It Takes a Social System to Map a Social System

It Takes a Social System to Map a Social System

It Needs to Be a True Collaboration

Social System Mapping is more of an art than a science. It's an art of 'process' that starts with understanding the purpose or aims of a collaborative/action/intentional network, then learning what kinds of other- and systemic- awareness would amplify the network's ability to learn and act together, then translating those needs all the way down to the level of spreadsheets & data-flows so that you can easily gather the information that can help the network see itself better, and then turning all that noise into something that we can look at and explore together to tell a story and derive meaning. It's a process that encompasses a really broad range of mental skills, which most of us don't possess all of.

Most of the time, this requires a minimum of three different kinds of thinkers. We call these the 'thinking hats'.
  • One inspires and facilitates - listening carefully to people's imaginations to determine what information is needed. This is an imaginative, people-y, inspirational type of thinker. We call this the Visionary. The Visionary helps generate energy before there's anything to look at.
  • One deals with technical tools to gather and represent the needed information using online platforms. This is a tech-y, problem-solving, data-intensive type of thinker. We call this the Technician. The Technician takes the energy generated by the Visionary and, using the energy generated by the Visionary, makes something to look at.
  • One deals with training & systems-thinking & active inquiry to help others distill meaning from the information that has been gathered and represented. This is a conceptual, questioning, teacher-y type of thinker. We call this the SenseMaker. The SenseMaker helps the network learn and implement using the map everyone can now look at.
Of course there are more 'thinking hats' than these three. And more thinking types are valuable to the mapping process, but in our experience, without someone having strengths in at least those three mental skill-sets, a project falls flat somewhere along the way. The potential it represents never gets accessed. 

And it's rare that one person is strong in all three areas. Even I (Christine), who have to live under all those hats most of the time, find it hard to perceive and process well from more than one of them at a time. If I'm not clear in my own mind which hat I need to wear in a given context, I find myself starting to spin in useless circles. This means that Social System Mapping is inherently and inevitably a collaboration among very different thinking types.

You might have noticed that the 'hats' correspond roughly with the phases of mapping - Envisioning, Mapping, SenseMaking (or more simply Before, During, After). In fact, they're all involved at all phases, and the phases cycle round & round again. But each phase does emphasize a different Hat, and is best served when driven by the person(s) possessing the relevant skills & insights.

These three different types need different kinds of knowledge - and in the name of good collaboration where everyone brings their own strengths and perspective to the table w/o requiring everyone else to think like them & know everything they know - we've decided to structure this Knowledge Base to align with each of the hats.

That means that as you dig in here, knowing which perspective or 'hat' you are questioning or thinking from will make it easier for you to find what you need. It also means that where you begin depends on which hat you intend to wear.

Key Driving Roles - or 'Thinking Hats'

Whether filled by one person or multiple persons, a good map requires someone to be responsible to guide and implement each of the following action areas:


The person(s) that helps catalyze a map-making process within a community - it involves helping others see and act on the potential, before there is anything to look at.


The person(s) responsible to take the member lists, and survey questions and first turn them into a sumApp interface, and ultimately turn the data gathered in sumApp into a meaningful, interactive map in Kumu.


The person(s) who help the community read and learn from the map after it has been created.

Other Key Roles


Visionaries need someone to envision with. Interested members the community need to be part of the process. Most projects enlist the input and support of a subgroup of the community to help define the survey, participate in prototyping and pilot-testing, give map design input and encourage others to participate in the mapping survey.

You can call them Ambassadors, Pilot-Testers, Design Team, Advocates - You could even have a separate group for each of those functions if there's enough interest. You can convene them for a group process (once or many times), or you can reach out to them one-on-one. It all depends on your context, how big your network is & how much energy has been generated around this initiative.

This is another place where diversity is important - you can't really get at the needs of the whole if you only have representatives of a few key parts at the table.

But at the same time, if you can't generate a whole lot of starting fan-fare - don't fret. Just start where you can & take it from there. But whatever you do, try to get survey design input and feedback at all stages from at least a couple other people who have different perspectives. And the more the merrier.

Network Members

You can't map much if you can't get your network members to engage - you have to be considering the value to them at every step of the way. At a minimum, start with whoever is interested. Get a pilot test of the survey going. Make a prototype of a map so those who are on it have something to show others, and enlist the interested in getting others to support the project, be on the map, whatever it is you need.

Once you have a map started, you can begin to engage the whole network in making sense of what you have. Which will start the cycle all over again as you begin to envision what else the map could represent.

The Opportunity

A Social System Map is an opportunity to practice what we preach. The Three Hats not only have different strengths, they tend to think and communicate differently. In network weaving circles, we talk a lot about working together across differences - but we still tend to gravitate towards those who are like us. This is especially true when it comes to thinking & communication styles. Even those who are good with other differences often don't know how to work well with different thinking types. This can create all kinds of tensions, and if not handled well, all kinds of misunderstanding, mistakes, frustration and wasted time.

I used to say that my job was to translate the infinite, abstract, non-linear, multi-dimensional verbalized desires of the Visionaries among our clients down into the finite, linear, single-dimensional bits and bites of computer logic so the Technicians have tools to work with, and then out again to abstract, interactive, visual representations of the resulting data that enable normal people to see something they can't see in any other way. I had to navigate & translate among 3 extremely different languages all at once. 

The hardest thing about that self-imposed job of mine was that very few people I ever talked with could even sense that I had to do the parts they weren't doing - as far as I could tell, they usually thought their language was the only one being spoken & the only one that was relevant. Sometimes the strain of all that mental work in the face of so many blindly innocent demands could push me into a very cranky place.

But the up-side of all that, for me, was discovering that it's a powerful practice if you embrace it. It can help you slow down, question more, listen even better, push for ever more clarity, become ever more transparent, learn to push others gently to the edges of their assumptions, and ultimately co-learn and co-create things you can't imagine if you don't engage in the kind of practice a good, collaborative Social System Map demands.

I love that. I love that you can't do a really great job of this stuff all on your own. I love that it forces us to work to be greater than the sum of our parts.


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