A year ago, as we were beginning to discuss the plans for the Madison Initiative with our Board, Larry Kramer and I wrote in a memo to them that “we must take care not to oversimplify an exceedingly complex and dynamic reality. This is a common mistake…resulting in a great deal of bad conventional wisdom.” We went on to observe that the system of representative democracy whose health we seek to improve “is more accurately described as a system of systems (and subsystems) on a national scale. These interconnect in ways no one fully understands, partly because the systems and subsystems are themselves dynamic. The Foundation’s usual approach, which rests on a model of linear causation (‘if we do X, then Y will happen’), is inapposite to this sort of problem.”

Fair enough. But if we weren’t going to use a conventional logic model or theory of change, what would we do to represent our view of the world and where, why, and how we were funding grantees to change it? If we didn’t feel like we knew enough to make a big bet on a particular intervention, how would we know where to spread the small bets that we were planning instead? What framework would we use to determine whether those smaller bets were paying off so that we could follow up accordingly?

Driven by these questions, and guided by the steady advice of Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer, our developmental evaluators at the Center for Evaluation Innovation, last spring the Madison Initiative team embarked on a journey to develop a systems map that would help us understand the dynamic, complex, and decidedly non-linear system of systems in which we are making grants. Several months later, after some gnashing of teeth, plenty of good humor, and great technical support from Jeff Mohr, the CEO of Kumu, the online platform for developing systems maps we are using, we have finally arrived. We have our first draft map.

I say first draft because we know that there is much to be improved in it. We’ve included a number of diverse perspectives in creating this version, but we can do better. That’s where you come in: we need your help. You can take a guided tour and evaluate our map by hitting the link at the bottom of this post. Recognizing that systems maps can be notoriously difficult to navigate, we have created an accompanying narrative that walks the user through the map as it unfolds step by step. We then hope you will come back to us with any questions and feedback about what is missing or misconstrued. You can comment directly through Kumu, on this post, via email or phone – however you want to provide them, we welcome your thoughts.

We are publically sharing this systems map, along with an integrated “overlay” map detailing all of our grants and the network of grantees that are working to improve different parts of the system, so that others can see what we are up to – and help us see it more clearly and do it better. After we get the first wave of input, we will revise this map accordingly, and we will continue to do so periodically as our work unfolds. The map will serve as the framework for both our strategy and our ongoing evaluation of it, so it is imperative that we continue to refine it.

We will follow up next week with a post from Jeff Mohr on the potential for this kind of mapping work to support social change. Then we will hear from Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer about how they will help us use the map to evaluate our work and course correct as we go. In the meantime, you can start reviewing the map at this link. Thank you in advance for your insights!