Open Source your Analysis: Participatory Approaches to Systems Mapping

People living and working in complex systems - defined by multiple, changing, and interconnected causes - are continually baffled by their unpredictable behavior. This blog post explains systems mapping, which will help you navigate this complexity and develop more effective change strategies.

Complex systems, be they weather storms, the Syrian conflict, or the dancefloor at your office Christmas party, are difficult to reliably predict, and impossible to control. Those of us that tackle social problems must face this complexity head on, accept that we don’t have prima facie answers, and embrace strategies of shared, iterative learning and adaptation, rather than pretending that we’ve got a crystal ball and a silver bullet. 

This means engaging with concepts of non-linearity, or the idea that phenomena don’t follow a linear cause and effect trajectories. This is hard, because our minds are conditioned to rationalize simple explanations. The NRA would have us believe that school shootings are due to a culture of violence. President Trump says it’s because teachers don’t have guns. For gun control advocates, the epidemic of school shootings is a consequence of the widespread availability of guns. But if we were to broaden our thinking, and ignore for just a moment our moral and political biases, can we agree that the problem of school shootings in all likelihood is a consequence of all of these factors and a whole host more, to varying extents that constantly change over time? This is the concept of complex causality. 

And why do our best efforts to influence social outcomes sometimes amount to nothing? What happened to Occupy Wall Street? Why (did it?) amount to nothing, when other bottom up social change processes in the Arab World transformed their host societies, for better or worse? Complex systems thinkers also recognise that energy expended to try and change a system is not necessarily proportionate to the change that is ultimately realized, and depends upon where in the system leverage is applied, which manifest and latent attractors maintain the system in certain equilibria or offer novel alternatives, and which thresholds must be reached before tipping points can be activated. 

For practitioners that want to change systems, and not just understand why they changed, systems mapping is a useful practical tool. It allows us to delineate causal factors and their interdependencies, identify what actions have highest potential (or are potentially futile) in affecting change, and predict both intended and unintended consequences. It's used by researchers and practitioners for analysis and as a tool to plan actions based on a more holistic context understanding. 

A primer in systems mapping (and thinking)

  The shifting the burden archetype: ceasefires are a quick fix that doesn't solve the underlying problem

The shifting the burden archetype: ceasefires are a quick fix that doesn't solve the underlying problem

At the heart of systems mapping is the question of why. Why did C happen? Was it because of A, or B, or A and B? What could be stopping C from happening? How are these factors related? In systems speak, it's a means of analysing (and visualising) a system to discern the causal relationships between these factors and the emergent properties their interaction gives rise to. The emergent properties of complex systems are outcomes of system behaviour that are 'more than the sum of their parts' insofar as they are not caused by simple cause and effect relationships, but emerge from the complex interaction of many factors.

Many of the relationships between causal factors and system properties are non-linear. Some factors and relationships cause more of themselves, such as the weapons stocks of two competing countries caught in an arms race (reinforcing feedback). Other factors balance each other out or help to keep a system in equilibrium, like the countervailing effects of heating and cooling on temperature in a thermostat-controlled room (balancing feedback). Time delays and disproportionality between causes and effects are common. The so-called Butterfly effect is an example of the latter, borrowed from chaos theory. Peter Coleman et al introduce the concept of attractors, which help explain how complex social systems stabilise with particular dynamics. 

For a longer primer on systems approaches, ground yourself in Donella Meadows' foundational text. A must read.

Systems mapping

Systems maps can be created by one or a few analysts by collecting data, deducing the causal relationships between factors that govern system behavior, and visualising this interpretation. Quite sophisticated maps can be developed based upon traditional data collection methods and specialized approaches such as chronology of events mapping. Important dynamics within maps can be identified, allowing us to theorize the key patterns that make systems resistant to change, or potential leverage points where effort could be targeted to achieve desired results.

Open source your analysis: participatory systems mapping

Increasing collaboration in any analysis and planning endeavor is useful. By having more perspectives involved in the articulation of a system's dynamics we guard against risks that analyses are subjective or incomplete. As Rumi's fable of the blind men and the elephant alludes to, it's foolish to think that one person (or a group of people sharing similar perspectives) can grasp the complex totality of any given situation.

Some Hindus have an elephant to show. No one here has ever seen an elephant. They bring it at night to a dark room. One by one, we go in the dark and come out saying how we experience the animal. One of us happens to touch the trunk. A water-pipe kind of creature.

Another, the ear. A strong, always moving back and forth, fan-animal. Another, the leg. I find it still, like a column on a temple. Another touches the curve back. A leathery throne. Another, the cleverest, feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain. He is proud of his description.

Each of us touches one place and understands the whole in that way.The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.

If each of us held a candle there, and if we went in together, we could see it.

- Rumi, Sufi poet

Participatory mapping processes contrasts and expands upon conflicting viewpoints. It introduces additional complexity into peoples' understanding of why things happen and often generates disagreements, because people have adopted different narratives based on their experience that render complexity comprehensible. If people are open minded and the evidence is compelling enough, participatory mapping processes expose new information that destabilizes these narratives, opening the opportunity for new and shared understandings to bed in.

This is a powerful tool for resolving disagreement and building a foundation for collective action. Participatory analytical and planning processes allow people a higher degree of autonomy than what is typically afforded in hierarchical social systems, unlocking the intrinsic motivation that compels people to most effectively implement change strategies. Even when we can coerce people to agree with our reasoning, like when we order them to (military) or pay them to (business), we typically achieve better results when people really believe in what they are doing.

How to conduct a participatory mapping process

A complete guide to data collecting and participatory mapping for systemic action research can be found in Danny Burns's recent book. This methodology goes beyond analysis to include action, which is often of more interest to practitioners than researchers.

  Participatory mapping with conflict-affected communities in Myanmar

Participatory mapping with conflict-affected communities in Myanmar

The short of participatory mappings is to:

1. Select a diverse group of stakeholders. These should be people who should have a stake, experience, and/or direct knowledge of the system being analyzed, and represent as many 'parts' of the system (or value chain, or causal chain..) as possible. They should be available to participate in several iterations of data collection, mapping, discussion, and action. New participants might be added to the group as the research and mapping evolves because they have needed expertise or abilities to implement the emerging plan. 

2. Collect your data. This can be drawn from the same sources as traditional research. In systemic action research, data is drawn from the experience of people living in the systems we are trying to understand in the forms of personal perspectives, stories and recollections. These are recorded in detail during a 'systemic inquiry' process. 

3. The mapping process uses the same people who have collected the data. Data is mapped to identify and visualize the specific factors (elements) that influence how the system behaves and to articulate the causal links between these elements. Links between elements can be understood as causal chains that may exist in the present, past or future. Associated factual information or references to actors in that system (people or organizations) is included on the maps, which can cover entire walls. The emphasis is on broadening participants' thinking about what influences a given situation, rather than getting the analysis perfect. Participants should embrace the complexity of the system, adding as much detail into their maps as possible. 

  Unintended consequences of imprisonment or drug offences

Unintended consequences of imprisonment or drug offences

4. Once the initial 'big picture mapping' in completed, attention can turn to the identifying important causal patterns, which might be subjects of clarifying research or re-mapped in isolation. These patterns offer unique insights into why that system behaves the way it does, or what we could be done to enact a desired change in system behavior.  

These patterns might be system archetypes, which are causal dynamics that can explain system dysfunction. Or they might be more basic, such as reinforcing or balancing feedback loops, which are causal dynamics within a system that serve to change or maintain or change its properties. Sometimes we might notice unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions. 

5. Plan collective actions. Actions to change the system are selected and elaborated by the group based upon discussions around leverage points - typically system elements or relationships of system elements where action can be focused to realize the desired change. As Donella Meadows description alludes to, some of these may be visible within the map (e.g. information flows or feedback loops), though some of the most powerful may not be (e.g. rules, goals or the paradigm that defines the system).  

6. Take action. Participatory processes are often the basis for collective action taken by the group. After taken action, maps might be revisited or mapped one more to incorporate data gathered through the experience of implementation.

We would love to hear about your application of these tools. Please send any questions or feedback to