System Mapping

How can visuals support individuals and systems to more clearly see themselves? It’s an ongoing inquiry – and a recent talk and workshop at Tufts Institute of the Environment TELI-G Program reignited a wish to better explore and explain this territory.

Here is the presentation, as a starting point, with brief notes and a practice at the end. A placeholder… an iteration… as the very willing participants iterated their own system-based interdisciplinary projects.

It was a wonderful experience to see the students light up with pens in hand, and an inspiration to continue looking at the way drawing can support seeing, and learning.



U.Lab Scribing

Transforming Business, Society, and Self with U.Lab

Movement Building. December 17, 2015. An integrated picture of the journey.

u.lab_SocialFields U.Lab_Wall_20151217_white

Prototype Camp. November 1, 2015. Final image, photoshop-enhanced, from 4 days of reworking into the same wall, starting with the drawing from the 75-minute live session. Much erased. Essence retained. Real-time prototyping.


Prototyping. October 29, 2015. On dry erase, with home-brewed inks, via Neuland. 😉


Presencing. October 8, 2015. Extracted chalk ink from markers to use a brush on the blackboard. Fun and freeing.

Co-Initiating. September 17, 2015. New cycle underway, lightly picking up on U.School image.


U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self

Week 6. April 1, 2015. This was all about chalk marker and trying to keep it simple, legible, and focused on actionable inputs. Less “feeling” more direct. It’s all an experiment!



Week 5. February 11, 2015. A high res link to black (white version proved too tricky to do, for now…)


Week 3. January 28, 2015. This week worked ONLY in chalk (last live session was chalk marker – much thicker – but leading to a tricky clean up!) and the inversion revealed the softness of the material. The scribing was intended to activate the space, as live facilitation. Perhaps need to redo the artifact. Or… not, and it’s fine as is!



Download PDF of the white, inverted, image

Week 1. January 14, 2015. What a surge! With over 25,000 enrolled and an estimated 10,000 viewing today, from 192 countries all around the globe….. the space activated, and these images resulted. My hand, yet an entirely shared will. To view the session: More on U.Lab: MITx: 15.S23x




Here, too, are some higher resolution pics Otto used in U.Lab (and recent Wisdom 2.0 Conference) with the dark background.

And some key slides w/a white background:





After ramp up, after showing up, after readying,  s o f t e n

( just so… )

Like an apple in an orchard in October, ripe for picking and feeding, we, too, require preparation and maturation to be in season, of service. There is a choice state to find and access for facilitative work. Too hard, inedible, not useful in a recipe. Too soft, on route to compost for breakdown and renewal.

Unlike nature ripening in its time, we must learn to soften ourselves appropriately in any given moment. It requires inner work – not always in sync with outer demands – to be poised in a receptive way.

A rigid stance blocks, separates, reinforces a dualistic mentality: you – them ; you – content ; you – YOU ; your “show up and do good, concerned with impression and reward” self – your true self, the one with the most to actually offer a given situation.

With barriers in place, we do protect from possible negative scenarios, such as (insert anything you want here: misunderstanding, complaints, unmeetable scope creep, etc.) We keep projected disappointment in check. But we also risk living with a closed-off sensibility. There is a correlation between what we let in and the fineness of our perception, which then informs our choice and output.

If we only went outside on sunny days, our understanding of weather would be vastly limited. We would not know what it is to be drenched to the marrow, to see earth shift with liquid saturation, steam rise from pavement after a shower on a hot day, to have snow touch an eyelash and melt on impact, to hear the attack of pelting hail. We also would not know dawn’s mist, the grace of the delicate and sublime, indicating morning’s ascent.

As we “steal up” we stand guarded, sectioned off. As we soften, we open, we are touched.

Touched, we feel. Additional senses come online. Defenses relax. Attunement amplifies. Range expands. Listening increases. Insight opens.

We meet a knowing – beyond literal understanding of words, concepts, and impressions – as we immerse in the Field. Because we are activated through sensory and mental relaxation, we receive and join as porous beings – not sponges, where are we only absorb, but as an enhanced conduit for flow through of meaning. An intuitive muscle comes online, and sometimes we can even anticipate what is about to be said, to transpire. It’s an absorbent place, where – because of our shifted relation to self, others, room, system – we can facilitate a group from monologic to dialogic interaction.

Soften assumptions, beliefs, judgments, preconceptions. Name them. Own them. Check them at the door. Step in front of the board, the wall. Pick up a marker and slightly lower your arm, towards lowering your guard.

Soften to see another’s point of view. Soften to let yourself be moved (even to tears.)

Soften to hear the hum of the room, to take in and let out your alive breath.

Soften to notice the beat of your heart, to notice another’s.

Soften to feel joy, grief, anger, confusion. Soften to hear and acknowledge these emotions, then facilitate transformation by inquiring beyond and inside them.

Soften to be strong. Yes. Through an ability to bend, like a reed in a gust, we retain core strength, increasing our capacity to draw and hold truth in a conversation.

A certain confidence is required to trust the container, that in softening we will not dissolve or be hurt; rather that we will expand to meet what comes our way, to hold all kinds of weather, to further  o p e n .



Part 1: What

To define parts is to seek sense and communicate arrangement within an existing wholeness. To name tree, mushroom, frog, stream, pond, path, boulder is to identify elements of a terrain, guideposts for movement within a landscape. We distill to the bits to help objectify segments of what we see and thus locate within what we believe to be real. We break things into subsets to better grasp the way things hold together and also reveal how they might not. (Oil and water, mixed and shaken, still will separate.)

To inquire into the relation of parts is to explore the interdependency and ripple effect of natural order. Limbs fall, leaves cover, rain drops, mushrooms grow. To observe relation fixes parts in a moment of time. One day, frog on log; next day frog in pond.

To further notice coolness, mist, dew, light fading, crackle of breeze through leaves, is to let ourselves pause in the moment of the scene – to suspend our movement and orientation with time, towards BEING OF. Simply. Essentially. Without an agenda – AS. Information comes to us, not from objects but from the space between, from the greater surround, the hum, the universal heartbeat –  a pulse from life itself, offering containment for relation.

A model, therefore, is a snapshot in time, a cross-section of a perceived order, one picture of a moment: a past state, a present reality, an imagined future – each resting in unfolding life.

Models can incorporate change and re-form over time. It is through the act of crafting a model that we can actually probe into our understanding of trajectories. If one day two parts align and the next day they repel, what is the underlying structure of relation causing this magnetic switch? A model can give voice to the dynamic.

Visual modeling serves at the structural level of the iceberg, to outwardly reveal the internal theories influencing behavior and events/action.

Results vary. Parts move. Systems adapt in time. The foundational container holds steady. The model simply lays out components of this order, already existing, needing a hand to map it to life.

Part 2: How

The following model comes largely from MG Taylor and Bryan Coffman – one of my first and most treasured mentors. All the visual modeling i do, the prime mechanics of my scribing, harken back to what i learned from and witnessed in Bryan and in Matt Taylor.

Originally presented as a method for Strategic Modeling, i’m now trying to adapt the framework into a 2D Modeling Tool for the U.Lab and Presencing communities, as applied specifically to the Crystallizing and Prototyping phases of Theory U:


2D Modeling is particularly useful as a sensemaking and communication tool when trying to understand elements of a system, to bridge an idea from concept to action. It is a method for giving form to ideas – and structure to processes – that might not be articulated outside the mind or intuition. In the context of Theory U, we can use modeling at any phase to create visual displays that share projects and engage potential stakeholders.


Level One: Parts (“Actors”). Actors represent the people and components of the picture or system. On a blank sheet of paper, practice drawing abstract shapes and textures of all sizes. Start with circles, ovals, squares, rectangles, triangles, etc, to get your hand familiar with the materials and to find your comfort zone with drawing. Also explore different textures, for example: dotted edges, solid lines, filled areas, speckles, swirls, etc.

Level Two: Frames. Frames define boundaries and can help sequence actions over time and place. Think of frames as an ordering device, like acts of a play that together tell a story. Draw different types of boundaries as frames, including boxes, larger circles, or even using the edge of the paper AS the frame.

Level Three: Relationships. Relationships reveal proximity and interdependencies. Use arrows to show influence. Play with drawing shapes of similar and different sizes. See what they look like next to each other, on top of one another, far away from each other. You can think of the shapes as people from above, as if you are looking down with a bird’s eye view.

Level Four: Context. Context provides meaning and reason for the story to exist. Include the essence of what is wanting to be seen and heard through your model. If the drawing does not yet represent this perspective, and the story is still emerging, use annotation (words) to help describe what you are wanting to convey.


Use the following questions to guide your modeling process, to help organize and represent the current state of your prototype into a visual display.

Level One: Name the Parts

  • Who is already involved? Who would you want to include?
  • What other elements – such as organizations, sectors, or locations – do you want to represent in the picture?

Level Two: Explore Frames

  • Are there phases to the development of your prototype?
  • Are there boundaries to the prototype that are important to describe?

Level Three: Establish Relationships

  • Where are connections between the parts and frames?
  • Are there disconnects worth naming? What parts might be excluded, intentionally or not?
  • How do YOU relate to the prototype and what might be your learning edge in the project?

Level Four: Reveal the Eco-System

  • Does the picture include your original vision and intention?
  • How does this root in an “emerging future whole, where there is a shift in identity and self?”


The continued step for developing prototypes will be 3D Sculpting and 4D Embodiment. Clearly more to come on this one! Like many of these posts, a start….