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Mapping within Naturalised Sense-making is first and foremost about supporting decision makers in ways which are appropriate to a given context. At one extreme, that might mean taking steps which lead to the production of a familiar artifact. At the other extreme, the context might only allow for partial and contingent contribution to a much large sense-making process.

Decision mapping might be engaged as a stand-alone method, or in ways which contribute to a wider process of Knowledge mapping. An entirely separate intervention might culminate in Constraint mapping. To be coherent within the field of Naturalised Sense-making, any such implementation should address issues of Inattentional blindness and result in output which needs to be viewed as having Bounded Applicability.


Alicia Juarrero famously references “a bramble bush in a thicket” as a way of conveying the complex entanglement of real-world Anthro-complexity, and that phrasing conveys a sense of the futility of aiming at any form of a definitive map: of any representation of that reality which captured everything which could ever be considered relevant in interacting with that bramble and thicket.

Fortunately, Naturalised Sense-making starts and ends with a focus on actions that make a difference. One iconic focus, with Bounded Applicability, is the safe-to-fail probe. Any such probe is designed as an intervention in the real world: as an act which change things, ideally in ways which lead us to perceive the world differently from the way it might be on any map. If we take the analogy of a bramble in thicket, deploying a probe is like tugging on a stem (or cutting one that's under tension) to see what happens.

When using mapping in the context of Anthro-complexity, a focus on probing does not discount mapping, but it does respect that any map might be best viewed as a guide for where to look in attuning to what matters (as a tool to help become attuned to an environment) rather than as substitutes for attending to lived reality (as if the contents of the map were an adequate representation of what one would find if looking in person).

Traditional Mapping

Traditionally, mapping (creating a map) has been seen as an activity which helps build a wider picture of a territory or surrounding area. At one extreme, that has been topological (as with a tube map): the focus is on highlighting affordances (opportunities for action) so unnecessary detail is likely to have been removed and graphical representation may take extreme liberties with conventions of scale, distance, and direction. At the other extreme, the focus may be on constraints: on what's potentially relevant for someone seeking affordances. Again, what gets considered worth mapping is likely to be limited by considerations of potential relevance for a given purpose.

Finding the value of traditional mapping

Maps have traditionally been seen as potentially helpful for:

  • Orientation and sense of what's inviting, possible or to be avoided;
  • Attunement to path-dependent specifying information (relevant to purpose);
  • Understanding the perspectives of those who created the map;

Limitations of traditional map reading

Developing the skills needed to read a map has traditionally involved some form of apprenticeship. This may include:

  • Becoming familiar with appropriate further tools (iconically, a compass, a sextant and dividers);
  • Becoming familiar with established map-making practices (e.g. what gets included or left out);
  • Becoming familiar with established map-reading practices (e.g. appreciating which elements inspire confidence);
  • Becoming familiar with stories which draw attention to the limits of mapping and map use.

Technical limits to mapping

Key technical issues are endemic in mapping:

  • Mapping is always partial, including in terms of the data-set used to create them and relevance;
  • Mapping tends to lock in inattentional blindness (with cartographers seeing only what they expect to see);
  • Mapping struggles with path-dependent dynamics (e.g. weather maps where the likely track of a storm is unclear);

Traditional maps

  • Topographical maps such as Ordnance Survey maps (of varying scales). These typically reference features expected to be useful in navigation, so might including contours, boundaries and type of terrain as well as notable landmarks and enabling constraints such as paths and roads;
  • Geological Maps, typically intended for "reading" a landscape (including history and dynamics) and noting what might otherwise be hidden or submerged influences on what is visible or observable;
  • Nautical charts, which may aid anticipation of future conditions through indication of tidal flows and currents (or of tidal heights) at each stage in a Spring or Neap tide;
  • Meteorological charts - which show pressure gradients, fronts and more, but quite commonly show possible futures and associated factors which could become locally significant;

Bridging from the map to the territory

"The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory."

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Ultimately, the term "map" can be used as shorthand for pretty much any theoretical elaboration or model that could be taken in some way as representing what could be found on the ground. This framing is of limited utility as it draws our attention to the gap that inevitably exists between any representation and any indicated or referenced reality. In practice, the gap is what makes the map useful: without the gap, we might as well do away with the map!

In practice, the process of mapping is one which starts in being attentive to what is to be mapped. Moreover, the use of maps in decision support can be rooted in an already existing relationship with the territory in question. This allows the map to be held lightly, as encouragement to perspective shifts rather than as a foundation for charting a course. The extent to which the map accurately represents reality then becomes a secondary matter.

Mapping in Naturalised Sense-making

"The conversation that happens when the group chats is as important as the map that gets produced. This builds collective understanding beyond what's on the map.”

— Dan Abel, Here be dragons!, Engineering and Careering[2]

If we look hard enough at any method, we might be able to find a way of seeing it as a type of mapping. For instance, Future backwards could be seen as a tool for mapping affordances which, if pursued, might lead us to (or have led us to) an impossibly utopian future or to a horrifically dystopian future. The search facility should produce updated listings of pages making reference to mapping, but the following are unambiguous links.

Decision Mapping

Decision mapping aims to cast light on patterns of real-world decision making in an organization. In an ideal world, a tool such as Sensemaker is deployed ways which provide a disintermediated journal reflecting the real time insight into what is driving decision making, what information sources are being drawn upon, how collaboration and communication works, what resources are perceived as of value and what catalysts and constraints are seen as open to modulation in ways which would make a difference.

As a method applied in isolation, decision mapping may be deployed to highlight gaps which inevitably arise between work-as-envisaged and work-as-done, but may also highlight manageable artefacts in ways which give reasons for change. The output might look like an extended network model: messy but at least vaguely coherent. Decision mapping may also be used in conjunction with other methods as part of a knowledge mapping exercise

Knowledge Mapping

“Instead of saying What will we do if X leaves the organisation we can instead say How do we replace the combination of artefacts, skills, heuristics, experience and natural talent that X brought to the organisation. [...] One of the other uses of ASHEN in knowledge mapping was to challenge the idea that all of the knowledge could be codified.”

— Dave Snowden, ASHEN Reused, Cognitive Edge Blog

Within Naturalised Sense-making, knowledge mapping is considered as an assemblage (drawing upon methods) rather than one of the elements (methods) which help with the process.

Constraint Mapping

Constraint mapping appears in the Field guide to managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis and aims to attune decision makers to path-dependent features of the underlying territory (including deployable resources) which might otherwise be overlooked. This explicitly addresses Inattentional blindness arising from preoccupation with self-evident affordances (considered as solicitations to action) and involves a pause on the part of any decision maker lurching towards doing "the next right thing."

The output of constraint mapping could take almost any form, but in any and all cases, it should be held lightly, as showing "where to look, not what to see" (as indicating where a decision maker might wish to focus attention rather than as specifying exactly what the decision maker should pick up if looking in that direction).

Other forms of mapping

Wardley Mapping

Although Wardley Mapping is largely peripheral to Naturalised Sense-making, it's coherent with the approach and is an excellent tool for highlighting the weak links in chains (e.g. around outsourcing decisions).


Blog posts

  • Dave Snowden, Purpose as virtue: mapping, Cognitive Edge Blog (December 13, 2012), ASHEN and other methods mentioned within the context of mapping-based methodologies

External links