Learning to Love the Process and Other Lessons from System Mapping

In the last 2 blog posts in this series, my colleagues provided an overview of system mapping and a specific example of the mapping process in action. Over the past few years, we have used system mapping as an integral part of strategy, evaluation, and research projects to accomplish a few different things. For example:

  • In our work with a place-based college access and success initiative in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we used system mapping to help focus the evaluation and come with a set of appropriate evaluation questions.
  • Working with the Institute of Medicine, we used system mapping to illustrate the “birth to 8” system, and make recommendations, as part of a consensus report on how to prepare a workforce to more seamlessly support a child’s development and learning.
  • In our work with a local food initiative to develop a learning and evaluation framework, we used systems mapping to assist the initiative’s leaders to form a shared understanding of the systems they hope to influence, and to develop outcomes and evaluation activities.
  • We supported a national health foundation that used system mapping to better understand an area where they did not have formal and explicit programming, but were seeking to explore opportunities to intervene.

Along the way, we have learned a few key lessons about the use of system mapping:

  1. System mapping should be part of a larger process, not a stand-alone activity: When system mapping is used as part of a larger strategy development, evaluation, or systems change process, it tends to be more useful and used, than when it is carried out as a stand-alone activity.
  2. The purpose of the system map is to tell a story: It’s easy to get lost in the messiness of the mapping process, especially when a group is in the midst of it; however, it is useful to keep in mind that the purpose of a map is to tell a story—whether it be about the context, the initiative, the players involved, and the connections, relationships, points of energy, etc.
  3. The process is as or more important than the product: Who comes together to participate in a mapping process really matters (ideally, a group that can speak to various facets of the system under consideration), as does the process of setting the group up for a productive conversation. Both help ensure that the group finds value in the process to inform action.
  4. Co-creation and iteration are the name of the game: A map, once created and agreed upon, is by no means “done.” We might find that a few critical voices were missing in the process and need to be incorporated, or that the context has suddenly changed and key assumptions need to be revisited. It’s healthy practice to go back to a system map at least every 6 months.

It is also helpful to keep in mind 2 caveats when it comes to system mapping:

  • System mapping is not a magical tool that will instantly simplify complexity: As with any tool, the use and misuse of system mapping depends entirely on how it is deployed. We have seen some groups become overwhelmed with the untidy nature of the maps, and others that have landed on powerful insights that would not have come without the benefit of the mapping process. It is also helpful to bear in mind that an orientation to complexity demands the use of “multiple lenses” into a system, and mapping is just one (other lenses may include storytelling, conversational techniques, and experiential methodologies).
  • System mapping is not the “new theory of change”: A system map can act as a precursor to a robust theory of change (e.g., helping stakeholders see the system before deciding where and how to intervene) as well as a checkpoint that helps gauge how a theory of change is working (e.g., helping to understand whether initial assumptions played out). However, it does not make a theory of change redundant; complex initiatives still need a well-articulated hypothesis of how the expected change will come about.

As we have grown more knowledgeable in the use of system mapping over the last few years, a consistent request we have gotten is for a tangible “how to” guide. We are pleased to announce that we have now compiled such a guide for a specific type of system mapping—creating actor maps that illustrate the different actors who are part of the system, as well as their connections and interdependencies.

We view this guide as a work in progress and would immensely value any feedback and reactions you may have upon using the guide. While system mapping has been around for many years, it is still very much an emergent technique in the field, and the more we can learn from each other, the better. Happy mapping!

Download our Guide to Actor Mapping >

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