Decision Intelligence: In Action — Part 2
How Netmapping can help you understand your Decision Context and improve your company’s Framework Proficiency.
For this article, I have engaged in a discussion with Jürg Honegger, an expert in systems thinking and the creator of the Netmapping approach.
In the recent past, many readers of the first parts of my “Decision Intelligence” series have asked about how to improve their Decision Context. While there are lots of people in the Decision Intelligence space trying to sell some allegedly new and innovative approaches to improve your Decision Context, Jürg’s approach Netmapping is a practice-focused application of systems thinking — a concept that I had already learnt when studying at the university a long time ago (and it still works).
When I realized the value of the Netmapping approach as a practice tool to truly improve your Decision Context and increase your Framework Proficiency, I asked Jürg for an interview to describe his solution and how executives can apply it.
Enjoy the reading and thank you Jürg for your valuable insights.
Dear Jürg, can you explain the logic and theory behind your Netmapping approach?
To be successful in social systems is a complex task. The central purpose of Netmapping is to help managers better understand their complex systems and navigate successfully in uncertain times. It’s about mental modelling, decision-making and problem solving as well as the successful management of social systems like organisations (for-profit and non-profit), towns and states, industries or projects, teams, partnerships, families or even yourself. By modelling, we reduce complexity to a manageable but still correct level. By imagining the Netmap as a strategy or management map we visualise the logic of success.
What still fascinates me when applying Netmapping after over 30 years of practice is the possibility to build a bridge between theory (systems theory and systems thinking) and practice (the management of a social system).
The scientific background of Netmapping is systems theory and cybernetics (i.e. the science of regulating systems through feedback processes). I use the word “system” in the sense of an adaptive, living system embedded in larger systems and itself consisting of interrelated sub-systems.
Netmapping is helpful when a variety of stakeholders interact in a dynamic and complex setting. Often there is no common view on the present or the future, no shared vision, no common language on the relevant factors of success. Or all of the above.
Our method Netmapping is a system of different systems by itself: it integrates different elements or modules (systems thinking and strategy tools) to a new system (with interrelations and feedback loops between them through periodic reviews). There are also relationships between the contents of the different modules which lead to an integrated, logical method where the results are clearly comprehensible.
For a quick description, please check out the following video. In this video, I explain the crucial difference between simple, complicated and complex challenges. Why is this crucial? Not every management tool is necessarily a suitable fit for any kind of management challenges. Our method ‘Netmapping — Systems Thinking in Management’ is an effective tool when dealing with complexity. The method helps to analyse, visualise and manage complex issues in a systematic way (i.e. step by step, iterative), individually or in a team.
We have also published a BOOK about the Netmapping approach.
Can you describe the Netmapping method in more detail?
In the first module “Netmap” (fig 1) we identify the complex issue and the level of abstraction to be analysed and visualised. The level of altitude is comparable to the “flight altitude” — we suggest visualising different levels of abstraction in separate Netmaps — that’s because the success factors, interrelations, objectives and levers are different on various levels.
We then integrate different viewpoints and deduct the relevant success factors. This often takes hours of intensive discussions and analyses. These success factors are then interrelated with causal feedback loops to a Netmap (used to visualize and test assumptions as a Strategy Map in the long-term context, used as a Management Map on a regular basis). A crucial part of finishing a Netmap is to identify:
- The relevant external influences (that we cannot change, but they influence our success),
- Decision levers (fields of action and control, steerable factors) and
- Indicators of success as the desired outcome
(compare fig 4 for an example of a Netmap).
Fig 1: The Netmap is the core of the method — it links Systems Thinking with Strategy Tools
Fig 2: The integrated method: Systems Thinking and Strategy Tools combined
External factors link to the module “scenarios”, indicators of success are the base to develop a management cockpit with key performance indicators (KPIs) and signal colours, the levers are the fields of action and control where we develop roadmaps with prioritised actions and projects. Review workshops aim at updating all instruments, reviewing and commenting the implementation of planned actions and of reaching goals and at deriving new objectives and actions for the years and months to come (fig 2).
Fig 3: Integrating further Management Tools
With our Netmapping method, we try not to “reinvent the wheel” and create many new management tools but integrate existing tools and information into our landscape of Netmapping tools (fig 3).
The application of the Netmapping method generates a mutual understanding of complex and chaotic challenges and fosters the development of team-based solutions.
It is making the powerful but sometimes abstract systems theory more user friendly. First, Netmapping is structuring the knowledge and experience gathered by analysing and managing a certain system, e.g. a company, a project or a non-profit-organisation. Second, Netmapping applies gathered knowledge on the system (i.e. action planning and reviews). What fascinates me is that it’s all about learning, design, change and implementation.
The joint development of the Netmap is like designing the decision situation which then serves as the base for further decision-making. The Netmap serves as a strategy or management map and helps better understand the relevant interrelations for success (see fig 4). By developing a Netmap, assumptions are made explicit on how the participants understand success and though which kind of logic it is “created”. Thanks to a cause and effect logic, the participants create a story of how central outcomes like customer satisfaction, profit, quality or employee motivation can be influenced by external factors and/or by their own levers. And which levers are the most promising to impact the output and therefore reach the desired objectives.
Fig 4: Example of a Netmap including a management cockpit with objectives (and colours based on KPIs), levers (circled) and external factors. The colours and numbers on the arrows represent time, behaviour and intensity of the causal relationships.
The visualisation in figure 4 shows a network of interrelations and serves as a map — therefore, the name Netmap. Through the map, we try to see our knowledge and experience of the functioning of a system from a distance or from «above». Maps are not yet strategies, but they help to develop a common understanding of the «territory», support management navigation, help to find orientation and to communicate relevant interrelations. To see the big picture with the help of the Netmap enables us to balance the entire system and not maximise or minimise one part — or in other words, Netmapping helps preventing an organisation’s «burnout». The primary purpose is not to change things at any price (that would be foolish), but to find a good balance between continuity and change.
Through the application of Netmapping the managed systems become an integrated whole instead of just the sum of its parts. It is more adaptable to its changing environment, and it finally becomes a functioning part of a bigger system (e.g. as a division of a company or as a company of a society/economy).
Why do clients make use of Netmapping?
Complex situations are always unique. But in many cases, the typical question we try to answer is: which interrelations do we have to consider for our long-term success? As described above, we first define the “flight altitude”, meaning on which level we analyse and visualise the system. This is important in order to concentrate on one field of action. By defining the level of abstraction, we also define the borders of the system towards the bigger system of which it is a part of and the sub-systems on the other hand. We then look at the system from different perspectives and different levels and systematically derive the relevant key factors for the selected level, which we connect in a Netmap.
Furthermore, Netmapping helps to empower employees and make use of their knowledge and their experience. Typical situations and triggers to apply Netmapping are:
- A reorganisation
- A new team
- A new vision and/or mission statement
- A new strategy
- Difficulties with the use and interpretation of management cockpits, e.g. Balanced Scorecards (BSC)
- A “mess” with management instruments, lost overview because of chaos, or too many and not connected management tools
What I often find in institutions: lots of management tools, but no Netmap to connect the dots (fig 5):
Fig 5: Often, there is no lack of management instruments in organisations, but they are not connected, and managers lose the overview of the management tools themselves.
Complexity management with Netmapping profits from a diverse team. Different views increase the possibility that nothing important is forgotten and cognitive biases can be overcome. But of course, the more diverse a team is, the more difficult it can be to manage it. While the mere application of Netmapping helps to integrate teams, I often combine it with explicit team development activities to focus explicitly on team-internal potentials. By using the model “thinking preferences” (HBDI®) individual thinking styles within the team are made transparent. The performance of the individual and the team can be improved.
I prefer to integrate team development with HBDI into the Netmapping process, but sometimes I also apply it as a standalone module for customers.
What challenges do your clients (or you) face when applying Netmapping?
Applying Netmapping might be uncomfortable at the beginning and also later — it means to take different and maybe new perspectives, look at the big picture before deep diving and taking action. And last but not least: Keep doing it for a system’s sustainability and change in its decision culture. After all, it is not just about finding a strategy, goals and action points but also about changing the culture in the management team. As a proverb says: Culture eats strategy for breakfast — if the culture does not allow and wish for an employee and team orientation, it is a challenge to apply Netmapping (or any team-oriented method). The best results are achieved when hierarchy, job titles and formal power are left outside the workshop. Of course, this does not mean that the hierarchy doesn’t exist when it comes to strategic decisions. However, to find a Netmap a realistic model and in order to gather intelligence from all over the organisation and develop good solutions, it helps to discuss without hierarchical restraints. But this requires that the participants regard their management role as a responsibility more than a rank. This way, it is possible to get the most extensive consensus possible and not a minimalist solution.
Another challenge is high or wrong expectations: A Netmap as a strategy map* is not the one “true” model of reality. It is therefore important to discuss the expectations and possibilities of systems thinking/Netmapping before applying it. Since there are no true models (with whatever method we work), it is part of Netmapping to systematically and periodically review the Netmap, scenarios, cockpits, goals and action points. After all, we work with assumptions and have to verify/falsify them periodically. It helps to regard the management of a system (and Netmapping as a method to support that) as a systematic, ongoing exploration of a system. When dealing with complex issues, the process does not end after one application but needs to be ongoing. This requires a commitment from the involved team. If these prerequisites are met, there is a chance for a fascinating and ongoing process of exploring, learning and change for the long-term success of the system in focus.
Systems thinking and therefore also Netmapping is not as “addictive” as I thought it would be and as it is to me. While my customers and I are absolutely convinced of the necessity of a systems thinking approach, it is not easy to spread the mindset and method.
Is it, because the approach does not only improve integrated thinking but also asks for discipline, analytical and integrative thinking? It’s a task that is more challenging and time-consuming than applying spontaneous ideas or deciding without challenging the mental models behind the decision. Also, Netmapping is not yet known as well as other methods (e.g. project management, process management). In general, systems thinking still has the image of being interesting but theoretical, abstract and not applicable to management questions. Needless to say, overcoming such challenges is exactly what I tried to do when developing Netmapping — a scientifically sound AND pragmatic approach to applying systems thinking to managerial questions.
A further challenge can be found in bigger organisations where sometimes Netmapping is applied by one level (e.g. the head of a division and his/her management team) but not by other teams in the organisation. This can make it difficult to communicate the results and to integrate new ideas in the organisation as a whole.
*I use the term “strategy map” in a wider sense than published in the book “Strategy Map” by Kaplan/Norton where it is proposed as a visualisation of a Balanced Scorecard. A Netmap connects the interrelations of a Balanced Scorecard PLUS the relevant external factors and levers of control. And the speed and intensity of these interrelations.
How important is the visualisation as part of the Netmapping approach?
Visualisation is a crucial aspect of Netmapping. In the form of maps, they visualise and integrate the knowledge of different disciplines, the relations between them and feedback loops. Assumptions are made explicit and can be discussed and validated. By using visualisations, we can overcome obstacles that are typical for complex systems and help to break down communication barriers between specialists. They also help to overcome a lack of orientation, potential misunderstandings, wrong or no focus, wrong or no priorities.
What fascinated me when I first studied systems thinking as a student at the University of St.Gallen in the 1980s was the possibility to overcome the boundaries of disciplines and to further develop and apply a truly interdisciplinary approach. I was frustrated because the professors could not answer questions that were outside their field of expertise (e.g. when I asked a professor of leadership studies how he would judge the long-term effects of his proposals on turnover and costs, he answered: ‘I am not a finance professional, go ask the finance professor’. I got answers of this kind several times, and that increased my interest in an interdisciplinary approach). I was convinced that living (social) systems cannot just be looked at through the eyes of isolated disciplines like it is often done at colleges and universities. Systems theory and systems thinking was an eye-opener, and I am happy that I learned about it when I still studied at university and then further developed the approach over the last 30 years into the Netmapping method. It helps to “see the forest despite the trees” by:
- Identifying and visualising the system (“Netmap”) as interrelations of success factors and feedback loops. As a result, you are also able to see the system as part of other systems and having sub-systems.
- Position reckoning: Creating a holistic analysis of the complex situation preceding the intervention
- Focusing: Identifying the relevant success factors
- Prioritising: Analysing the speed and intensity of the interrelations
- Creating a clear picture of possible external scenarios and designing the desired future
In a nutshell, visualisations improve communication and constructive discussions by making complex interrelations visible. However, knowing the Netmap as the «logic of success» does not guarantee success; but it is better than not knowing, agreeing and mapping relevant interrelations. How should we be able to learn and get better if we don’t have a common view of our organisation and a documented decision-making process?
How do you/your clients gather intelligence as part of the Netmapping approach?
The Netmap, including external influences, indicators of success and levers, serves as a filter for the collection and structuring of information.
Furthermore, we make use of the knowledge and the experience of different disciplines by integrating the involved actors (turning affected people into active actors). This means inviting the persons affected by the complex issues to participate in the process and get their view on the system. Such an approach also allows seeing the situation through different pairs of glasses / through the eyes of others. This increases the chances of buy-in of the participants in the developed solutions and so increases the chances of higher commitment and implementation through the reduction of resistance. If we realise that the team is lacking specific knowledge (e.g. when working on future scenarios in a particular industry) we invite additional experts to give us their view of possible future developments. I want to emphasise the role of constructive debates and continuous reflecting and learning as an important part of Netmapping — looking at the system and the elaborated decisions and results time and over again, e.g. every 6 months to ensure that the mental models are still correctly visualised. A continuous adjustment is necessary because complex situations are typically “evolving” and significantly change over time. What is required is a permanent and institutionalised feedback loop reflecting on the current reality and then planning and taking actions where required. Continuous learning is probably the most valuable skill because in complex situations, we are never done.
Often, the workshop facilitator also brings in knowledge and experience in the field of identifying the system, system boundaries, relevant success factors, interrelations and feedback loops. The facilitator also makes sure that the knowledge and experience of the participants are shared and documented. The facilitator supports the logic of Netmapping by finding and also questioning cause-and-effect relationships in the role of a devil’s advocate. When participants have different views on interrelations, I ask them to explain to me why they believe a cause-and-effect relationship is true and to add an example that explains the relationship. In most cases, different views can be integrated into a wider view. Very often, we do not have a conflict but simply do not talk about the same issues (although we think we do). This process of finding a shared view can lead to change in how managers think and see their systems.
We gather and integrate facts along the entire Netmapping process. This starts with the definition of key factors, the design of causal feedback loops and ends with the development and interpretation of management cockpits. The method helps to orchestrate strategic thinking and strategic dialogue.
An important part of gathering and processing intelligence is also the judging (e.g. of SWOT) through the participants. From this perspective, Netmapping can be viewed as working from general aspects to details. The development and “breaking down” of normative statements, such as vision, mission, and values statements, is a sort of gathering intelligence. In the process of goal finding and action planning, we balance long-term and short-term interests and try to find an optimum of the different stakeholder interests.
By defining EVERY term used in a Netmap, a scenario, a management cockpit and levers in a detailed glossary, we reduce and prevent misunderstandings and increase the effectiveness of the communication in the organisation.
One typical result of applying Netmapping is to identify the LACK of knowledge and blind spots and then fill them through further research.
Finally, I think it is essential not only to gather intelligence but also to spread within the organisation. We support this by differentiated and repeated training events (information, seminars, workshops) for the different levels in an organisation.
Thank you, Jürg, for your valuable inputs. I think it has become clear how Netmapping can help executives to improve both their Decision Context as well as their Framework Proficiency as part of their Decision Intelligence efforts.