realistic.

The challenge Aldo sees lies in expectations – what people think is the point and what they expect to get from a mapping project. Which is also and fundamentally about a map’s relationship to power.

What It’s NOT About

A Perfect, Complete, or Final Outcome

It’s not the territory – it’s not supposed to be a comprehensive model of everything that’s going on. That would be impossible and it’s not necessary. Instead, it’s an index to the world. We want to capture the key new things – what’s important for people to talk about. . . what needs to be the starting point for the next round of conversations.

Mapping is a process, not a product. These maps will never be ‘done, never have perfect, ‘complete’ data. Metrics will always be approximate. They won’t contain every fact everyone thinks might exist. They won’t contain every possible player. They’re a reflection of and a directory into real life, not a pretense at some final ‘accuracy’. We’re not looking for all data, but for the data that makes a difference. And we don’t let the illusion of ‘completeness’ slow down our becoming.

The impact may be that people get too enthusiastic in the beginning and get too tired of it afterwards because it turns out to be much more difficult. They think mapping is to go on by itself, but it’s really part of a hard won organizational change process. So, you may lose your early adopters if you don’t get it embedded in that tough work of long-term organizational change process from the beginning.

 

They start to map everything at this particular moment and then they get stalled or they get lost because it’s not grounded in actual potential to do something.

Our kind of mapping doesn’t comport with the old plan-build-finished-product change model. In that way, it’s a good opportunity for experiencing and practicing a more adaptive, iterative, complex and shifting learn-as-you-go approach to managing a web of initiatives. And if you try to fit it into the old model, disappointment is likely.

Adopting the latest glitzy technology

We’re so used to turning to technology to solve all our problems and make everything easier. But in this case, technology is merely an enhancement. Most of the benefit of a map like this takes place in face-to-face interactions. A good map can inform and support those interactions, but it can’t on it’s own, generate them.

People can easily go for the glitzy tools. With mapping It’s so easy to fall for the tools without the thinking process. I would say do away with tools first and first think of process before you start to actually map things. Because the moment you freeze an approach in a tool, it becomes very hard to change that view on reality.

 

I’ve seen the people that are most enthusiastic about the mapping initially because they get all jazzed up about the functionality of it, the glitz of it, they can become disappointed because they think the glitz is what it’s about, but it’s not about that. . .

Making maps is not an outcome, but a method of co-creating an evolving tool. We hope that mapping and sensemaking is a highly-enabling, system-seeing, pattern-leveraging process – but the tools used in this process have to be picked up, learned, and utilized wisely by persons. A map isn’t an end-run around convenings, conversations, and change initiatives – the mapping process must be part of, enhance, and connect all those activities. It’s an accelerator & amplifier – but in order to support action, it has to be integrated into that action.

Yet the technical glitz implies that the work can all be done by the software, and people get seduced into thinking they’re getting an easy fix.

The tools are so seemingly user-friendly, at least in the sense of quickly getting started, that the superficiality of it may distract from the deep thinking, deep collaborations needed.

Ok – so if it’s not about all that, what is this kind of mapping Aldo and I are so committed to actually about?

What It IS about

. . . It’s about what you’re going to use it for. And, often, I see the people who are slower to adopt it are actually more sustained because they already think through more what this means in terms of organizational change. Those are the best people to have in the sense of making this really work.

It’s About Network Development

I see in a lot of projects that the map becomes a map for its own sake. It becomes the goal rather than a means to an end; namely capacity-development or network-development.

Development of the network itself.

It’s about increasing network awareness, connectivity, diversity, flows of information, assets, and mutual support.

So, I think one of my tasks as a facilitator, and I’m becoming more aware of this having gone through many of these instances now, is that it should be embedded, always in a bigger process of organizational or community network development or social innovation. I’m very aware of the bigger context; the bigger process that the mapping should contribute to because if it’s not anchored in that process, then it’s going to be a one-time thing and the map is going to sit there and lose relevance over time.

Development of the network’s capacity

Mapping is not meant to be a process that takes overtakes or catalyzes a collaboration. . . Mapping catalyzes & augments what they’re already doing.

We’re mistaken if we consider the inherent statistical fuzziness & imperfection of these maps a problem. These are essentially maps of complex systems and complex systems aren’t absolutely knowable.

One social innovation goal should be to help people learn how to manage in an un-knowable context. Developing capacity ought to include developing the capacity to see the patterns through the noise, sense the tensions that may be building toward dynamical change, sense where energy is flowing, and take adaptive action based on those insights.

These maps reflect our fuzzy reality and give us a learning tool for dealing with it. If we let them, these maps can help us orient ourselves within the vast amounts of detail that we’re not used to holding in our minds all at once. They can orient us to the forest and what lies beyond its edges, while simultaneously helping us determine which trees or clearings or anthills are key to our current inquiry. They could help us learn how not to get further lost in the weeds, without losing our awareness of the facts on the ground.

Adopting a tool for reflecting on and generating deeper questions about the network – having the ability to zoom the scale of inquiry in and out, to be more conscious of network patterns, to see clues as to what’s emerging, and to increase opportunities for shared learning and shared resource flows, all of these could build capacity for greater collaboration and adaptive action through-out a network, strengthening not only the network as a whole, but also all the actors within it.

It’s About Conversations

Mapping and conversations are always two sides of the same coin. A map without conversations is nothing and conversations without some form of mapping is much more fragmented.

Conversations as in – Storytelling

A map is about telling the story of the network. The story of it’s history, it’s goals, it’s impacts, it’s people. Mapping can help narrate it’s development in ways that teach, inspire, and affirm the network in its becoming.

Conversations as in – Ongoing dialog between the map and the mapped community

The community can ask questions of a map that they can’t ask anyone or anything else. They can then use what they learn to inform their actions, which can surface more questions – in an ongoing, deepening dialog.

It’s About Collective Sensemaking

Collective Sensemaking as in – Shared perspectives across differences

Mapping is about enabling people to take a meaningful step back from their own position within the system, a step outside of their own perspective, and begin to understand the system as a whole: what creates and enables current patterns; what impacts and could disrupt those patterns; where increased or different collaboration would make the biggest difference: where the system’s essence currently flows; where shifting those flows could release greater potential.

 

Collective Sensemaking as in – Shared understanding of current reality

These maps can help groups to see what is already happening – which enables them to leverage, amplify, share learning, and increase momentum around what is starting to emerge. Maps can reveal where there already is energy & where it is spreading to, where there is potential for more energy, in a reinforcing feedback loop.

There’s still a lot of work to be done: where to find these patterns? What do they look like? How can we get them? How can we make them available for reuse? How can we assemble them into repositories of patterns, into integrated pattern languages?

Collective Sensemaking as in – Shared use of maps for adaptive action

Embedding a map into decision-making helps network members and leaders to first explore the patterned, collective perspective (to ‘get on the balcony’) BEFORE taking action. It can build a norm of consulting the map for additional reflections and insights to help inform action-planning.

Development, Conversations, Sensemaking – It’s an ongoing process that has to be embedded everywhere possible.

It’s about feedback, closing the loops, giving energy ways to build and cycle throughout the network instead of leaking out and dissipating. It shouldn’t just be a picture of a point in time. If it’s not also used as an ongoing feedback mechanism, it quickly becomes irrelevant.

Clients totally understand that if you want to change an organization, if you implement an organizational development program it’s going to take a lot of time and resources in a lot of focused attention. With any management or organizational development approach, it requires a lot of sustained practice, including a lot of trial and error. A lot of commitment to make it work. So it’s not a Magic Bullet, but it can definitely facilitate and accelerate existing development processes

People won’t automatically and instantly know how to use this tool, because we’ve been taught NOT to use the kind of thinking that the approach is designed to support. It takes training and repeated exposure, but it’s also a natural tool for that training because it’s a form of applied learning. Systems thinking can be so abstract – mapping embeds the learning into specific, concrete and personally relevant context. And we believe that the learning applied to these maps is actually part of the learning needed to become greater than the sum of our parts – hence, the learning is also leverage and intervention. It can become triple-loop learning if engaged fully.

 Another thing I’ve seen is that people don’t know enough about the different processes that are involved in mapping and that mapping requires different types of skills that you need to create the architecture of a map, to create functionalities that go with it.

 

It’s a very complex process and people may underestimate that because they think they can map themselves once they know how to add an element or add a connection but real mapping is a much deeper process that requires everything from deep, strategic thinking, technical functionalities, a lot of social psychology and everything else. So, people can underestimate what it takes. Plus the tools are so user-friendly in the sense of quickly getting started that the superficiality of it may distract from the deep thinking about what deep collaborations need.

Always Keep in mind

Keep Power in Mind

“It is actually a political process.”

The thing we come back to, over and over in our conversations about mapping, is power.

Mapping is inherently about power – who draws what lines, who defines things or deems them unworthy of representation at all, who has access to meaning, what gets exposed and what gets obscured.

Geographical maps impart power to their holders and makers – and yet the land is never asked to participate in developing the map. The content of a geographical map is generally ‘object’, and even so, what objects to map and how to do so is often contentious.

Whereas, with the kinds of maps that Aldo and I create – the ‘content’ or the ‘mapped’ have agency. And no map can be made and sustained, let alone evolve, without the willing engagement of the mapped agents.

The mapped have the ultimate say. It’s a collaboration of the willing, not a diagramming of the (seemingly) inanimate like with a classical geographical  map. Which means, power is always at stake and if the map is failing to generate more power for the persons/organizations being mapped than they’d have without it, the map will fail. If a map is going to be sustained and add value – the use of it’s inherent power needs to be attended to consciously.

And that raises all kinds of questions about map design and training and embedding.

Keep Language in Mind

If you start with a language that’s not specific enough to this community, they may start enthusiastically but then they don’t really know what to do with it or don’t really know how can they change their day-to-day reality. That’s one lesson for myself and I think we’re just at the beginning of this is how do we develop the right kind of mapping languages that trigger people into not only mapping and creating a lot of bulk, of mapping in the beginning, but to map the right concepts and the right kind of connections; that trigger them into weaving them into their day-to-day practice.

Keep Embedding in mind

Mapping is to go on by itself, but it’s part of an organizational change process. So, you may lose your early adopters if you don’t get it embedded in that hard work of long-term organizational change process from the beginning.

The “boring” part of mapping, namely integrating it in day-to-day business processes, work-flows, that’s absolutely essential otherwise it’s not going to create any traction.

A client once said to me ‘we’ve been looking to this map as if it’s an answer machine, but really we should think of it as a question-generator, something that draws us further into inquiry and curiosity – not something that satisfies them.”

In a constantly-changing world, there must always be a next-conversation, a next-question, a next-layer to inquire into as we move our work forward. It’s never done and it never stops.

Maps could, if we let them, help inform those ‘next’s’ by visualizing the flows, feed-back loops & patterns usually hidden beneath the surface. They could give us more insight to guide our ‘next’s’ before we begin them. They could help us discover what more we need to learn next as we proceed.

Let’s not just create our maps, let’s also put them into active duty as living reflections of and resources for our ever-flowing exploration into what it will take to help us become greater than the sum of our parts. Let’s continually ask ourselves, if there are always further steps that can be taken, how can we use our maps to invite one another into that one next step – and then the next one?

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