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This is a cross-posting from The Social Labs Revolution blog by Sam Rye:


We are often asked about specific parts of Social Labs practice on social media and at our workshops.

One important aspect of any Social Lab, is understanding the context a Lab Team is developing solutions for.

A grounded approach to getting started in building a picture which everyone can see, is called Systems Mapping.


“The system map is a visual description of the service technical organization: the different actors involved, their mutual links and the flows of materials, energy, information and money through the system.” – Service Design Tools


What is Systems Mapping useful for?

1. Making Systems Explicit

When you’re working with a range of stakeholders (as per a Social Labs approach), it’s important to get all of the wisdom, knowledge and assumptions out on the table (or walls!) early to start building a shared picture and mental model of the challenge and it’s context.

By physically mapping together, you will gather new information. It will of course still be incomplete (it’s impossible to map complex systems completely in this way as they are dynamic and ever changing) but they will be a better resource and foundation to work with than starting from a place where everyone can only see their part of the system.

One of the vital aspects is that the mapping gives the space to challenge assumptions and mental models which may be incomplete or incorrect.

2. Seeing Connections & Gaps

As you build the physical map, you will gain new perspectives which you may not have seen before. This is an opportunity to investigate the inter-connectedness of a system; the relationship between people and organisations for example.

You may also start to see clusters, as well as people or organisations with less, or no connectivity to other parts. This can be an opportunity for spotting important levers for change, which can form a response or prototype later in the Lab.

It is also important foundational work to better understand intended consequences you’re aiming for, as well as unintended consequences which may occur and may need to be protected against.

3. Finding Ways To Intervene

The process of creating the map is important for group alignment, but the value of the map increases over time, if it’s updated, as more understanding of the nuances of the map develop.

As well as focusing on the ‘nodes’ of the system (e.g. people, organisations, resources, etc), it’s important to pay attention to the relationships which bond them together – are they weak or strong? Are they long lasting, or fresh? Paying attention to this level of detail, can help build a greater sense of potential points of leverage, such as resources which are under utilised, people’s skills which haven’t been made use of, or strong relationships which can be a vehicle for introducing new ideas.


“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” — George E. P. Box 


How To Create A Systems Map?


Resource: Systems Mapping – A How To Guide (FSG)

This guide is a useful addition to people looking to practice systems mapping as there’s surprisingly few “How To’s” out there. Whilst this guide focuses on static ‘actor maps’, if you pair it with some of the insights about dynamic, complex systems, and a tool like we feature below, you could use it as a grounding exercise in the early stages of a Lab to build a picture of Who is affected, and how.

Download it here.


 “None of us see the system. We see our own part based on our own background and history. And we all think we see the most crucial part.” — Peter Senge, Accelerate 2014 


Resource: The Systems Game (Reos Partners)

This facilitator run sheet aims to help you run a group exercise which tunes them into the idea and practicalities of Systems, through a simple immersive game and reflection process.

Get the runsheet here.


Article: Leverage Points – Places To Intervene In A System (Donella Meadows Institute)

This excellent article looks at the common talk of systems analysts – Leverage Points – and the fallacies that can build up around the value of finding them, versus the value of acting on them with good strategic responses.

Read the article here.


 “Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points”. These are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” – Donella Meadows 


Tool: Kumu

This is a digital tool which we’re increasingly seeing used for stakeholder maps and more. It’s a very user-friendly tool which allows you to not just use images and colours to identify different ‘nodes’ (or people in a stakeholder map), but also allows you to articulate the relationships between the nodes, as well as search across the whole map.

Get your hands on your free Kumu account here.


 “Never confuse a model with the complex reality 

underneath.” — Luc Hoebeke, Making Systems Work Better 


Systems Mapping Case Study

To ground Systems Mapping in a practical example, we spoke with our friends at Lifehack, who work on youth mental health in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Lifehack recently shared the first version of their network map which includes people, organisations, and recent projects which have emerged from the Lifehack community.

Image courtesy of Lifehack – see the post here

We spoke with Gina Rembe (co-Lead of Lifehack) about the process and are sharing this Q&A to help you learn more about their experience:

Q) Why did you decide to create a systems map?

A) I decided to map out our universe because somebody brought to our attention the noticing that we rely on collaborative relationships to create impact. We try to foster that culture amongst the people we’re working with in our programmes, by encouraging people with a similar passion or approach to work together — so mapping our network would help build a picture of our community and become more effective at ‘knitting the system’ proactively.

Q) This looks like an extensive map, how long did it take to create?

A) My colleague and I made a start on paper a couple of weeks ago. Then last week, I started on Kumu by myself and quickly looped in the rest of the team. We then spent about sixty minutes on it together and got the majority into place. So probably something like 4 hours in total?

Q) What were the top learnings from the process of creating this map?

A) What we learnt in the process was how far out from us many of the organisations are. Our really strong connections are between the people within them, or connected to them.

It’s another way of seeing the importance of personal connections in our work, and how those connections overlap with other players in the system.

Visualising it all creates clarity, and made us realise that relationship-building and collaboration is something we pay a lot of attention to, and that it ripples out into the communities which we work with. Several of the projects which have emerged from our community have a similar ‘DNA’ to how Lifehack convenes and creates space for people, but a narrowed focus in on a particular area – such as Shift (young women’s exercise) and Mindfulness for Change (mindfulness for health practitioners) – so giving them a map to shortcut the path to finding other like-minds and projects, is a big win.

Image courtesy of Lifehack

When we started mapping things, we realised how many amazing relationships have begun because of Lifehack’s work – from people travelling the country to collaborate on new projects, to people who have connected through our Fellowship financially backing one another. Getting that onto a map is really really hard, so we’re building it up slowly, and working out how best to document the relationships as they grow and change.

Q) Have you done much mapping before? Is it something Lifehack uses a lot day to day?

A) We’ve done some small mapping projects in the past – for example this one which showed all the initiatives we were undertaking – and we used the Reos Systems game to introduce people to the idea.

I think it features quite a lot throughout our work, but not always explicitly as a practice of “mapping a system”. However we use Theory of Change, or investigate ‘problems in our communities’ with our Fellows and how they interlink, as well as stakeholder mapping featuring strongly in our programs. So, our version of system mapping is often more about the relationships and causality – such as root cause analysis – rather than explicitly trying to create a map as the outcome.

Q) What will you do with the Map next?

A) I’d like to see it as something that’s useful to us and useful to others. I hope it’s something we update and grow, and use to articulate our reach into NZ communities, as well as supporting our work to build stronger collaborations and partnerships.

We’re also always experimenting with how best to articulate and tell the story of our impact. Traditionally this is really hard with community-building initiatives like Lifehack – but in this case, we were able to share the map with our Stakeholders as part of our evaluation, to demonstrate our reach and networked/community-building approach. Potentially if we track and map the strength of the connections and relationships, then over time perhaps we can use it as a win-win tool which helps us do our work better, AND demonstrates our impact. We’re still working out best practice ways of doing this though – any suggestions welcome!

Big thanks to Gina Rembe for sharing her insights from Lifehack’s experience with systems mapping!


Bonus article: Systems Innovation Discussion Paper by Nesta

Systems Map, courtesy of Nesta

The paper features several types of Systems Maps (such as the one above, borrowed from the report itself), as well as some interesting commentary on changing systems.

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