Visualizing complexity

Development Policy30 Nov 2009Steve Waddell

In my work, I find thinking of complexity in four dimensions is useful:

  • temporal complexity…referring to the time lags (and variety of length) between taking action and seeing impact;
  • dynamic…referring to the interplay between large numbers of factors/actors/actions with respect to any issue of interest;
  • cultural…referring to ethnic/linguistic/sectoral (business-government-civil society) differences;
  • geographic…referring to local-regional-global interplays.

We need more tools to handle these forms of complexity…with simplicity! Books of description are very hard to hold and share. One helpful alternative is network mapping in various forms, which can put complexity on single pieces of paper with nodes and arrows, to make it much easier to hold and share. I work with various types of mapping that do this, including social network analysis, value network analysis, strategic clarity mapping, conceptual mapping, web crawls, web scrapes, geo-mapping and mind mapping.

These approaches help make complexity visible, in terms of underlying relationships between people, organizations, places and ideas. By making complexity visible, more effective conversations take place for problem-solving and strategy-setting.

The workshop will focus on the following:

Every change initiative involves ‘systems’ – internal production systems, ones relating to how work gets done, issue systems relating to the topic that the NGO is working to address, and mental model systems about strategy. Clearly, ‘seeing’ those systems is important for success. This workshop reviews new forms of ‘mapping’ that can vastly enhance and speed understanding of the systems. The maps are diagrams of arrows and nodes that can communicate tremendous amounts of information visually, much more easily than volumes of text.

Within a system are stakeholders that include individuals, organizations, networks of organizations, the range of their actions, their ways of thinking vis-à-vis the issue, and the natural and human-created environmental factors that influence the system. Stakeholders may or may not identify themselves as participants in the system. One of the challenges of developing an issue system is to build participants’ identity with it; this is critical for creating effective action to respond to change opportunities, needs and challenges.

Different mapping approaches have different strengths and weaknesses.

‘Production system’ maps – exemplified by inter-individual social network analysis (SNA) – help an organization to understand how work actually gets done, in comparison to formal org charts. This analysis can assist in bringing greater alignment between the two, which in turn reduces conflict and enhances productivity.

Issue mapping – exemplified by SNA and value network analysis – builds understanding of key leverage points in the bigger system it is trying to influence. These are points that, when focused upon, have a large ratio of amount-of-effort to desired-change. The focus can involve the application of resources, or actually reducing resources.

The mental model mapping – exemplified by strategic clarity mapping – can uncover conflict, make it discussable, and enhance effectiveness. People can understand why someone else is doing what they are doing. Often this helps people understand that their mental model may be important, but incomplete vis-à-vis the change goal – and therefore help people’s respective efforts connect much more effectively.

These maps can include hundreds of nodes and arrows, or very few. Experience working with people around the world proves that even relatively complex systems, with even a couple of hundred nodes, can be understood by people with very limited education. A participatory development process is key.

Results can be impressive. Mapping was undertaken by a couple of dozen people in Guatemala to support CARE to vastly enhance its impact. An evaluation a year later showed that the process was transformational from two perspectives: people had significantly changed their relationships (who they were working with) and they had significantly changed how they understood their work vis-à-vis others.