A Social System Mapping SenseMaking Story 


Werner Heisenberg           

Social System Mapping is a collective learning tool – a new visual grammar and vocabulary that helps us see what we can’t see in any other way. It helps us ‘see’ what we never realized we couldn’t see – it helps us to become curious about things it never dawned on us to be curious about. It can take us beyond our everyday personally-constrained perspective, the way a geographical map does, but in relation to humans in systems instead of places and objects in space. 

But it doesn’t do much for us if we’re not curious. And it’s hard to be curious about things that aren’t part of our existing mental models. There’s a chicken and egg problem going on – a treasure chest of value that goes mostly un-recognized and un-claimed. 

So lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to stimulate the kind of curiosity for which a Social System Map can be useful. A primary collaborator in this exploration has been Sarah Shanahan Director of Community Management for the RE-AMP Network, and this is a story about a success she and I recently had. 

Setting the Frame 

We’d realized that we had not done a good job of helping the other RE-AMP staff get comfortable with the RE-AMP Social System Map, or even to have much of a sense of how they could be using it themselves. And if we couldn’t inspire staff to use the map, we’d never inspire the rest of the network to. Staff were key to helping embed the map into network practice.

So, at their next staff retreat, I Zoomed in for a map exploration session.

We wanted to help them connect their daily and long-term network-related concerns to how the map might help them think about those concerns. 

I’ve frequently observed that if you start this conversation inside the context of ‘map’, there’s already this very narrow, standard set of questions people think of to ask. It’s nearly impossible to open it up to more possibilities, and curiosity about the standard question set is generally minimal and quickly satisfied.

That means we need ways to start the conversation as far outside the box of ‘map’ as we can. Before we even use the word ‘map’, we need to surface the network patterns and dynamics that matter to the members or staff of the network themselves. What are they already concerned about, but would never think to apply to the context of mapping? 

So, Sarah and I started by asking the staff what they were currently paying attention to and encouraged them to think as far afield as necessary to respond to that question. Then we had them gather the responses, and cluster them into similar groupings. Once we’d surfaced their concerns, we started to walk through the views of their RE-AMP Social System Map, with an eye to how each of those views might (or might not) relate to the things that they’d brought up. 

A Thread of Interest 

As we’re walking through this exercise, Sean has a question.  

Sean is RE-AMP’s Director of the Organizing Hub – he’s responsible for helping RE-AMP’s State Tables think strategically about how they’re building power both individually & collectively for Equitable Deep Decarbonization.  

Equitable Deep Decarbonization is the network’s highest-level goal, and RE-AMP’s State Tables are state-level networks working to set conditions that help ensure that equitable climate victories happen in the mid- to long-term.

So, Sean has this question that’s key to his role, which is essentially about how much cross-pollination is going on among the state tables, and are some state tables more interconnected than others. 

I couldn’t answer that question with the views we already had but I said, “Let me talk with Tim and see what we can come up with”. So after the meeting was done, Tim and I gave it some thought, and we figured out how to create a view in the RE-AMP map that could visualize the answer to Sean’s question. 

Following That Thread

Once Tim has created the view, I ping Sean and we jump on a Zoom call, and I walk him through this new view that highlights relationships across state tables, which he finds interesting. He digs into the view for a little while. 

Then he gets quiet and pauses for a bit. 

And then he says, “Maybe what I’m looking for is: We tell this story, that serving on a state table will make you more connected to the network. But that’s just anecdotal, we really don’t have any way of verifying that belief. Is there a way we could show that?”

Well, it’s an important question – and we don’t have a view that can tell us that.

In fact, at first, I can’t even imagine HOW we’d show it – there’s no way our normal map-view paradigm will show that. It might not be possible. But I say, “Let me talk with Tim and see what we can come up with”, put the question into my unconscious, and trust that an answer will come. Tim and I noodle on it this way and that, get frustrated and put the topic aside for awhile – and then in the middle of the night one night, I wake up knowing how to do it.

So the next day, Tim & I work out my midnight-inspired view, generate several incremental improvements on the idea, kick it around some more and then we know we have it. 

A view that’s easy to see the answer and even verifies that story Sean tells. So again we jump on a Zoom call, walk Sean through this next view, and again he’s happy with it, talking about how he’ll share this view and the information it reveals with his state table members.

Following It Further 

But then he pauses again, and we wait patiently as another question rises to the surface. . . And then he says, “Okay, so maybe THIS is the real question I’m wondering about. . . :”  

And he explains how he believes that IF State Table members are more connected – like our most recent view tells us is true, ESPECIALLY where there’s cross-pollination across the State Tables – which his first view addressed, his theory is that THAT leads to the State Table members having more knowledge & skills. He thinks they learn more and faster through those relationships, which then makes them more effective at setting the necessary conditions and building power.  

So now he’s wondering if there’s a way we could visualize the answer to THAT question – do people on state tables have more knowledge and skills than members not on state tables? 

So, again, we go think about it and end up creating a third view for Sean, to help illustrate and explore that question. So now Sean has a little suite of special views that he can use to open up a whole new dialog and exploration with the State Tables. 

The Adaptive Action Cycle 

Eric Berlow     

Sean was essentially doing an HSD Adaptive Action process (“What?”, “So What”, “What’s Next?!”) applied to the map. He looks at the map, and says ‘What?’. When we get to the part of the map reflecting his responsibility – the original State Tables view – he begins to ask ‘So What?’, and his ‘So What?’ generates a deeper question, which gives us a ‘Now What?’ which is to create a new view. And that ‘Now What?’ step leads back naturally to a fresh cycle. So Sean looks again and repeats the process a couple more times, all the while generating more insight into his own thinking and assumptions, as well as more insight into how the network is functioning and what he might be able to do to help it function even better – and all of this becomes something he can take back to the State Tables to share, explore and discuss with them. 

This is what we’re looking for in our mapping practice – these two things: 1) For that kind of Adaptive Action learning & reflection to start to ripple throughout the network as members get in the habit of using the map as part of their ongoing strategic toolkit, so that 2) more and more people are able to use their map to step back, embrace complexity and find new simple answers. 

If we can combine the reflective/feedback loop capacity built into a social system map, with the Adaptive Action process in a continuous looping dialog, we will not only find actionable ways to strengthen our networks, we will be helping to build system-thinking capacity among actors on the ground, those doing the heavy lifting of system change, so that they can become better and better able to manage in complexity.

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