Mapping the System


An exercise to make sense of the current forces affecting the system, and to reveal critical leverage points for action—places where targeted action can produce outsized impacts.

Group Size

This activity can work with any group size; participants will be broken into small groups of 4-7 people each.

Time Required 

About 90m. Includes 10m for framing and setup (including getting people into groups and at their tables), 25m for the initial run-through, 5m to pick the second element to focus on, 25m for the second run-through, and then 30m for sharing in the full group. 


In any complex system, there are underlying structures, norms, and beliefs responsible for creating the presenting symptoms we see every day—the events and crises that flood the news and occupy most of our attention. In the absence of a deliberate process to make sense of the system it seeks to change, a network might inadvertently maintain most of its focus on the most obvious symptoms and miss important details about the underlying factors that are creating those symptoms in the first place. 


An essential step to creating systemic change, then, is to develop a deep, nuanced, and meaningful understanding of the past, present, and potential future states of the system, as well as the root causes that are driving the system’s behavior. This involves surfacing diverse perspectives, developing a broader understanding of the actors and organizations involved, and examining external trends and forces. It also involves considering the local context, learning about the histories of the place or system, identifying political and power dynamics, and unveiling hardwired assumptions. In the process, lots of questions are asked and answered, and patterns are surfaced. Relevant actors, forces, and flows are identified. Participants share their piece of the puzzle and the big picture comes into view, illuminating new connections and opportunities to create change. 


Mapping the System is an activity that helps participants to make sense of the present state of the system, and identify places in the system where the network may be able to intervene to create change. Systems mapping is not about “getting the map right.” Rather, it is about uncovering existing elements in the system, engaging in conversation about how those elements influence the system, and then looking for leverage points that might influence change. While systems mapping can be conducted with interviews and software to create a highly-detailed map, these comprehensive processes can be costly, time intensive, and complicated. What’s most important are the conversations that result from the effort. 


As Ruth Rominger of the Garfield Foundation and RE-AMP Network explains, “the discussions and collective learning among stakeholders is where the value lies. It’s what develops our skills to work with complexity in planning, actions, network design, and governance. Systems mapping isn’t a technical fix... It is really shifting the way we 1) look at complex social issues and the key dynamics involved and 2) engage a more diverse set of actors that are intentionally connected and aligned to have broader impact.”⁠


Given this, we encourage networks to start with a rapid systems mapping approach like the one described below. This simpler approach engages participants to collectively map the system they seek to address through discussion, in real-time, using a shared display.


Start by breaking people into small groups, with 4-7 people per group. Each group should have their own table and two pieces of large post-it flip-chart paper laid flat on the table, one on top of the other (if you have enough space, you can instead place four post-it flip-charts together in a giant rectangle on each table to create a larger work area). Each table should also have one black marker per person, as well as a few red and green markers.


The process of mapping a system begins with a central element, related to the network’s overall purpose. For example, for a network focused on advancing economic mobility across a city, the central element would be “economic mobility in our city” Have each group write this element in the center of their flip-chart, and circle it.


For the next 10m, all participants are invited to think of major factors that influence the central element (including policies, structural or systemic factors, agencies or organizations, etc.). Whenever someone thinks of a new factor, they will write it down and circle it somewhere on the paper with a black marker. Participants should say the factor out loud to their group as they write it, so that there are no duplicates. It’s helpful for participants to write factors one at a time, while the rest of the group listens and notices the different factors that others are introducing.


When 10m are up, participants are invited to take 5m to draw connecting lines from the new factors to the central element: they should draw a green line if the factor positively influences the central element, a red line if the factor negatively influences the central element, and a black line if it’s mixed or if they’re not sure.


Participants are then given 10m to slow it down, take a step back, walk around the map, and take a few breaths. Speaking one at a time, participants can share some observations, insights, or questions they have with the others at their table. If helpful, the facilitator can provide prompting questions such as:

  • What or who is missing from the map?
  • Which factors most affect economic mobility in our city [adapt it to your own context]? 
  • Which factors is your conversation gravitating towards?


Next, each group is asked to take 5m to pick one factor they would like to explore in more depth, based on which one is creating the most curiosity and enthusiasm in their group. For example, if the original central element was “economic mobility in our city”, a group might choose to focus on the factor “lack of affordable housing.” The exercise will repeat, with this new factor as the focal point. If they’ve run out of space, they can write and circle this new factor in the middle of a new flipchart. If they still have space, they can continue using their current flipchart. 


With this new factor as the focus, they will again take 10m to draw the major factors that influence it, and then 5m to draw positive or negative connections between them.


Once the groups have finished with their second run-through of the exercise, this time with their new factor as the central focus, they are invited to take 10m to reflect on where they landed, considering the following questions: 

  • Which of the new factors that we identified have the greatest potential to create change? 
  • How might we intervene to shift these factors? (Note: these are the “leverage points” in the system - the places where changing one thing can have an outsized impact on your original central element). 


Finally, groups are invited to share their results with the full network by responding to the following questions, taking no more than 3 minutes per group:

  • Which factor did you choose to focus on?
  • What things did you identify that most influence this factor, positively or negatively?


If desired, the exercise could then lead into further exploration of how the network might most effectively intervene to shift the factors identified by the groups, with time to identify action steps.  

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