Issue Mapping

This is a post that attempts to recreate the workshops I’ve been delivering all week.  I’ve broken it down into four pages.  Page one is what you see immediately below – a look at why we use issue maps.  Page two discusses how I start a map.  Page three is a vignette on building a map.  Page four is about what do to when students don’t get it right.

Why we use Issue Maps

As I noted all this week in my workshops, one of the challenges facing students is the penchant for defining problems too narrowly. They begin the process believing they know a) what the problem is, b) that it has solutions, and c) that they can effect change simply by directing resources along clear lines of effort.

A century of management theory has us thinking in terms of puzzles, that there are a set number of pieces and through organization and effort, we can fit them together to form a solution.

But when dealing with “wicked problems” this tidy construct can lead us to aggressively and enthusiastically work at solving the wrong problem.  (Which often creates a new set of problems.)

Experienced systems thinkers know that no one variable created the complex problems we see today, and no one variable holds the key for a solution. In fact, we know there may never be a solution and that each approach changes the nature and scope of the original problem demanding that we continually reframe our understanding.

In doing this work we are asking, “What is the true nature of my environment, and as I map connections between variables (nodes) do other issues emerge that I hadn’t considered?”

It’s an open-ended, non-linear, ambiguous, and often frustrating process, which is why it’s hard to teach.  People are hard wired through evolution to quickly categorize, judge, and act.

The “issue map” is a tool we’ve introduced to help get students to pause and reframe their thinking. It should help them see new connections, make new inferences, and pose new questions. As they work (in this iterative process) new connections and considerations emerge that cast new light on the problem.

Note:  Creating the issue map requires a strong background in critical thinking.  We need to be open to new ways of seeing, aware of our ego-centric points of view, and we must be prepared to interrogate all of our assumptions and hidden biases.  I use the Battersby and Bailin essay – Critical Inquiry – to frame these conversations, these barriers.

Issue maps should not simply report preconceived notions or conform to existing world views. They are not a schematic of possible solutions.   Issue maps are a visualization that we are mindful of complexity.

This is why we ask as many questions on our maps as we make observations or conclusions; questions help us generate ideas. They promote seeking.

Those QFTs you’ve been doing will pay off handsomely here, but unlike the QFT where we frown upon judging questions good and bad, here a bit of discernment is in order.


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