What is a Systems Map?

A systems map of a public high school experience, which includes students, teachers, principals families, the school board, and the connections between them. 

Have you ever wondered how systems designers make sense of complex organizational systems such as cities, hospitals, and schools? One tool that’s commonly used is called a systems map, which lays out all the relationships and interactions between stakeholders in a given system.

“Systems maps help you zoom out and visualize the bigger picture and then identify where you want to zoom in—where you have a question, where you want to learn more, and where you want to experiment,” says Deirdre Cerminaro, IDEO Senior Director and Human-Centered Systems Thinking instructor. 


Create a Systems Map

Deirdre says that mapping out systems can help you spot opportunities for growth and change. For example, if you’re mapping out a public high school experience, you might list immediate stakeholders such as teachers, principals, and coaches. But you could also add others who aren’t as obvious, such as social media influencers and the local school board.

After you connect the different stakeholders on your map, you might start to think about how each one influences the experience for the student. For Deirdre, that’s the goal of a systems map: to come away with more questions that you want to explore.

Now, try making a systems map of your own with a system that you’re part of:

  1. Write down every stakeholder in your system on a blank piece of paper. Push yourself to think past the obvious.
  1. Draw arrows between the different parts of your system to identify how they’re connected. 
  1. Reflect on what specific areas you want to examine more closely. What questions come up for you? What gaps do you see?

Systems mapping is an effective tool that you can use for understanding and redesigning systems. Listen to our podcast episode with Deirdre to learn how you can think in systems for greater impact

Learn how to combine the analytical tools of systems thinking with the creative mindsets of human-centered design in our course Human-Centered Systems Thinking.

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