The Visual Mapping Challenge

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I’m pleased to announce Groupaya’s Visual Mapping Challenge! Before I get into any details, I’ll quickly explain why we’re taking on this challenge.

The why?

We love helping groups take collective action. Generally, the first step towards collective action is building shared understanding. Now helping a group build shared understanding and focus around just simple organizational issues can often feel like a daunting task. (If you’re struggling to do so with your own team or group, we always recommend some simple whiteboarding or shared screens to help bring everybody on the same page.) When the issue is complex, the task of building shared understanding can seem almost impossible.

Luckily, we have a few slightly more advanced tools in our toolbox to do just that. Similar to whiteboarding, many of our favorite techniques rely upon shared visual mapping. These include Dialogue Mapping, Systems Thinking Mapping, and visual facilitation. We’ve seen all three make a powerful impact in helping groups navigate complexity… collectively.

The question we often ask ourselves (or debate vigorously over drinks) is, which technique is the best? Okay, okay. Not the best. ;) We know each technique has different strengths in different situations for different groups. What we are looking to do with the Visual Mapping Challenge is push our collective understanding of each tool’s strengths and under what circumstances each technique thrives.

The what?

We know all three of these tools are extremely powerful for helping solve complex challenges. We figured, as long as we are learning with the team, why don’t we take the opportunity to tackle some of the real problems facing our friends and community? And thus, the visual mapping challenge was born.

This is where you come in. We’re looking for a group that is tackling a really complex challenge and that thinks it could use some help getting to the bottom of it. We’ll invite you into our experiment, divide your group into three, and give you three different (extremely) experienced facilitators helping you all tackle your challenge. You’ll see below a beautiful map by Mariah Howard that not only demonstrates what we’re proposing, but also serves as a tremendous example of the power of visual facilitation.

We think this is a pretty remarkable opportunity for the right network to get some world class support. If you think you have the complex problem this visual mapping challenge needs to succeed, drop us a line. And for the rest of you, stay tuned to this space to hear more as the challenge unfolds.

Map by Mariah Howard


  • Paul Culmsee


    I have a little model that is in essence a linear scale with the word “tame” on the left and “wicked” on the right. I also write the word “convergence” with tame and “divergence” with wicked. I then plot many problem structuring approaches across this spectrum.
    On the far left near “tame”, I plot “Gantt chart” and on the right I plot “Open space technology”. Things like conklinesque dialogue mapping, systems mapping, SWOT analysis, Business Process Modelling, etc plot across this spectrum at various places.
    What I noticed was that Dialogue Mapping (and I bet some other visual problem structuring approaches) can be used at various points in the spectrum between divergence and convergence. For example: Dialogue mapping is born to do a “lessons learnt” workshop, but that is hardly an emergent process. The map probably has 3 core questions well understood in advance. I also map with a brilliant right brained hippie facilitator who likes to start a conversation with “What is the question we should be asking of ourselves?” That is only one tibetan bell short of an open space approach but doing this has made me a much better mapper.
    So Dialogue Mapping is a problem structuring method in its own right, but a means to augment other problem structuring methods (Given your mention of systems mapping, one can use CATWOE from SSM with Dialogue Mapping. The same goes with a much more left brained problem structuring approach like a SWOT analysis). However I would hardly call those type of sessions emergent.
    Why am I mentioning all this? Firstly because I have pondered the same question and think that my book with Kailash Awati goes some way to answering this question. Secondly I often combine approaches in a given workshop and have gotten a much better idea of what works when (in my book the Stirling case study illustrates an example of this but I have some terrific case studies since it was published).
    Hope this is of interest – good luck with your experiment…

    • Rebecca_Petzel

      Very interesting – thanks for sharing Paul! I’m picking up the book ASAP. (For those of you who don’t know Paul, the book is The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations.)

      I like the framework you’ve proposed, and look forward to filling in a few more case studies and learnings from the experiment!

      • Paul Culmsee

        I guess one point I did not make clear is asking which one is “best” is a zero sum game because it depends on the nature of the problem and where you are on the spectrum. I have a recent case study of an all-day workshop for a large hospital group that had to restructure themselves while retaining their values and adapting to serious change. That workshop (which was conducted in a highly emergent fashion) was a complete contrast to the next one which was in effect an options analysis and rather structured. The latter workshop took 2 hours and was done, but could not have happened without the first workshop.
        Both used dialogue mapping but in vastly different ways. One was on the right “divergent or emergent” side and the other was down towards the “getting stuff done” side.
        I’d like to show you guys one of my emergent mapping sessions sometime to compare with your approaches

        • Eugene Eric Kim

          Hi Paul,

          We’re using the word “challenge” in a tongue-in-cheek way. We don’t see this as a zero-sum game. We see this as an opportunity to compare and contrast three different techniques under similar circumstances. The latter is important. We too will use the same technique in a variety of different ways, so if we’re going to compare different techniques, we need to be sure we’re starting from the same context.

          I’ve always maintained that there is a commonality among all of these different techniques, and that it would be to all of our advantages for us to learn from each other’s different perspectives. For example, I’m often amazed by how many graphic recorders are not conscious of the notion of a shared display. You’ll often see graphic recorders work off to the side of the room, which prevents participants from owning the artifact. It makes for a pretty picture, but it doesn’t lead to shared understanding.

          Similarly, I think we folks in the Dialogue Mapping community could really benefit from the implicit grammars that good graphic recorders use. This is closely aligned with what Al Selvin originally tried to do with Compendium, which was to get out of the notion of IBIS as the end-all-and-be-all of grammars, and to leverage the other grammars that were possible with a basic
          node and link “meta grammar.”

          More importantly, I think we could simply learn the benefits of simple visual flourishes as opposed to the austere look of Dialogue Maps or system maps. These flourishes can make the resulting images much more emotionally compelling, which can be as important as any underlying grammar. I’ve learned so much from watching my friend, Brian Narelle, who is a professional cartoonist, do visual facilitation. It’s powerful, delightful stuff.

          Thanks for jumping into this discussion and sharing your insights! I would definitely love to see one of your sessions sometime. I’m sure we all have a ton we could learn from you!


          • Paul Culmsee

            IBIS is a nice ‘low level’ grammar and its great for bottom up approaches, but its limitation is the ‘zooming out’ all the way to the 50,000 foot view. System maps (well the way I have used them) are usually a much less … granular … representation of a problem compared to IBIS but are a much better big picture option. In my book I was going to cover Back of a Napkin (SQVID with the 6 W’s, etc) as a problem structruing method but ran out of pages to do so.
            I have a few graphic facilitation books and have dabbled in it, but have no deeper tacit experiences beyond that. My colleague (and excellent dialogue mapper) Chris Tomich has been extremely interested in the sort of stuff that Al and has developed the “node and link meta grammar” significantly (to the point that I think it would make a great thesis – anyhoo) Anything you can point me to in terms of implicit grammars would be much appreciated. Chris will love it.

  • Brenna Atnikov

    Is the challenge open to groups in Canada? If so, how do we apply?

    • Rebecca_Petzel

      Hi Brenna! This time around we are looking for groups local here in SF. But I’d love to hear more about your work. Feel free to drop me a line on google+ or at if you’re willing to share a bit more about what you guys are up to and how you think this type of mapping could be of service.