Theory and Practice in Network Mapping: Part 2 of an Interview with Glenda Eoyang

Part 2 of a series of 3 posts:

This is part 2 of an interview with Glenda Eoyang, Founding Executive Director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute (HSD), a body of theory and practice that brings ideas from complexity science into practical application to help people deal with intractable issues.

In our previous post, we learned about the Container, Differences, Exchanges (CDE) framework and the three-step action learning cycle of Adaptive Action in HSD, and how they were reflected in a network map.

The next thing I was curious about was Glenda’s reference to consciousness.

Can a Network Become Conscious?

So, among organizational systems thinkers, there’s this idea of the system ‘waking up to itself’, or ‘seeing itself’ – which I always imagine as this mystical moment, like when a clay dragon comes to life, shakes out its wings, belches out a tongue-lashing of fire, and swoops off to destroy the evil empire, or whatever. But it’s not really a dragon, it’s actually a murmuration of starlings or a swarm of bees or something, which somehow makes it even more powerful and awe-some than a single oversized drooling winged lizard would be. And the ‘flying off to destroy the evil empire’ is actually more like shifting tiny bee-sized patterns in a way that ripples out and has a dragon-sized impact.

By my reading, that generally only happens in those rare historical moments when so much is so imminently and clearly at stake for so many, that masses of people willingly set aside their everyday lives for a period needed to address a great risk – or when their everyday lives have already been destroyed, the disaster has happened, none of the old rules apply and pulling together is the only path to recovery or even survival. But in our current reality, once the threat recedes a little, or the crisis is recovered from or becomes normalized, we return to our separate selves, we abandon the collective order and revert to our everyday self-reliance and personally-managed survival. Because what sustains that spontaneous kind of self-organizing is extreme and non-ordinary, it’s not sustainable, (I’m just saying, that’s how it seems to me) or, in the words of a new friend Jeffron Seely – it’s a ‘change’ (which means it’s reversible) not a ‘transformation’ (which is irreversible).

In other words – what a cool idea, the system waking up to itself – but WOW, do we humans generally neither understand nor act in ways that make that likely! I see that when presenting network maps all the time – ‘here’s who comprises your system’ I say to people ‘and all the things you can know about them, and how they fit together’, and the majority of them smile questioningly & say – basically – “so what?”.

So I asked Glenda, “can you talk about the challenge of helping the individuals within the system learn how to ‘see the system’, and most importantly what they could do differently as a result?”

We think that self-organizing is happening all the time. Sometimes it is slow because the conditions are not changing very much. Sometimes it is fast because tension has accumulated, and the conditions shift quickly and radically. We think it is easier to help people “wake up” to the tiny, everyday avalanches they experience. Then, when the big, obvious crash comes, they are ready for it.


For me, network map is a tool in that process of seeing and understanding the systemic patterns of self-organizing. I have empathy for your clients and mine. If it’s so hard for them to see systemic, self-organizing patterns with a map, think how hard it is without the map.


Native Americans make a distinction between what they call the eagle eyes and mouse eyes. The eagle flies high and can see the whole thing, right? It’s not a lot of detail, but it can see many things and a long way. Mice see what’s right in front of them. Both kinds of seeing are important for decision making, but they are very different. The distinction helps me understand why it is sometimes hard for people to see their own systems. I can imagine an eagle view of the network, but I can’t really see it. I’ve got mouse eyes. In my normal life, I’m standing in a place, I know who’s connecting with me, I know who tells me they’re connecting with other people. But it’s all me-centric, not a systems-eye view.


The map gives me an eagle view of the network so that I can see it. Better than that, it isn’t just how I see it, but how other people see it—and all of them at the same time. So, for me, that’s what the map does.

There’s this question that haunts me – wouldn’t a directory be just as good? At the core of this question, I think, is that in a lot of ways, the maps we make are presented and used predominantly as directories – we make it easy to search for someone with X perspective, or X skills, we help you see ‘who is here’ – which is extremely useful.

But those are parts. And there are easier methods for finding out about the parts. I’m always left with the sense that we’re still overlooking the greater whole. I want to understand and help us all learn more about that ‘whole’ perspective, because I imagine that would help our systems ‘wake up to themselves’. But the whole, any good systems thinker will tell you, is in the connections at least as much as, if not far more than, in the parts. Yet, when sharing maps with groups, it’s the connections between the people/actor/organization-nodes that generally don’t seem to matter to most people (except if it looks like they’re winning the popularity contest). They often don’t see the relevance – and I don’t feel like I do a good enough job helping them recognize it.

So I press Glenda, because here is an opportunity for me to get better at that: “But why does a network map increase consciousness and choice more than something like a directory would?”

The theoretical response is that it can help us represent systems that are open (wide range of containers (C)) and high-dimension (many differences that make a difference (D)) and non-linear (complex exchanges and interdependencies (E)). A directory, on the other hand, gives us a picture that is closed (at any given moment), low-dimension (what you see is what you get), and only one kind of simple connection. Most models of systems have these or similar limitations. There just aren’t that many ways, besides network maps, to model the three conditions of self-organizing that represent the most complex of complex systems–open containers, high-dimension differences, non-linear exchanges. So, theoretically, that’s why the network can help you see and be conscious of the system.

It’s about consciousness and choice, right? So, if I can become conscious of relationships that are current, then I can see potential for what might be, and then I can choose my next wise action—my adaptive action—in order to leverage what is. If I can see it, I can understand it in some way, and I can make choices about action. When I do that, the system shifts in my hands. . . the network helps you see the current patterns in a way that’s useful, so you can choose to take action to influence the pattern in the future.

Practically, the map helps me manage my connections as an individual or an institution. When I am aware, I can make connections more intentionally, more efficiently, more effectively. It helps me be conscious in a deeper, wider way to see things I wouldn’t see otherwise. When I see, I can do things that I wouldn’t do otherwise. It helps me choose. It gives me the information I need to choose.

For instance:

. . .when I have to make a decision about how to spend my time or my influence or my energy or my money, I can look at the map. There, I see connections that I could amplify or possible connections that I could create with that resource. The map helps me know how to invest and, because sumApp is able to show changing relationships, it also gives me feedback about return on investment.

Theory in Practice – the HSD Network Map

So – In part 1 of this interview series, we talked about HSD Theory. In part 2, we discussed the relationship of HSD Theory to the kind of network mapping I’ve begun to call ‘Social System Mapping’. In part 3, we’ll address practice – what is Glenda learning from her social system map?

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

FREE DIY Network Mapping Tool
Subscribe to Our Newsletter