a person who is homeless

What we’ve learnt from systems mapping

What we’ve learnt from using mapping to understand the complex systems around people experiencing multiple disadvantage.

By Giulia Todres 12 March 2021 5 minute read

Imagine seeing someone sleeping on the street. It would be easy to think that a person in this situation just needs a roof over their head. But so often what we see is just one manifestation of a complex web of interconnected root causes: the person may have experienced challenges (such as health problems, substance use, or relationship break-down) which can make it difficult to maintain a tenancy, and may not have been able to access adequate support to navigate these challenges. For all the success of the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, issues such as homelessness cannot be solved simply by putting a roof over one’s head.

We often describe entrenched social issues, such as homelessness, as systemic issues. Such issues exist as part of a system, a complex network of causation and interconnection.

Systems thinking recognises that to tackle entrenched social issues we need to think about the system as a whole and the relationships between its constituent parts. It is only by understanding how causes interact that we can identify where the system fails and devise solutions that go below the surface to address this complex web of causation.

But how do you identify root causes and opportunities for change within highly complex systems of multiple interconnected issues? A first step can be to map the system, which can help give a clearer view of how it works. We’ve been doing this to understand what influences the recovery journeys of adults experiencing multiple disadvantage, as part of our work with Fulfilling Lives Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and delivered in partnership with the Centre for Regional Economic Social Research and Groundswell. Fulfilling Lives LSL want to understand the factors that influence the impact of support for adults experiencing multiple disadvantage and more effectively address the contributory factors for the challenges they experience. In doing so FLLSL hope to help shift the support system around multiple disadvantage.


Systems mapping multiple disadvantage

People experiencing multiple disadvantage, which in this project is defined as two or more interconnecting experiences of homelessness/insecure housing, mental ill-health, substance use or contact with the criminal justice system, interact with many ‘systems’, including the housing system, welfare system, drug and alcohol treatment system, health system and so on. We have been working to map the overarching system that these all interlink to create: the system that influences the impact of support for people experiencing multiple disadvantage.

Systems mapping is a tool for visually interpreting the system under consideration, showing the different parts, the connections between them and their causal relationships. Presenting this visually can create a shared understanding of the system and how it works and behaves: the relationships, structures, power dynamics and mindsets that together drive the way that people in the system act.


The process of developing the map is just as important as the map itself. To draw a comprehensive picture of the system, it’s important to use multiple sources of information, including your own research and that of others. You need to have open and honest conversations to uncover the root causes behind the issues.

We would like to share three key things we’ve learnt from our experience of developing the systems map:


1. Include a range of perspectives

This research focused on understanding the system influencing outcomes for people experiencing multiple disadvantage in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, especially the barriers people face to getting support. We knew we needed to put people with lived experience at the centre of the process. This meant talking to a range of people with lived experience and learned experience, including practitioners, service managers, local commissioners, and policymakers.

By including a range of perspectives in our interviews and workshops, we were able to refine our understanding of the system and unpick the underlying drivers behind people’s experiences. For example, people accessing support told us they felt frustrated and misunderstood, while people working in the system described how high caseloads, limited resources and few opportunities for development could lead to burnout and compassion fatigue among practitioners.


2. Test assumptions and deepen understanding

When we started this project, we knew there was already a lot of existing knowledge out there. We therefore first built our understanding of the system through literature reviews, interviews with people with lived experience and wider workshops with people at all levels of the system.

This enabled us to test assumptions and explore areas where our insights were weaker. Reflecting as a team in between each stage helped us prioritise areas to focus on and identify sources of information to draw upon to better understand the issues. For example, in the systems mapping workshops we focused on areas where there was less consensus and discussed this with people with different experiences to better understand the underlying reasons behind it.


3. Refine the map

The information gathered through this research has helped build up a picture of the factors influencing the impact of support for people experiencing multiple disadvantage in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. In this phase, the research focused on understanding current barriers in the system.

As we expected from exploring such a complex system, the research identified many factors and connections between them. At each stage when developing the map, we sought to consolidate across these, capturing critical information whilst maintaining readability.

This consolidation enabled us to identify nine themes representing distinct parts of the system. We were then able to focus on the key factors within each theme to explain what the story is for each part of the system, and how it connects to others. This approach helped us make sense of this complex system. We hope it will also help us identify areas where interventions in one part of the system can help bring about change in the way the system operates as a whole, ultimately improving the impact of support for people experiencing multiple disadvantage.

Identifying these ‘leverage points’ will be the focus of the next phase of the research. We are keen to keep involving people in our work, so if you are local to Lambeth, Southwark or Lewisham and are interested in getting involved, please get in touch with Ruth at Fulfilling Lives Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham at ratkinson@fulfillingliveslsl.london.

Explore our systems map here.


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