Systems mapping for complex problems

A useful example of visual modelling for complex problems is systems mapping. Systems mapping involves identifying all of the elements of a problem and organising them in the way you understand them to exist as a system. Systems mapping often surfaces connections between elements of a system that are not otherwise obvious and can be helpful in showing where something needs to change to improve the system. I’ve used it in research on institutional complexity in water governance.

Take the example of a university system. The first step is to write down all the elements of the system, they might be departments, people, policies, resources, challenges or problems. This makes a big mess and the only thing you really learn is that a university is complex.

University system map

The second step is to organise these elements into groups, or ‘sub-systems’, of similar elements. For instance, all the senior leadership roles in the university can form a ‘leadership’ sub-system, whose purpose is to set strategic direction for the university. The process of grouping can help you understand the purpose of different elements.

University system - grouped



You may be able to now identify the purpose of each of these systems. For example, the overall purpose of the university is to provide education, award degrees and do research. Each of the sub-systems has their own purpose that help achieve the overall purpose of the university.

The systems mapping technique is helpful when you are trying to make sense of a complex situation and you need to figure out how all of the pieces fit together. A good way to quickly discover all the ins and outs of an organisation is to sit down with someone who has been there a long time and get them to create a systems map.


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