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Systems Mapping

What is systems mapping?

Systems mapping is a process for both analysing how a system works and generating ideas for intervention in that system. It therefore bridges both the ‘Understand’ and ‘Design’ phases and could be used at either stage.

Systems mapping analyses the parts of a system and the relationships between them. There are broadly two types of maps: actor maps and factor maps. Actor maps generally map the people or organisations within a system. Stakeholder maps fall into this category. Factor maps analyse the causes and effects around a situation or issue – such as policies, processes, behaviours, and beliefs.

In this toolkit section we cover three factor mapping tools. These begin at the simpler end of the scale and progress in technical complexity. They can either be used separately or in sequence as you develop your map. The three types are:

  1. Cluster diagrams
  2. Multiple cause diagrams
  3. Causal loop diagrams

Examples: Section of NPC systems map on hygiene poverty (right) and NPC systems map on reoffending (below)

Uses and benefits of mapping

Systems mapping can help you understand the dynamics and behaviours of a system and identify opportunities for change. This can be useful when feeding into a strategy or theory of change, as it roots your plan in a systemic view. Systems mapping offers:

  • A structured way of developing a systemic view of your issue / situation. Understanding complex systemic factors can be challenging. Visually representing information about the system, its parts and their connections can help better conceptualise that system and how it works.
  • A process to convene around. It provides a focal point for bringing together people from different parts of a system to share their perspectives and experiences­– perhaps of what is and what isn’t working– and develop a shared understanding and more complete picture than you would have got analysing the system alone. From there, it can build participation in a broader collaborative process, creating new relationships and partnership opportunities. In this sense, the process is often as important as the product.
  • A way for people to engage with a complex issue. People are often attracted to visual models and outputs more than reports– they can be an engaging way to explain an issue. Some systems mapping tools are particularly designed for this purpose (see Mapping Tool 2).
  • Provide insight for strategy and action. This is the most important function. In fact, analysis is only as useful as the insight and action that it produces. Systems mapping helps identify new opportunities to intervene. If the process has been done well, these should offer potential for systemic change (see Leverage Points section, p12).

Limitations of mapping

As with the Iceberg Model (Tool 2), systems maps are a simplification of reality and it’s important to bear in mind their limitations.

  • Systems maps are subjective: they are built from the perspectives of contributors, so it’s important to include a diverse range of perspectives as possible in your process.
  • Mapping can risk generalising people’s experiences. Although there may be patterns in people’s experiences of a system, there will also be differences. For example, different racial groups experience systems such as the courts, prisons, or even health systems quite differently. It’s therefore important to find ways of representing this diversity of experience in your mapping process.

Mapping Tool 1: Cluster Diagrams

Sketch of a cluster diagramOur first mapping tool, the cluster diagram (also known as a spray diagram), is similar to a mind map. It is a good entry point to creating factor maps.

Cluster diagrams help you quickly explore the broad factors surrounding an issue and create connections between them.

Beginning with a description of your topic in the centre of the map, you can carry out a short brainstorming exercise to map out connections, causes, and consequences surrounding the issue. It may end up looking like the image on the right.

How to use a cluster diagram

This tool is best used as a quick exploration of an issue, either as a solo brainstorming or in a small group exercise. It can be used to surface the range of factors that are connected to the issue, and the ways they’re connected to each other. Essentially you’re exploring the root causes of a situation or problem by repeating the question ‘Why?’.

  • To start with, we recommend using sticky notes that can be moved and grouped. This can also be done with digital whiteboards.
  • Working outwards from your central topic, jot down a few primary causal factors that you think directly contribute to the situation. Take one of those factors and continue outwards again, describing other factors that in turn contribute to that situation.
  • Once you have mapped a few factors along a branch, return to another one of your primary factors and repeat the process.
  • After you have completed a few of these branches, you might want to cluster factors together that relate to each other.
  • Finally look at how factors connect horizontally across the branches as well as vertically to the central topic.

This process should help you to explore the various chains of causal relationships around an issue. Each time you think of a cause, ask yourself, ‘And what’s causing that?’, and then ‘what’s causing that?’, and so on.


We have provided an example cluster diagram to show how the process works. Two of the branches have been developed (from the primary nodes highlighted), with chains of causal factors explored along each. We have also started to link a few factors across branches. Three branches are still to explored.

A cluster diagram showing water scarcity at the centre, linking to increasing urbanisation and frequent leaks.

Download a blank version in our resources section.

Mapping Tool 2: Multiple cause diagrams

Multiple cause diagrams can build on your cluster diagram to create a narrative about the systemic causes of your problem.

While the cluster diagram uses one or two words to describe broad factors, factors in multiple cause diagrams tend to be more detailed and use arrows to show how they are connected.

The example below shows the interplay of factors behind the failure of a of a ‘get tough’ policy on sick leave at work. (Source)

A multiple causes diagram of a company leave policy

When to use a multiple cause diagram

Multiple cause diagrams provide an overview of the connections and causes in a system. They are often used externally to share a summary of a systems analysis.

They are good for telling a story about your issue and are more accessible than some of the more technical systems maps, although will inevitably lack the detailed analysis.

We recommend starting with a cluster diagram and then using the multiple cause diagram to create a clearer narrative from it.

How to create a multiple cause diagram

To create your multiple cause diagram:

  • Take your previous cluster diagram and select the components that you think have particularly strong causal relationships or are especially relevant to your analysis or intervention.
  • If you are telling a story externally, you need data to back it up. Following your brainstorming for the cluster diagram, use research and evidence to verify your initial assumptions about causal factors. You might want to use a mixture of quantitative data (statistics) and qualitative data (interviews, workshops) data.
  • Convert the relevant factors in your cluster diagram to more detailed descriptions. For example, ‘people use their cars more’ rather than just ‘traffic’.
  • Use arrows to illustrate the direction of causation to show how these situations influence each other.

Mapping Tool 3: Causal loop diagrams

Causal loop diagrams are the most technical of our factor maps. As with multiple cause diagrams, they map the factors in a system and the causal relationships between those factors.

They also analyse how those relationships create certain behaviours in the system, such as feedback loops. They are based on a methodology known as ‘Systems Dynamics’, popularised by systems thinker, Donella Meadows.

Some of the core concepts in this methodology include:


Stocks are the parts of the system, which might increase or decrease in quantity. For example, in a health system, stocks could be healthy people, doctors, or money.


Flows are the connections, or relationships, between the stocks. These determine whether a stock increases or decreases.

A causal loop analysis in the health system, for example, might be interested in how to increase stocks of healthy people through their connection with other parts of the system, such as social housing, green spaces etc. Arrows between these parts are usually labelled either + or – to indicate a positive or negative link.

These ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ relationships indicate whether an increase in one stock causes an increase in the other (positively linked) or a decrease (negatively linked). It doesn’t make a judgement as to whether that change is good or bad.

For example, increasing tree stocks leads to a decrease in carbon and would therefore be referred to as a negative correlation (even though it’s undeniably a good thing), whereas increasing fossil fuel emissions causes an increase in carbon and would therefore be referred to a positive link (despite it definitely not being a good thing).

Feedback loops

Tough on crime loop.Each part of a system has causal relationships with other parts in the system. This complex and sprawling network of relationships eventually means that “output from one part will eventually influence input to that same part”. This is known as a feedback loop.

Feedback loops can either be ‘balancing’ which maintain stocks in their current state, or ‘reinforcing’ which occur when system behaviours become self-perpetuating. Reinforcing loops can become ‘vicious cycles’ in a system, such as debt cycles or generational poverty.

The diagram on the right, taken from NPC’s systems map of reoffending cycles in the criminal justice system describes a reinforcing loop in which ‘tough on crime’ policies fuel support for punitive sentencing, which further stigmatises offenders, which encourages further ‘tough on crime’  policies, and so on. These kinds of loops can be hard to break.

Working with Loops

Feedback loops happen in systems by themselves, but they can also be used to influence the quantity of stocks in a system to get a particular outcome.

In NPC’s systems mapping workshops, we use the example of depopulation on the island of Sardinia, where Italy’s low birth rate problem has become even more accentuated. As fewer children are born, there are fewer services such as maternity facilities or age-specific classes in schools. This reduction in services further decreases the incentive to have children on the island, creating a reinforcing loop – or vicious cycle.

Similarly, with fewer young people, there are fewer businesses such as bars, restaurants, etc. This further disincentivizes young people to stay, further damaging the economy, and so the cycle continues.  

To create balancing inputs in this otherwise runaway cycle,  the government have recently been investing in more maternity services, and even offering financial incentives for people to remove to rural areas on the island. This shows how policy can be used to work with loops in complex systems. As it’s hard to know how the system will respond, policy implementation should be done on a ‘test and learn’ basis.

How to make a causal loop diagram

Causal loop diagrams are more technical and resource-intensive than multiple cause and cluster diagrams, but they offer a more in-depth analysis of the system and can help identify areas for intervention that could lead to systemic change. Because of their more technical nature, it can be helpful to get specialist support to produce a causal loop map.

The process of making a causal loop map broadly consists of four stages: Set-Up, Research, Build, and Analyse.

Stage 1: Set Up

Define the purpose: Spend time upfront to ensure you have clarity of purpose for your map. How do you want it to be used, and by whom? Is it for internal or external purposes, or both? Is it just to get a better understanding of the system or to inform a strategy? How will you present and share the insights? These questions will determine what kind of map you develop, the process you use, and how you present it.

Define the boundaries: Systems are amorphous and interconnected. The health system is connected to the housing system, the financial system, and so on. It’s therefore important to set a boundary around your map, to avoid it becoming impossible to manage.

Setting a boundary doesn’t make your analysis blind to the factors outside the boundary but it provides focus, without which you will struggle to create a map that is useful and navigable. Where you set your boundary will depend largely on the scope of your analysis, which may come from your sphere of influence.

Which specific aspect of the system are you most interested in? The health system in its entirety? Or just the medical equipment supply system or the system of support for junior doctors? What is within your potential sphere of influence?

Screenshot of part of systems map on reoffending cycles, with output node of "likelihood of reoffending post-release" highlightedSet the output: Causal loop diagrams work best when they are focused on analysing factors contributing to a specific output. Without that, the mapping can lack focus and risk being quite generic.

For example, if conducting a causal loop map of the health system, the output you build it around might be ‘healthy people’ or ‘junior doctor resignations’ and your map might illustrate the system factors contributing to improved population health, or to low junior doctor retention.

The image shows a section of NPC’s causal loop diagram on reoffending cycles.

The ‘output’ of this systems map, shown in the red circle, is the likelihood of reoffending post-release. The map then explores the factors contributing to that. Being clear on the output will help identify opportunities for interventions that might affect that output.

Stage 2: Research

Gather data: As with any analysis tool, maps should draw on a range of inputs. NPC typically include literature/ evidence reviews, interviews, and workshops within those inputs. This will give your maps greater rigour and prevent them being too subjective. In your interviews and workshops, you should draw on diverse perspectives from across the system.

For example, you should speak to stakeholders working in different parts of the current system, as no one actor can see the whole system. In the online version of our reoffending cycles map, each element of the map (each circle) is referenced with source data, which users can see by clicking on that element.

Centre the user: It’s surprising how many systems analyses forget about the people that a system is often designed for: the end users. Your analysis should place the user at the centre, to ensure that any subsequent intervention or systems change strategy is designed for them, not for the system. This means bringing users into your analysis through interviews, workshops, or both. In the health system examples, users could be patients or the junior doctors.

Identify contributory factors: From your research, pull out the factors which your sources suggest contribute to the output.

Stage 3: Build

Create elements: Using a mapping/ diagramming application (such as Kumu), create elements (or nodes) for each contributory factor. These are the stocks in your system.

Remember that in this methodology you’re analysing the system in terms of stocks and flows, which can be increased or decreased according to inputs and levers, so use neutral language in your elements. Think of the system as sets of behaviours rather than problems.

So instead of “a lack of medical equipment”, an element might say “supply of medical equipment”, enabling you to then analyse the things that increase or decrease the presence of that ‘stock’.

Connect: Link your elements according to their causal relationships. Don’t connect everything to everything, or the map will come to resemble a spider’s web and be hard to navigate.

Instead, focus on primary connections– i.e., the elements that each element is most directly connected to. Use +/- to indicate whether the connection is positively or negatively linked.

Organise and iterate: As you progress, you will need to organise, cluster, and structure the elements to ensure the map is coherent and readable. It’s best to share early versions with stakeholders and iterate together. There are seven sections in our criminal justice map, each colour coded and clickable to zoom into that section.

Stage 4: Analyse

Add loops: It’s likely that some feedback loops came up in the research and building stages. For example, economic cycles such as debt or poverty, or behavioural cycles such as addiction or violence.

You might notice more as you analyse the map. Mark these on your map and give them a summary label.

It may be that there are loops within loops, as in the example above taken from NPC’s hygiene poverty systems map (created for hygiene charity, In Kind Direct). It shows a loop of self-reinforcing factors affecting hygiene and a sub-loop within that which describes a vicious cycle of isolation.

Leverage points: Once your map is edited and refined, it’s time to look for leverage points.

These are the places in the system which offer the greatest potential for systemic change: points where ‘leverage’ can be strategically applied to maximise impact across the system.

For example, in our reoffending cycles map, coordination between agencies was identified as a leverage point as it is a key transition point between parts of the system.

Increasing this factor would lead to increases in two downstream factors highlighted by prison leavers as critical in reducing the likelihood of reoffending.

This leverage point is shown in the graphic of the map section below, with a blue circle around the relevant element.

Some places to look for leverage in your system include:

  • User experience: Which factors do your system users point to (in interviews and workshops) as having had particularly significant influence in the outcomes you’re looking at?
  • Convergence points: Elements that lots of factors link to in your map. Logically, affecting change in that element will therefore have knock-on effects on a range of other elements.
  • Upstream: Upstream factors refer to those that are higher up the chain of causation. Another commonly used metaphor for this is root causes. In your map, this means looking for those more structural factors which other factors stem from.
  • Transitions: Transition points between different systems are often weak points. Strengthening those transition points – helping systems interconnect more smoothly – can improve outcomes. Returning to our criminal justice example, the transition between prison and probation is a time of particular vulnerability as the two systems don’t always connect well with each other. This is therefore a critical intervention point to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Section of causal loop diagram with 8 circles connected by arrows marked with plus or minus symbols. The circles are labelled as: - Coordination between prison, probation and the voluntary sector (this circle has a highlighted blue border), positively connected to - Information sharing between agencies, positively connected to two branches: Branch 1: - Understanding of prison leaver circumstances positively connected to - Appropriateness of post-release environment , positively connected to - Risks and triggers in post-release environment Branch 2: - Prison leaver awareness of support available - Ability to access support services - Level of integration support

Stage 5: Share

Write a narrative: It is generally helpful to provide a written summary to accompany your map. This can pull out the key elements of your analysis and your proposed leverage points. Some mapping platforms have built in presentation tools to make this easier.

Getting started

The best way to learn mapping is to map – just have a go! You can start with simple, paper-based sketches before moving on to more technical diagrams. For simple maps, you can even use desktop applications such as PowerPoint. Some more advanced online mapping tools include:

  • Kumu: A specialist system mapping app for stakeholder maps or different kinds of factor maps. Free for public maps, paid for private maps.
  • Miro: Although primarily an online whiteboard, is has useful templates for systems maps and is good for using in online workshops to start to build out diagrams and maps in a group. You could then migrate it to other platforms afterwards.
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Systems analysis questions

Although the visual output is a useful way to understand the system, and can offer a focal point for a group process, systems analysis can also be done without the graphic component.

This offers an alternative approach for those with visual impairments or simply for those who prefer words to visuals. In this process, you can work through questions such as those suggested below to help analyse your system.

These questions can also be used within a visual mapping process.

Defining the issue and system

  • What’s the issue / situation you are concerned with?
  • What system or systems are relevant to this problem?
  • What other systems are connected / most relevant?
  • Which of these systems are within your potential sphere of influence?
  • Where should we draw the boundary to make sure your map is covering the right issues but is manageable in size and scope? Would it be helpful to set boundaries according to local geography, subsystems or other thematic focuses?
  • What is the focal point of your system? This may be the core issue you are targeting or a particular outcome you want the system to produce.

User experiences

  • Who are the users at the centre of this system? Can you plot some of their journeys/ pathways through it?
  • How do users experience the system? What are the factors that influence those experiences?

People, power, roles

  • How and where is power (access to resource and agency) held and exercised in the system?
  • Who is the system working for and who is it not working for?

Causes and effects

  • What are some of the direct/ immediate causes of the situation? What are the causes of those causes – and of those? (Brainstorm to surface the range of causes – think about personal, social, cultural, environmental, political, economic, etc.)
  • How do these causal factors connect and interact with each other?
  • How do effects of these causes then then cause other situations?
  • Do any of these produce ‘reinforcing loops’ (vicious cycles) which contribute to the system continuing to produce the outcomes that you want to change?

Systemic patterns and behaviours

  • Which of these factors are particularly entrenched/ structural? What has entrenched them?
  • Where are the barriers and blockers that prevent the system from working in the way you would like it to?
  • What maintains the system as it is? Are there persistent cycles within it that are especially hard to shift? What are they?

Interventions and outcomes

  • What kinds of interventions are common in this system?
  • What have been some unintended consequences of previous interventions? What can you learn from those?
  • Where are there concentrations/ duplications of efforts? Where are the gaps?

Leverage points

  • Which areas of the system offer promising opportunities for systemic impact? These may be ‘upstream’ areas which influence what happens elsewhere in the system. They may be places where lots of issues converge, or where there are particular points of vulnerability for people.
  • Where are the opportunities for preventative intervention, which could stop problems from becoming crises.
  • Are there any coordinated, cross-system movements for change that you can support/ align to? Where?
  • Where is the energy for change? Where are there promising innovations that you think could lead to systemic change?
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Systems Practice Toolkit

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