Using system mapping in strategic planning

In a strategic planning workshop, drawing a Rich Picture helps people to understand the situation and ambitions of their organization.I’m currently collaborating with Fran Quintero Rawlings to incorporate systems mapping into the methods for strategic planning.  For our first test, this week we facilitated a workshop with the Senior Pride Network (SPN) of Toronto to kick off their strategic planning process.  (This is a non-profit that is revitalizing its advocacy and education efforts about health, safety, rights and respect for gender- and sexually-diverse older people.)

Our plan was to use Checkland’s “Rich Picture” method to find out the elements of “the system” that are relevant to the organization.  Then we would use cause-and-effect modelling (simplified causal loop diagramming) to find opportunities to intervene in the system’s problems.  We laid out a rainbow of markers on the table, and led the five participants through this agenda:

  1. Warm-up:  Participants were instructed “draw yourself, why you volunteer for the organization, and something that makes you happy”.
  2. Demonstration that drawing can be rough and informal:  Facilitator drew symbols such as stick figures for people, a bag of money for funding, and words for abstract concepts.
  3. team drawingRich Pictures:  Each participant selected one issue area (prepared from their existing documents).  They were asked to “draw how you see the situation surrounding your issue area, including people, places, things and resources, and their relationships.”  Participants drew individually for about 15 minutes, with background music.
  4. System Map Synthesis:  Each participant described their drawing to the group, and there was some discussion and storytelling.  A facilitator captured and linked their ideas on a large whiteboard.  The intent was to find variable factors and link them with causal relationship arrows, asking “Why does this happen? What’s the root cause? What are the effects / consequences of this?”
  5. Intervening in systemic challenges:  “How could this be changed?” During the discussion of rich pictures, participants were encouraged to write opportunities for intervention on sticky-notes, and add them to the idea whiteboard.  We were generating a wish-list of initiatives, to be prioritized later.
  6. Outcomes and initiatives:  The facilitator identified the outcomes that the participants were most interested in, and wrote them on a separate whiteboard.  Participants were asked to confirm these outcomes and describe initiatives the organization could do to influence the outcomes.
  7. Stakeholder mapping:  Each relevant organization was named on a sticky-note.  Participants drew relationships of influence and discussed potential partnerships.

The workshop evaluation showed that participants appreciated the Rich Picture drawing exercise.  We found that it helped them be creative and consider divergence from the way their organization had worked in the past.  (The disco ball drawing inspired ideas for dancing at community meetings!)  The drawings inspired group members to tell stories that provided emotional motivation for their advocacy.  The Rich Picture exercise might have gone quite differently if we had not prompted participants with issue areas from the organization’s own documents.

The system map synthesis (step 4) was not so easy to do.  The facilitator took notes of all ideas from the participants’ Rich Pictures, but could not plan to put similar ideas adjacent on the whiteboard.  Few of the ideas could be interpreted as a variable factor, and there was little discussion of cause-and-effect.

In step 5, participants only added a few initiative ideas on sticky-notes.  So step 6 was inserted into the agenda, using the break time to identify the major outcomes.  The facilitated discussion then began to show causal relationships such as “Education leads to care providers being aware needs”.

The Stakeholder Mapping (step 7) was also easy and useful for participants.  We collected the names of organizations that participants mentioned while describing their system.  It became obvious that the organization will need to prioritize its initiatives because each one could involve so many partners.

After discussing so many issues, the participants felt naturally overwhelmed by how many initiatives their small organization could take on.  We consolidated the initiative ideas overnight, and adjusted the next day’s agenda to include a prioritization exercise.

We believe that the system mapping needed an additional stage of synthesis.  While describing the Rich Pictures, participants could write the many ideas on sticky-notes.  The notes would go on one large board, then participants would cluster the related ideas (“theming” or “affinity diagramming”).  For each systemic problem identified, a chain of cause and effect could then be mapped (asking “Why, Why, Why” and the questions in step 4).  On one chain of causes, there might be multiple ways to intervene.  The SPN participants already knew this tacitly, because they looked for things their small organization could do about widespread cultural and economic problems.

We conclude that system mapping can be a useful and enjoyable activity for a small group at an early stage of strategic planning.  We would recommend it in situations where a group needs to better understand complexity or choose what interventions to make in a situation.  Planning consultants need to judge whether system mapping is suited for a particular organization’s strategic plan.

Fran and I will be workshopping this systemic-strategic-planning approach further at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design conference this October in Chicago.  We’re also looking for more organizations that need innovative strategic planning!

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