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Making Systems Mapping Accessible

by | Jun 27, 2024

The webinar “Making Systems Mapping Accessible” addressed six common misconceptions about systems mapping and offered alternative approaches for more effective model-building. David Peter Stroh, author of Systems Thinking for Social Change, led the discussion, focusing on the use of qualitative systems maps in organizational settings. The webinar included practical examples addressing intergenerational poverty, healthcare disparities, and global conservation efforts.

Overview and Context

David Peter Stroh began by explaining the significance of qualitative systems mapping. He emphasized that qualitative mapping helps stakeholders visualize their mental models and recognize blind spots, stating, “Systems thinking is mental models made explicit.” He outlined the goals of the webinar: clarifying the benefits of qualitative versus quantitative mapping, exposing myths, demonstrating practical applications, and offering tips for engaging stakeholders in model building.

Key Takeaways from the Webinar

  1. Misconception: Systems Maps Must Capture Complete Systems Stroh argued that no system map can capture an entire system due to its complexity. Instead, effective qualitative maps should answer focusing questions beginning with “why.” He emphasized, “Effective qualitative maps answer focusing questions beginning with the word why.”

  2. Misconception: The Value Lies in the Map Itself  The process of map-making is as important as the map itself. Stroh highlighted that maps catalyze productive conversations about root causes, stimulate personal responsibility, and generate hypotheses about solutions. “Maps are effective because they catalyze productive conversations about root causes,” he noted.

  3. Misconception: Objective Observers Make the Best Mappers Stroh suggested that the best mappers are part of the system they aim to change. “The greatest control anyone has over the behavior of a system is through their own intentions, thinking, and behavior,” he explained.

  4. Misconception: Comprehensive Maps Are More Useful Effective maps simplify complexity and focus on what’s essential. Systems archetypes can help people recognize recurring patterns in complex systems. Stroh advised, “Use your map to tell a human story which distills why people’s well-intentioned efforts have been insufficient.”

  5. Misconception: Useful Maps Take Months to Build Useful maps can be developed in weeks, days, or even hours. The critical factor is engaging key stakeholders early and ensuring their involvement throughout the process. “Useful maps can actually be developed in a matter of weeks or even hours,” Stroh asserted.

  6. Misconception: Combining Problem and Solution Maps is Effective It’s essential to distinguish maps that explain problems from those that propose solutions. Awareness of the current system is the first step toward change. Stroh emphasized, “First help people fully appreciate why the problem has persisted.”

Practical Examples

Stroh shared examples of systems mapping applied to real-world issues:

  • Wealth Inequality: He illustrated the intergenerational cycle of poverty, explaining how unstable family environments lead to poor school performance, reduced earning power, and further poverty. “People caught in this vicious cycle are drowning, and collaboration among different support services is required to help them swim to shore,” he explained.

  • Healthcare Disparities: Stroh demonstrated how systemic racism in healthcare creates vicious cycles that perpetuate inequality. “The system of healthcare in the US works quite well if you’re white,” he noted, explaining the disparities faced by people of color.

  • Organizational Overload: He discussed how embracing too many priorities leads to overload, reduced collaboration, and ultimately, decreased effectiveness. “As priorities increase faster than the capacity to manage them, budget pressure and organizational overload ensue,” Stroh explained.

Tips for Engaging Stakeholders

Stroh offered several tips for engaging people in qualitative model building:

  1. Embed Systems Mapping in Change Management Processes: Integrate mapping with a conscious change management strategy.
  2. Establish a Focusing Question Early On: Focus the mapping process with a clear question.
  3. Gather Qualitative Data Through Interviews: Use interviews and supporting documentation to develop initial models.
  4. Develop Straw Models: Create preliminary models to guide discussions and refine them with stakeholder input.
  5. Engage Decision Makers: Involve leaders in reflecting and acting on the refined models.


The webinar concluded with a Q&A session, where Stroh emphasized the importance of seeing systems mapping as a catalyst for change. He encouraged participants to use qualitative maps to stimulate reflection and personal responsibility. For those interested in further resources, he recommended his book Systems Thinking for Social Change and provided additional references for deeper exploration.

Watch the recording below


About the Speaker

David Peter Stroh is a founding partner of Bridgeway Partners, a consulting firm that partners with mission-centered organizational leaders committed to advancing social and environmental transformation. He is internationally recognized for his work in enabling leaders to apply systems thinking to achieve breakthroughs around chronic, complex problems and to develop strategies which improve system-wide performance over time. David is also the author of the best-selling book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results.

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