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Concern Maps and Solution Squids

Mapping everyone’s concerns allowed each person to see their needs visibilized and created a starting point for the group to explore solutions.

Using systems thinking and visual design to solve problems

In 2019 I supported a neighborhood in turmoil over a houseless pod village that was being built in an empty church lot.

I was invited by the local community building nonprofit to host intimate conversations among representatives of 22 local groups, including a church, elementary school, teen arts space, community services agency, middle school, neighborhood association, library, local business group, children’s play group, and two informal advocacy groups that had formed around this issue – one for each “side.” Tensions were high and the neighborhood felt divided.

Below are the four “visual thinking” and “systems thinking” tools that I used to help them transform concerns into community-led solutions. 

Tool #1: Big Picture Concern Map – getting it all out

I drew a big map where everyone’s concerns were displayed in clustered topics. When I first met this group, it felt like everyone’s fears were flying around with nowhere to land. Simply writing out and sorting concerns is a magical first step that usually results in palpable relief: “my concern is seen and I’m not alone with it!”

This drawing helped us organize the conversation into constituent parts that we could address one-by-one, instead of a tangled knot of feelings. I collected the information anonymously, so that the map became a shared puzzle to solve – not associated with any one person or group. 

Tool #2: Deep Dive Concern Maps – getting to the roots

Next, I created a group exercise to unpack the group’s priority concerns. In groups of 3 that represented a diversity of feelings, they filled out a flow-chart type worksheet to work through a series of cause and effect questions. First, the right-hand side: the potential consequences of the concern. Then on the left, the perceived roots of these concerns. Through this process, we unearthed hidden assumptions, like the fear of discarded needles, and identified the core needs, like ensuring the safety of children. 

Because I set this up as a thought-exercise where everyone had to think together about a concern, people could more freely express their worries without judgment. In these calm, focused conversations, I encouraged people to notice patterns and overarching needs– which inevitably led to people naming potential solutions. They started to find common ground in their shared care for the neighborhood. Relationships began to develop.

Close up of a worksheet drawing of people's mind map of concerns

Tool #3: Solution Squids

Then we played with solutions! First we determined the positive flipside of the concern (i.e. our goal), and from there we asked what conditions would create that reality. And the conditions for that condition, and so on. This created a branching squid-like creature where we ended up starting to see patterns in the solutions, like, organizing more neighborhood social events, joining up for beautification efforts, and realizing that they had many resources amongst themselves that they wanted to share. Suddenly we weren’t just planning for a houseless pod village to move in, but actually building a more connected neighborhood all around.

In this process, we also revealed the larger systems that needed to be engaged, like addiction services, city trash pickup, or more bus lines. By working through the Solution Squid’s tentacles of conditions to meet the solutions, we could land on first steps forward. This led us to identify a whole set of solutions and a collaborative effort to move on them!

(Thank you to Gamestorming for this idea.)

Tool #4: Solution Map – putting it together

Once we had a bunch of ideas, we needed a plan. We sorted the solutions based on who could make them happen – neighbors, outside agencies, or the pod village itself. Plus, I added a special category: “Unlikely Partners,” which encouraged folks to stretch their thinking and consider wild new connections. I also had them list starting points for each group.

By filling out this visual-based worksheet as a team and identifying each group’s contribution to the collaborative effort, we created a feeling of shared power, ownership and responsibility, and most importantly, camaraderie and the feeling that there was indeed a way forward.

The Magic of Systems Thinking and Visual Thinking!

What you just read about was:

Visual thinking = mapping things out = giving space for complexity, which reveals a more accurate picture; and, helping people feel heard because their ideas are now publicly visible

Systems thinking = unearthing causes and effects = revealing hidden assumptions and the deeper issues, and thus more effective solutions

These tools are non-linear and playful, which spark conversation, creativity and connection — fundamental conditions for success in a group that was born out of a conflict! They were fun ways to generate a lot of ideas and allow people to address concerns from multiple angles, and then converge on solutions. And, it fostered a sense of team spirit amongst those who, just a little while earlier, were filled with tension. People realized that everyone shared a genuine desire for a beautiful, safe, friendly and welcoming neighborhood, and that there was a good faith effort for a successful outcome for everyone involved. People left feeling more hopeful, connected and ready for the next steps together.

And for those of you who like lists, here are some of powerful effects of using visual and systems thinking:

  • Clarity: Putting concerns and solutions on visual display helps everyone understand the bigger picture and feel heard. Seeing is believing.
  • Collaborative: These non-linear and playful tools spark conversation, creativity, and connection, essential for conflict resolution.
  • Effective: By digging into the roots of concerns, we uncover hidden assumptions and find more effective solutions.
  • Creative: The interactive nature of these tools encourage conversation, new ideas, and a sense of connection.
  • Empowering: By actively participating and identifying solutions, individuals become part of the story, instead of feeling like something is happening to them.

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