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System map

Posted by Karolina Maliszewska from Sendzimir Foundation


Group size

4 – 500

Subgroup size


Is participant experience relevant?

Ideally, participants are workshop junkies.

Physical trust needed

Mental trust needed


Material Description

-flipchart paper (minimum 2 pieces per team)
-colour markers (3 colours each group)
-colour post-its

Create materials quick and dirty

5 min

Create materials with love and care

5 min



60 minutes – 3 hours

Number of facilitators

The number of facilitators depends on the group size, 2 facilitators up to 20 participants; if it is possible it is good to have one facilitator per team.


Level of activation


Woo-Woo Level – How touchy-feely is this method?

From 1.Rationalist-Materialist “No feelings here, folks.” to 5.Esoteric-Shamanic Bleeding Heart:

Innovation Phases:

2 Creating an Innovation-Friendly Culture
3 Fostering New Perspectives & Ways of Thinking

Method Category:

Awareness raising
Business / Entrepreneurial Thinking
Collective Intelligence
Conflict resolution
Group communication
Problem Solving
Strategy / Planning
Team Building / Trust Building
Understanding complexity


This method uses systems analysis and systems thinking approach to improve a group’s understanding of the relationships between various aspects related to the topic that the group is working on.


Mental map



This method is based on a systems thinking approach to problems. It is particularly useful in the case of sustainability since dealing with modern global problems always involves complexity. Systemic approaches helps to see a bigger picture and understand the connections among environmental, social and economic aspects, creating the possibility to not compromise any of them while planning problem resolution.


The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Peter Senge 1990)
The method is part of the AtKisson Group VISIS tools - Pyramid workshop




You are welcome to do any exercises that would help your participants to understand systems theory - casual relationships, feedback loops, etc. You can find many exercises of this kind in a book "The Systems Thinking Playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities" by Linda Booth Sweeney Ed.D., Dennis Meadows.

PREPARATION (excluding materials)

Depending on the size of the group you are working with you can divide the people into teams of 4-8 participants, 5 being the ideal number. Each group should have a comfortable table to sit around with a piece (or two pieces stuck together) of flipchart paper, post-its in a few colours, and markers in several colours. Pencils and an eraser might also be useful.

1 The main challenge

Ask your participants to write the problem/challenge that they are working on in the middle of the flipchart paper. You can also have each group work on a specific aspect of the given challenge. At the beginning of the exercise you can decide together on the aspects to be analysed or you can prepare them in advance, depending on the specifics of the workshop.

2 The causes

Ask each of the teams to brainstorm the most important things that are the causes of the problem. They write all the causes down, one cause per post-it.

3 The causes of the causes

The teams think of the causes of these causes in the previous step and write those on the post-its. At the same time they should try to arrange the post-its into a system/mental map of relations looking for the causal relation not only between the central challenge/problem and the causes but also between them. You can go one step further depending on the time and topic you are working with.

4 The effects

Ask the teams to brainstorm the most important effects of the central problem as in the previous steps.

5 The effects of the effects

Finally ask the team to write down the effects of the effects. Each of variables is written on a separate post-it. The teams discuss the relationships between all the variables and try to draw a systems map making the most important connections. This work helps the group to get a better understanding of all the aspects of the problem that could have a crucial influence on the success of the solutions undertaken to solve it.


Ask the teams to look at their maps and find the places in their system that could be the best for intervention - where the intervention could be effective, feasible and meaningful for the team. This is a good step to design the projects and solutions that help change the system and solve the problem.


http://www.sendzimir.org.pl/images/Challenges_of_Sustainable_Development_in_Poland.pdf (page 42, Systems Thinking - Chapter 2), http://tools.systemdynamics.org , http://web.mit.edu/sysdyn/road-maps/toc.html

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