Systems Mapping

Purpose: This activity is intended to help participants get a visual/tangible understanding of the system, the relationships between parts, the gaps in their understanding and the potential opportunities.

Materials: A piece of foam board per team to build their system map on (especially useful if you want them to preserve their model for future reference. Various building materials of different sizes, shapes, colours, etc. such as lego, wooden blocks, pipe cleaners, foam blocks, as well as several 'suggestive' items such as farmyard animal models, dice, handcuffs, etc.

Time: 2 hrs, 30 mins

Step 1 (30 mins): In their teams, instruct participants to create a model of the current reality of the system they are working within, given the materials at hand. Encourage them to think about the materials they choose to represent each element of the system, and also to think about how they will represent the relationships between elements using materials, space, etc.

Step 2 (30 mins): Invite teams to present and receive feedback on their system. Two teams pair up, one team presents their system to the other for 5 mins, and then the other team provides feedback in the form of questions for 5 mins. Inform the presenting team that they cannot defend their system map or answer questions - they are simply to write down the feedback questions they are receiving from their peers, in order to be able to address it when they iterate their system map.

Step 3 (20 mins): Have teams adjust their system map based on the feedback received. (At this point, you can ask teams to trash their model, if you feel they could use some practice at 'letting go').

Step 4 (30 mins): After the second iteration of the system map, have participants reflect on their map from four directions. This should look like guided individual journaling for 20 mins and a team debrief for 10 mins. While journaling, participants will be asked to rotate around the table, so that they get different perspectives on their model. Questions below.

Where you are: Appreciation/Feeling

  • What do you love about your model?

  • What gives you energy?

  • What frustrates you?

  • What causes you to lose energy?

Rotate 90 degrees around your table: Truth/Practicality

  • What are some of the key challenges/hard truths that you will have to face?

Rotate 90 degrees around your table: Perspective/Insight

  • What are the systemic barriers that lock us into the current state of operating?

Rotate 90 degrees around your table: Vision/Presence

  • What in this situation is old, and wanting to die?

  • What do you see that is want to emerge, wanting to be born?

Step 5 (10 mins): Have participants identify 2 or 3 bottleneck areas or strategic leverage points in the system that could inform their prototype, based on the feedback from their peers and their journalling responses.

Step 6 (20 mins): Invite participants change or adjust the model to represent their desired future for the system.

Check out (10 mins): Have teams discuss the differences between the map of their current reality and the map of their desired future. What would it take to get from the first model to the second? How might they begin to prototype a small part of the new system?

This can be a groan-y activity, but tends to be insightful and really move teams forward quickly in understanding their system and the potential for prototypes, so always a good idea to do a temperature check in the form of a check out to see where the group is at, and respond/adjust accordingly.