In Search of System Maps

Posted 4 years ago at 4:41 am

Recently there’s been a lot of attention paid to the value of “system maps” to help collaborations better understand the system where they are working to achieve change. However, finding examples of such maps has proven more challenging than I expected. For example, a web search generates a lot of references to “workforce systems maps” but so far I’ve only found charts (which really don’t show the relationships within a system) or (worse) maps with dots on them that show where all the job training sites are… I have used a few variations of systems maps in my work with a funding collaborative, but they were rather rudimentary. I am interested in seeing any examples so that I can get a better feel for whether what I think such maps should look like are what others find useful. Any thoughts and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.



Katelyn Mack

backbone organization, funder of initiatives, technical assistance provider / consultant

Hi Chris, this is a great question! We've been using systems mapping in our strategic learning and evaluation work to better understand the connections and relationships between various organizations that could have influence over whether a program or initiative is successful or not. We have also found it very useful in getting people to take a "systems view" of a program or initiative, especially if the work is really complex (e.g., involves multiple different players, operating at different levels). In Grand Rapids, for example, we have been engaging with a group of stakeholders around a new program called Challenge Scholars. It's a partnership between the community foundation, public schools, and others in the community. Before starting the evaluation of the program, we had a group of key partners use post-its to show us the different players, "systems" and types of organizations that are implicated in the success of the program. Then, once all the organizations were identified, we had the group draw connections between them. We take photographs and convert those into a PowerPoint slide, and plan to revisit the systems maps at future intervals to see if and how the "system" around the program has changed.

In some of our work we've also used systems mapping to identify where stakeholders believe there is a lot of energy/activity in the "system," in order to identify potential strengths and gaps.

Here's a post about systems mapping on AEA365 (a blog of the professional evaluator's association): And Michael Q. Patton's book "Developmental Evaluation" also describes systems mapping with a simple example (Exhibit 5.3 page 119).

The great (and sometime unsettling) part of systems mapping, is that no two people will likely draw the system the same way. So capturing the process of how a group determines what the "system" looks like can be quite revealing. Best of luck and hope others have examples they can share!

Submitted by Katelyn Mack on Tue, 2014-03-25 12:57

Susan Low

backbone organization

There's a Systems Map of some kind at

Submitted by Susan Low on Tue, 2014-03-25 18:12

Curtis Ogden

technical assistance provider / consultant

Chris, I've worked with a couple of different system mappers, including David Peter Stroh from Bridgeway Partners for our work around creating a more equitable early childhood development system in CT, and currently with Joe Hsueh from Second Muse for work around regional food system development and sustainable supply chains. Here are a couple of links that might be useful: Best, Curtis

Submitted by Curtis Ogden on Tue, 2014-03-25 21:05

Chris Thompson

backbone organization, funder of initiatives

Thank you all for your input, links and suggestions. Susan, Your food map looks very familiar and reflects what I usually think of in a systems map. Curtis, as always you introduce me to some very deep thinking. I need to wade into these maps a little more, but I value the level of detail and their ability to emphasize relationships. Meanwhile, I remain hopeful that someone has a systems map for workforce that I can "steal"...I promise to post a link to the one I am building as soon as possible.

Submitted by Chris Thompson on Wed, 2014-03-26 20:40

Mark Johnson-Lewis

backbone organization

Looks like you're looking for network mapping tools. There's a bunch out there (free and non-free) and you'd really have to shop around to see what tool fits your needs. Most, however, will give you a way to graphically represent the relationships between entities, and some will give you some level of interactivity so you can zoom in to get finer-grained detail on some relationship.

Submitted by Mark Johnson-Lewis on Fri, 2014-03-28 11:39

David Phillips

backbone organization, funder of initiatives, technical assistance provider / consultant, blogger

Hi everyone. I just learned of a tool called Kumu that helps you create very visually-appealing, layered systems maps. You can see the tool here: Kumu has both a free version and a paid version, and on first glance it seems to be very user-friendly. In contrast to social network maps, which can be very complex and academic, Kumu positions itself as a more practical and visually-appealing. I was impressed with Kumu and encourage you to check it out! Incidentally, I wrote a blog post a month ago, which was partly about using systems maps in CI. Here is the link:

Submitted by David Phillips on Wed, 2014-04-16 11:37

Daniel Bassill

technical assistance provider / consultant

I've been using GIS maps and concept maps for nearly 20 years.I use GIS maps to show areas of high poverty and poorly performing schools in Chicago and existing non-school tutor/mentor programs in these areas and to create map stories following negative news which are intended to draw attention, volunteers and donors to youth organizations already operating in the city, while encouraging others to form new programs to fill voids. This blog is one way I've showed may own maps, plust pointed to mapping being done by others.

I've used concept maps to show goals, strategy and the range of information in the web library I host. This map points to a commitment I hope many leaders will make. Follow the nodes to see a series of concept maps related to this.

I've never found consistent support from foundations or city leaders for this work, and my interest in collective impact is in finding ways to increase the flow of operating revenue and talent to all of the organizations in a region who each need to be well funded to do their part of the work that needs to be done.

Submitted by Daniel Bassill on Mon, 2014-04-28 13:10

Meagan Colvin

technical assistance provider / consultant

Hi Chris, I am sure by now you've seen some systems maps based on the comments below that I see. I studied systems dynamics and systems thinking in graduate school and would love to share some really helpful resources for doing this work. I recommend the following books that provide helpful frameworks, practical tools, and methodologies to actually facilitate group model building sessions, strategic planning meetings, and stakeholder engagement sessions, and create systems maps. 1) "Group Model Building: Facilitating Team Learning Dynamics Using Systems Dynamics," by Jac A. M. Vennix. 2) "The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization," by Peter Senge et al. 3) "Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone who Cares about Education," by Peter Senge et al. 4) “Community-Based Systems Dyanmics,” by Peter Hovmand. 5) Vensim is a (free) software program that allows modelers to create systems maps on the computer, and experienced modelers can use such tools to do policy analysis and simulation models. 6) The Social Systems Design Lab at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University is a useful resource for systems mapping activities and expertise: 7) The Waters Foundation Systems Thinking in Schools is another helpful resource: I hope these resources are useful to you and others engaged in related work. Best, Meagan

Submitted by Meagan Colvin on Wed, 2014-04-30 18:59

Petra Smith

technical assistance provider / consultant

D. Danielle Varda is an expert on assessing community collaboration. She developed the Partner tool. This is the website for the tool. It is fairly robust and should give an idea. You can perhaps also research Social Network Analysis.

Submitted by Petra Smith on Fri, 2014-05-02 14:06

Hi Chris! There are a handful of systems maps that users have made publicly available on Kumu. A great example of one is that done by the Hawaii Quality of Life project. It was a collaboration by Hawaii Business Magazine, Hawaii Leadership Forum, and Kumu (us) to map the underlying dynamics driving quality of life (or lack thereof) in Hawaii. Here's a link to the interactive map:

You'll see that you can click the "switch maps" link and look at maps that explain different parts of society (civic engagement, social/cultural, and one that's an overall map of all the dynamics). You'll find the whole interactive report available at:

If you have any questions, I'm happy to answer them.

Submitted by Jeff Mohr on Fri, 2014-09-19 20:39

Alison Mendoza-Walters

technical assistance provider / consultant

How have others sorted out relationships between individuals vs. relationships between organizations? For example, organization A and organization B may have an MOU with each other, clearly pointing to a relationship between the organizations. However, staff member X at organization C may work personally with staff member Y at organization D on an initiative. How would one decide whether to characterize the relationship between X and Y as an individual relationship between X and Y or an organizational relationship between C and D?

Submitted by Alison Mendoza-Walters on Mon, 2017-02-13 16:32