Mapping complexity

Sketchnote explaining a four step framework for mapping complexity. Full text description is provided below the image

Complex systems exist all around us. They can be big, small, man-made, natural, or a mixture of the lot. Things that are complex are unpredictable and uncontrollable. They don’t operate under a consistent set of rules and it can be hard to get a complete handle on all the components and the way they interact with each other.

The economy is a good example of a complex system.

While government economists would surely love to have a set of levers that cranked the economy in the direction they want – the scale and complexity is too much for anyone to control.

Instead they rely on data and mental models to understand what’s going on with the nation’s finances, and tools like taxation and interest rates to try and influence change.

While we can’t fully understand complex things, building a better understanding of complex areas helps define the true problems that need to be solved and by understanding a problem well, we can design better solutions. The following steps form a simple framework for mapping and understanding complex areas.

Understand your goal

The starting point is knowing what area you want to investigate and why? Some useful questions to ask include:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • Why do you need to solve the problem?
  • What is the desired outcome you want to achieve?

Zoom out

Before diving into the detail of the problem, it’s important to get a complete view of the landscape and use this to orientate yourself as you work through the detail.

To do this, take a high-level view and start mapping out the major parts and components, along with the visible interconnections and interdependencies. Think about the events that take place before and after the problem area you’re interested in. Define who the main actors or stakeholders are and what they do. What organisations and networks are involved and what role do they play?

All of this combined creates a kind of ecosystem map that you can continually reference as you zoom in and out of the detail.

Zoom in

Using the high-level map, identify the areas most relevant to the problem area you are exploring and zoom into the first one to map it out in more detail.

There’s lots of different mapping tools such as flow charts, process maps, timelines, cluster maps, customer journeys, experience maps, etc, so it’s really a case of choosing the most appropriate tool for the job, or even using a combination of tools.

Don’t worry about capturing every detail, as your maps will only ever be an abstraction of the real thing. Just capture what you need to make the system feel tangible enough to explore with colleagues and stakeholders.

Communicate and iterate

As you build your detailed maps, discuss them with stakeholders to get their input and make further iterations based on their feedback and insights.

With many complex systems the mapping can become an endless task with diminishing returns so knowing when to stop and move on is important. This is largely a judgement call, but you can use your original goal for the exercise to help determine when the job is done.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Scroll to Top