Last week marked the public launch of the Madison Initiative’s systems map, version 1.0. This map captures our take on the key variables in our system of representative government, the causal links and loops that connect them, as well as where our grantees are working to improve the system. The map will serve as the framework for our evolving strategy. If you haven’t yet—and why haven’t you?—you can take a guided tour of our map and provide us feedback on it here.

By way of continuing the conversation, I’m sharing responses to three questions I recently put to Jeff Mohr, co-Founder and CEO of Kumu, the online platform we have used to develop and share our systems map. Jeff has been an essential partner for us on this part of our work, and Kumu has proven to be an exceptional tool. I think you’ll appreciate Jeff’s take on the power of systems mapping when it comes to tackling complex problems.


1) What prompted you to start Kumu?

Honestly, Kumu was born out of a frustration with how awful the existing tools were for tackling complex social issues. We tried to map relationships among actors in the Hawaii renewable energy space a few years ago and threw our hands up in frustration. Why do we have an abundance of beautifully designed, elegant tools for sharing pictures, fetching cabs, and keeping in touch with friends, and yet nothing for solving complex issues?

We believe better tools have a big role to play in making greater impact. US foundations deploy more than $47 billion each year and yet many things seem to be getting worse—not better. Sure these challenges are innately difficult, operate on long time frames, and are often unpredictable, but we’ve got to get better at solving them and stop wasting so much money.

Take any of the major issues of today (obesity, education, health care, or even ISIS) and you’re guaranteed to be working with complex systems that cross sectors, geographies, and communities. These issues are rooted in culture and require significant behavioral shifts to overcome, yet we approach them as if money, knowledge, and idealism will magically solve them.

Organizations spend little time mapping out the underlying structure of the systems they are working to change and often duplicate (or worse hinder) efforts by working in silos. Dr. Paul Betalden puts it best, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.” We’re not mysteriously getting screwed out of making an impact. These are the results of the systems we’ve designed (intentionally or not) and if we expect to change those results, we need to intimately understand the structure of the systems, actors, and incentives holding the status quo in place. And that’s what we’re trying to help people do with Kumu.


2) Kumu doesn’t seem like your typical Silicon Valley startup. Most of them wouldn’t feel obliged to provide a social manifesto, like you do, the first three tenets of which are “Sh*t’s Broken, We’re all Responsible, All hope is not lost—yet!” Say a bit more about the determination driving your social mission.

Peter Thiel has a great question that he asks of possible investees, “What do you believe that few others do?” At its core, the manifesto is our response to this question. It defines the bias we operate under for building Kumu.

We believe it should be easier to be happy in this life—that it shouldn’t be a battle for anyone to have their basic needs met. Sure there needs to be incentives for people to go off and do grand things and make lots of money, but there also needs to be balance and compassion. Capitalism doesn’t mean we’re each on our own.

In a way, it’s getting back to the argument of the founding fathers—that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are very basic needs but needs that still aren’t met in much of the developing world. What’s worse is they only grow harder to grasp as the world moves faster and gets more complex.


3) Any words of encouragement or advice you’d offer to teams that are doing mapping work for the first time?

Teams spend a lot of time worrying about whether their map is “right.” I can tell you right now, it’s wrong. The right approach is rarely intuitive. It’s usually incredibly messy and full of contradictions. But the good news is it’s not about getting it right. Creating a system map is as much about the process as it is the map. That’s why its important to be smart about who you engage in the process, how early you bring them in, and that you frame it as an ongoing, evolving understanding of the system. As Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab points out, “The only way these solutions work is when they’re developed in partnership with the people actually affected by these problems.” So be inclusive.

Set the expectation that this work will be complex, messy, and slow. Don’t expect that any one map will magically unlock the missing secret. There are no silver bullets when working on complex issues. As Ben Horowitz would tell you, it takes a lot of lead bullets. Mapping is more about how we can increase the odds that our lead bullets actually hit the target. And especially in large, cross-sector challenges, about how we can get everyone to at least aim at the same target and stop shooting each other in the foot.

Focus on discovering and changing the underlying system dynamics. Danny Burns, from the Institute of Development Studies, urges that “sustainable change requires changes in system dynamics.” Even if your intervention appears to have “worked,” without altering the core dynamic that brought about the problem in the first place, you’ve only kicked the can down the road a little further.

Finally, don’t forget to have some fun along the way. Ultimately this work is about building relationships and breaking down barriers, and laughter truly is the shortest distance between two people.