Steps to mapping society

Many thanks to Daniel Bassill for taking the time to share his thoughts on my TED talk on mapping society.

If you haven’t watched it, the basic idea is that having an accurate and comprehensive set of visual maps of how society (particularly the public sector) works as a system could help us have more meaningful conversations about how we want it to work in the future. As an example I use a map we made of the European Union.

Daniel has spent a lot of time using mapping techniques to a similar end, and in his post he raises three challenges to making the vision a reality. His challenges are very perceptive, and represent concerns I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the years, but didn’t have time to address in the talk.

1) The challenge of making the maps in the first place

Imagine waking up in the Middle Ages, inventing maps, and going around trying to persuade the average commoner that they needed one. For the vast majority of people, they wouldn’t understand why. They know their way to the village, they can always ask someone if they get lost, and if they need to go further afield they can just follow the signposts, right?

I sometimes feel like that person!  What makes me persevere is the fact that I have in fact sold an awful lot of maps to an awful lot of people over the years. The thing is, to use the medieval analogy, I’ve been selling them to the gentry, not to the commoners. The gentry have a need for maps because they do things like travel to meet other nobles, launch invasions and argue over property rights.

The buyers for the conceptual maps we make as a company tend to be programme managers, operations directors, CEOs and the like. When a large organisation has a significant need for change they will spend a lot of money on it. Coralling all the involved parties towards a common goal warrants a decent map to explain to people how the business works now and how it needs to work in the future.

My view is that this way of doing change is grossly inefficient. We wait until the organisation is no longer fit for purpose in some way and then do a massive transformation programme. Then wait a few years (or a few months!) and do it all over again. We made an interactive model of this way of doing change last year, which you can see here:

Instead the organisation should be continuously adapting and evolving to the changes in its environment. And I think one of the big reasons this doesn’t happen is that there is no shared model of the organisation, its purpose or its environment, so change becomes a reaction to things going too obviously wrong for people to ignore. Then a programme is launched and business analysts are hired to figure out how the business actually works in order to streamline the processes, implement the new IT system or whatever.

Enterprise Architecture is an attempt to address this problem, but in my experience fails too often because the models it generates cannot be universally understood. What is needed is a set of system maps that everyone can understand and see themselves in, that are continuously updated and are trusted to reflect the reality on the ground.  In other words, maps that look more like this …

… and not just like this:

Now how does this answer the question?

Firstly, if this principle can be demonstrated in the public sector, such that money is saved by organisations engaging in continous evolution rather than costly periodic transformation, then we have a funding stream.

Secondly, the cost of maintaining the maps rapidly diminishes the more of these organisations are on board. The cost of creating a set of maps for local authority number one is expensive; creating the maps for local authority number seventeen is not.

Thirdly, once the maps are created, they open up a huge number of value streams, many of which couldn’t have been imagined beforehand. For example, imagine how much more meaningful a seminar would be between representatives of different public bodies, if each could use their own map to explain the idiosyncrasies of their respective approaches to the same problem.

The point of all of this is that you don’t fund the approach by selling directly to the commoners. You have to find ways to deliver business value and sell to the gentry. Once you have those in charge of public sector organisations on board, you can then turn the maps inside out to show the public how they fit into those systems.

Now don’t get me wrong here. My deep conviction is that meaningful system maps will only find their greatest value once they are accessible and in everyday use by everyone involved in those systems. But you can’t start there – you’re selling maps to people who don’t see the need, let alone have the willingness to pay for them. Which brings me onto the second point.

2) The challenge of motivating growing numbers of people to look at the maps

I get asked this all the time. You spend ages making a nice map of a complex system, but how do you then persuade people to take the time to look at it?

My first answer is a very simple and short one: You make the maps resemble the world they represent. The more closely a conceptual map corresponds visually to our experience of the world, the more meaningful it will be, and the more likely people are to become interested in it. Learning to do this well is the whole point of this blog.

The second point is much subtler and needs a bit of explanation. The short answer, is you don’t target them all at once. Let’s move away from the medieval metaphor of gentry and commoners, and talk about Middle Earth instead. In case you haven’t read the Hobbit, it starts off with a hobbit called Bilbo being visited by a wizard and some dwarfs and shown a map with treasure and a dragon. Against his better judgment Bilbo goes off with the dwarfs to follow the map and steal the treasure. Everyone else in his village things he’s mad to do so.

It strikes me that most of us are a bit like hobbits. We like the idea of adventure and challenge and danger, as long as it’s in a story and we don’t actually have to be involved ourselves. What does this look like in organisations?

I think in the rank and file of an average organisation there is a smaller number of people – say 5% – who are Bilbo-like. When a change programme comes along, they volunteer to join the programme team. When something isn’t working, they scour the staff directory looking for someone who may be able to help figure out what’s going on. When someone has a great idea, they hack their way through the organisational bureaucracy to find a way to operationalise it.

These people are gold. To the extent that the organisation adapts to its changing environment, it tends to be as a result of their hidden endeavours, most of which seem to go unnoticed and unrewarded. In fact sometimes these can be really annoying when everyone just wants to stick with the status quo.

I don’t think many of us are like this naturally, but I think all of us have the potential to be. The lesson I get from reading the Hobbit is that something as simple as a map can go a long way to unlocking that potential. I know this was the case for me. I grew up in a poor family, so we never travelled abroad. But we had this 1962 Readers Digest atlas of the world that I scoured week after week, imagining what it would be like to go off and explore. It was beautiful, with bright vivd colours to stir the imagination. The things is, in a world with no maps, I wouldn’t have even known that any of these places existed except through hearsay, just as the average medieval villein never travelled more than a few dozen miles from their manor and village, and just as the average office worker knows nothing of the world outside their particular silo.

It’s surely expecting too much for an employee with a complex process problem and an unsympathetic manager to go off trying to find someone working in an unknown department who could help solve it. But if the process is mapped out in a way that that person can understand, and the map is accessible to everyone, then he/she can trace back to see who the relevant person is on the map, and maybe even link straight through to their profile on the internal directory. The map both contains the anxiety of the unknown, and invites exploration to find out what different parts of the organisational universe look like in the real world.

In my view, the vast majority of major organisational problems occur not within organisational units but in the no-man-land between them – the parts that no one understands. These problems can’t be solved unless there are enough people working outside their comfort zones, exploring, figuring out what’s falling between the cracks and bringing those things to managerial attention.

Now, let’s just say I’m right and the “change agent Bilbo Baggins organisational explorer” type personality represents 5% of a given population, and that these people have a disproportionate effect on the rest of the organisation’s ability to adapt and thrive in a changing world. Then the objective is not to get everyone looking at the maps, but to get the maps into those people’s hands. If you do this then I think two things happen: Firstly these people will become way more effective because they’ll be spending a lot less time lost in no-mans land. And secondly, you will slowly start to recruit more Bilbos, because the existing Bilbos now have a resource with which to trigger their colleagues’ curiousity.

And to be honest, even if making these maps only gets the 5% proportion up to 8% or 9%, that’s probably a big enough shift to change the world in some pretty substantial ways.

3) The role of network-builder, facilitator, mentor and teacher

I think I’ve just half-answered this question. The Bilbos of the organisational world are usually the ones building the biggest networks, because they’re the ones who cross boundaries and meet people. But facilitation, mentoring and teaching are a different kettle of fish. Facilitation alone is a skill many people claim but very few have mastered.

The thing maps do though, is to raise the “base” level of conversation before you even get into the need for facilitation. Think about it – if you’re a group trying to plan a route for a long distance car journey or a hiking expedition, how much harder would the conversation be if you didn’t have a map to act as a shared reference? Provided everyone trusts the map, you at least don’t need to argue about where you are, where you’re going, and what’s between the two. In most organisations (let alone society at large) people’s mental models of these three things can be alarmingly different.

If we’re all looking at the same map of a system and if (big if!) we all agree that it’s an accurate depiction of how the system works, then we end up having much more meaningful conversations, we disagree about the things that are worth disagreeing about, and we’re much more likely to avoid getting lost in misunderstandings due to our differeing silo languages and mental models.

A final thought

Daniel raised three great challenges to the vision of universal system maps. For what it’s worth, I’ll raise one final challenge that Daniel didn’t mention, but I think might be the biggest, and that’s the challenge to remain neutral. If maps are going to bring people from different perspectives together, then they those maps can’t have a hiddenn agenda. I want to avoid any hint of didacticism in my system maps, because I know that the people coming to use them will have enough prejudices of their own. As soon as they sense they’re being sold a line they disagree with, the map becomes as worthless in their eyes as an advertising campaign.

Sadly, complete neutrality isn’t possible. Every representation we create is biased in some way to our own particular view of the world. But we can at least be aware of this and hold on to the ideal. The bigger challenge is trying to spot and avoid vested interests in the people who are giving us the content for the maps. We often find that content owners explain their part of the pictures in ways designed to sell themselves, protect themselves, or push along a particular hobby-horse. As an outsider, how do you know the difference? It’s not like being a cartographer, where the hill you’re trying to map stays still!

Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer to this final challenge beyond the need for constant checking and iteration. I am however very encouraged by the history of geographical maps. It may have taken 5000 years, but we no longer argue about what’s on the other side of the ocean, or how high the mountain is. Hopefully the same journey for conceptual system mapping will not take such a long time!

One thought on “Steps to mapping society

  1. Thanks for taking a look at my article and writing your own reflection. I am a fan of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and agree with the points you raised. I posted a response at http://mappingforjustice.blogspot.com/2017/05/building-fellowship-on-web.html

    In it I offer comment on the points you raised and added two more considerations. One was that I focus on getting different stakeholders within the Chicago community, and the nation, to work together in the ways that I think you focus on getting people within organizations to work.

    The other is that in my world others are constantly “reinventing the wheel” or approaching the same problem, with new money and new support, but without any effort to learn from what I’ve already been doing, or to help me do it.

    I’ll look forward to the journey with you.

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