Network EngagementSenseMakingSocial System MappingSocial System Maps

The Iteration Challenge

How can we access the potential of a Social System Map if we’re not able to keep it up-to-date?

Everything we know about system change tells us a Social System Map is a unique and powerful lens with the potential to help intentional networks effect systemic transformation. Our Social System Mapping Theory of Transformation connects the dots between Social System Mapping and a plethora of major insights and perspectives on systemic transformation.

  1. An abundance of theory points to the understanding that systemic transformation requires multi-scale, multi-sector, multi-stakeholder-perspective networks. That’s the complex, multi-dimensional ‘social system’ element of our mapping work.
  2. Visualizations help us see things we can’t otherwise perceive, and they enter our consciousness via deeper pathways. Therefore, we ‘map’ that social complexity to perceive it, explore it, discuss it, and influence it in new ways.
  3. Maps reflect, amplify and can reinforce or change paradigms. And as Donella Meadows says, ‘paradigms are sources of systems’. Paradigm impact is the most powerful form of system impact.

So if we add all of those insights together into one map that can help us see our social systems in new or hidden ways, we ought to impact systems directly and indirectly. One might expect that to be a magical intervention. Not just for mappers, but for everyone who participates in the process.

Every week, we encounter new people who perceive those connected dots and want to access the potential they sense. New mapping projects start with excitement and hope. And then we stumble in the face of what I’m calling ‘The Iteration Challenge’. Why is that?


On the surface, it seems like an updating problem.

It’s challenging to get people to keep their profiles and connections current.

In an ideal world, we’d update our Social System Maps regularly, all of us in a map, as often as things change. But we hear that people experience updating as a big imposition. In many cases, the most network stewards dare to ask for is an update once a year, and even that can feel like too much. Too much effort goes into motivating people to do it. We wonder if it’s worth the cost and time. We become mired in resistance and doubt, lose track of the purpose and the potential benefit.

In actual fact it takes me a few minutes monthly to keep the main map I’m in current. And a few minutes less frequently to update the myriad other maps I am represented in where my overall involvement is much lower than with my primary community.

That’s far less effort than maintaining an active Twitter, Facebook or Instagram presence.

It’s also far less effort than any other contribution we might offer a network that’s doing something we value. And in terms of value per minute, those may be the most valuable minutes we could offer.

Even harder is keeping it relevant.

To remain relevant and useful, our maps need to evolve over time. A Social System Map is a journey that no-one can fully predict, and the odds of getting everything perfectly aligned for the long term up front are minimal. But like with any change journey we can’t let that prevent us from beginning. We start where we can, and we iterate from there.

sumApp makes iteration easy, but in practice, that iteration rarely happens. The technical capacity is nearly meaningless in a context where simply getting members to update their connections and the same old existing questions is a challenge. It’s also useless if we’re not actually using the map in collective contexts enough to discover the gaps in our original thinking. Without collective SenseMaking, nothing new emerges. If nothing new emerges, there’s no need to iterate.


And Updating is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Solutions proposed to the ‘updating’ challenge proposed to stay at the surface level – prizes, rewards, membership being contingent upon updating the map – various forms of extrinsic motivators. Those are ok as a starting point. But they can easily reinforce the idea that the value of a map isn’t really FOR the members, and that there isn’t anything valuable for themselves about keeping it up to date. This message is connected to some very deep issues.

‘Deep’ in this context points to more meaningful and lasting solutions to the Iteration Challenge. Surfacing that same ‘deep’ stuff can help us break through blockages in other realms as well. Social System Mapping itself is a means of exploring whats below the surface, yet it creates it’s own ‘below-the-surface’ demands before it can be as useful as we’d like it to be. Those demands can feel insurmountable, tempting us to surrender to what feels inevitable. Yet diving below the SSM surface can give us access to other important hidden realms as well. Those demands are worth the effort of dealing with. Because that work can begin a virtuous feedback loop that that might seem small at first, but can create big benefits over time. If we’re clear about our intentions and understand what we’re doing.

Moving deeper, at the level just below the updating issue, is the fact that a Social System Map is a new visual language for representing social complexity. A language that humans have not historically seen nor used nor consciously benefited from. We are not accustomed to thinking in this way. If it’s a language people don’t recognize, if it makes them feel a little dumb and defensive, if it doesn’t help them find new and better ways of addressing their challenges – of course you have to drag in some extrinsic motivation.

Deeper still, this new language emerges from and reinforces a particular paradigm that is unfamiliar and anti-intuitive. Even if we think we get it intellectually, for most of us, it’s more of an idea than a belief system. And if that paradigm is not one we are sensitized to, learning the SSM language is not likely to stick w/o frequent shared exposure.

We put all this energy into making a map, and then we tend to drop it on a community with a ten minute presentation and maybe an hour training session or a drop-by table at an event, then expect magic to unfold. But that’s honestly all the time and attention we can ask for. There’s too on the agenda, everyone is super-busy and overwhelmed, they don’t have the bandwidth or desire to learn a new language. All of which is absolutely true and relevant. Learning a language in a classroom is completely different from learning it immersively, while living or learning in places where it’s the predominant language spoken. Learning by immersion does not take extra time, just extra intentionality. In this case, that learning can help all our efforts take less time, so it ought to be worth the attention. But that immersion is what’s missing. To the majority of a community, the SSM is an afterthought, something tacked on and awkward – separate & confusing.


But Why Does it Matter?

Transformation networks are key to the regenerative systemic change crucial to the kind of world that most of us want to live in. Networks are the interface that connects small groups of individuals to those broader systems. A network is a thick, dense, dynamic, permeable membrane that can either amplify and accelerate our change efforts or crush them completely. People on the frontiers of system change understand that networks are critical and have begun pouring their lifeblood into developing system-change-intended networks, but we’ve only barely begun to understand how that network interface between the individual and the broader system works. We haven’t developed the skill-set that enables us to understand how to see and understand and influence the natural membrane functions of gatekeeping: containing, excluding, transporting resources and information from inside to outside and from outside to in. Navigating that membrane is key to our success, and so far, most of our learning in this area has been had the hard way.

In large part, that’s because transformation networks are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). In any CAS, impacts are mostly indirect, prediction and control are not possible, change happens very differently than how we’ve been taught in mainstream culture. And how we’ve been taught doesn’t work.

This is especially true in the context of a transformation network, which is a CAS inside of an enmeshed set of larger CAS’s. In any context, the systemic impact of efforts by individuals and small groups on the ground is mediated through a network membrane whether we know that or not. But in transformation networks we intentionally add to the complexity by including a broader range of perspectives, scales and goals than usual and working to nurture far more exchanges across those differences than is normal in the dominant paradigm. Transformation networks demand that we step into them differently, or quickly lose our way.

This is the reality we’re faced with, whether we recognize it or not. We don’t have a choice. And this is where that unfamiliar and anti-intuitive paradigm makes a difference. If we don’t become far more sensitized to, and effective within this paradigm that SSM emerged from and helps us see into. . . well. . . at the very least, we’ll have much slower progress, and much more effort wasted.

So whether our focus is inside of networks, on making them lively, resilient & regenerative or beyond our network membranes, trying to shift broader system dynamics – knowing how to operate and influence under these often overwhelming, dynamic, uncertain, ambiguous conditions is a critical shared praxis.

In my favorite school of systems thinking, Human Systems Dynamics, we’d say that the core of this praxis is adaptive action aimed at seeing, understanding and influencing patterns.

Glenda Eoyang, founder of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, recently addressed this question of ‘does it matter’ in one of her monthly webinars:

Wise people in community, with practice, have done adaptive action with whatever tools they’ve had – forever – and that was good enough. To have it implicit, not to have it belong to the whole group, but to an individual rather than the collective. That was when things moved more slowly. There were fewer coupled complex adaptive systems. That was enough.

But today, those complex adaptive systems are moving faster. They get more locked in. They’re more connected among them. We’re aware of more scales. News connects them, time connects them, supply chains connect them. Infection vectors connect them. And so we don’t have time to be patient with implicit understanding of adaptive action, or with just intuitive approaches. We can leverage those. We need to be able to explicitly hold this practice together, so that we can together shift the patterns and create the future that we want. And that is what we’re talking about in adaptive capacity.


Social System Mapping is a Provocation, an Intervention, an Opportunity

A Social System Map is a unique provocation for supporting this shared praxis in the context of that baffling network membrane. It visually represents and sensitizes us to the complexity and the patterns that we inevitably face. Co-designing and co-creating a map can be a process that is, in itself, a paradigmatic intervention. A way of starting the learning and paradigm-shifting where most of us already are, instead of dragging people off to a specialized place and learning from theory to practice. Similar to the difference between learning a language immersively and learning it by grammatical rules and vocabulary drills. But we have to be able to make sense with it.

Where else can we find a lens that offers us insight and a means of learning to navigate and influence within that enmeshed and complex network membrane? To step outside of our own network horizon, out of our own perspective and personal sense of what’s going on? And where can we take advantage of those new visual insights in a way that is, as Glenda advises – more explicit, more intentional, and more collectively held?
There’s a big opportunity and potential here, which the Iteration Challenge threatens to undermine.


It’s Our Responsibility to Figure This Out

We can see that people need help. It’s not enough to create a map, show them how to click through and find things, and assume the rest will fall into place. And at the same time “helping people learn it” is also a new challenge because we don’t have any models in this context, only a tiny bit of experience thus far, and most methods for “helping people learn (whatever it is)” were developed from inside of the paradigm we’re trying to move away from. So that’s a big challenge!

The Social System Mapping Community of Practice has to be the catalyst for this adaptive learning-via-SSM praxis, and help it ripple out from here. If we don’t, who else will? If we don’t catalyze better approaches to the Iteration Challenge, we can’t lean into our vision as fully as today’s complex adaptive systems demand.

We’ve just barely begun to adopt this exploratory praxis in our own community, where many of us genuinely care about the challenge, and where Social System Mapping is core to our vision. We, as a community, need to to imagine and develop this praxis together, to model it for each other, to inspire one another to take what we discover here out to our other communities. To iterate and ripple out our small tests, discover what works and in what contexts. Here’s one approach to this challenge that we’ve been working with in our community of practice.


It’s worth quoting Donella Meadows over and over again: ‘Paradigms are the sources of systems’. 

In whatever we’re doing, if we’re not working our way towards a more regenerative paradigm, we’re wasting people’s valuable time, and hope, and effort. And even when we have the best of intentions – as Carol Sanford says, ‘we are blind to what we don’t believe’, and ‘we are blind to what we don’t already know’.

A SSM helps us surface our blind spots, become sensitized to the network membrane, be collectively adept with complexity and ultimately shift our paradigms. All of which can be uncomfortable, confusing – and most of all – indirect. So the first layer of the Iteration Challenge is figuring out how to learn-out-loud into that hot mess in a way that is curiosity-provoking, intriguing, impactful, and that entices others to join us in the exploration.
I’ve identified more paradigm shifts implicated in the Iteration Challenge, and can offer related design principles that may help move things, which will be covered in future posts. But for this first couple layers the challenge is in helping a critical mass of network members find value in the map. I’ve been saying this for awhile, but I don’t think any of us (including me) really understood what that might mean until recently.

We don’t need to help all members access and value it, just enough that everyone knows that it matters. And then that can help create a voluntarily shared norm that we keep it up to date whether we use it ourselves or not.
In other words, we need to turn the effort it takes to get people to update into an effort to generate more apparent value and use that value to indirectly generate updating.

The design principles we’re holding for this first layer are: exploring the value and potential of working indirectly; triggering intrinsic motivation without bribes or pressure; learning out loud; and most of all – making it immersive. Making it and the process of it a common reference, making it familiar and making visible how it’s useful.

None of which is easy at first, and our efforts are very preliminary. But we are learning and making progress. Enough that I can say that it’s do-able with the commitment of a tiny handful, it’s grittily-tangible, it’s a good scaffold for valuable micro-collaborative opportunities, and for valuable dialog. And most of the learning we’re doing applies more to all kinds of important non-map things than it does to literal mapping. In other words, iterating our map is the direct outcome of our efforts, but there are lots of valuable indirect benefits we’re getting as well.

Here is some of what we’ve generated and learned on this path so far: about our Mapping Team; about the process we envision; about iterating our own map; and one approach we’ve tried so far.
If you have insights to share that would help us do this better, or if you’d like to help us learn, develop a loose prototype method and/or actually iterate our map, please contact

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