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Learn the practice of Creative Field Mapping.

Why Creative Field Mapping?

From small co-founder teams, to large groups working together to bring an idea to reality, we know that a few things make a big difference:

  • People having the chance to work on what they personally love doing
  • Getting everyone clear on who’s responsible for what
  • Ensuring all the work is aligned to an overall vision
  • Sharing power and authority appropriately

It’s not always easy to make this a reality:

  • Important things fall between the cracks
  • The initiative gets pulled apart in too many directions at once
  • There is too much forcing and power-over people

Ultimately, these problems lead to many great ideas never becoming a reality.

Creative Field Mapping (Field Mapping for short) can help. We can learn to realise a vision with more ease, less bureaucracy, and fewer organizational tensions. Teams find the need for formal governance and rules is greatly decreased so the focus is on getting what needs doing, done.

Field Mapping also encourages everyone who has an individual sense of purpose in their life, to stay connected to that while they work on a collective endeavour. This greater sense of personal meaning leads to better, more creative, fulfilling work both individually and collectively. It also allows space for meeting people where they are: those who don’t have a sense of a personal “higher purpose” can simply find enjoyable work that plays to their strengths.

What is Creative Field Mapping?

Field Mapping is a practice – something we do. It’s both:

  • a method of enquiry to understand what’s going on in our teams and collaborations
  • and a way to visualise this as a clear, useful point of reference.

The practice is centred on maintaining an ever-evolving picture of how a vision for an initiative deconstructs into its smaller parts, using a pattern of nested circles. We call this a Creative Field Map (Field Map for short). You can do it with pen and paper, or digitally using a tool like Maptio.

The outside circle of a Field Map represents the overall vision for the whole, and the circles within it represent the ever more specific initiatives, teams, and areas of responsibility that contribute to it.

In every circle, the Field Map also notes who is responsible for what, and who else is helping.

Part of a Field Map visualized in the Maptio online tool.

Field Mapping is used by pioneering individuals, teams, coaches and facilitators exploring bold new ways to realise purposeful ideas in the world. It has its roots in Peter Koenig’s Source Principles, Charles Davies’ work on Initiative Mapping. It has links (and differences) to participatory ways of organizing like Sociocracy.

This website aims to give you everything you need to learn Field Mapping. It’s all free to use, modify and remix, with just the requirement to acknowledge this website in your own materials, and to extend this permission to your own derivative works.

Let’s dive into the practice.

How to create a field map

It begins with a particular mindset.

The Field Mapping mindset

When you’re new to Field Mapping, you may well be thinking about organization structure, and organization design. But Field Mapping is not about “organizations” as we usually perceive them. So we don’t focus on things like

  • legal structure and ownership;
  • official job titles or roles;
  • official processes, reporting lines, departments or teams;
  • or official governance and policies.

Of course there’s value in those things, but we consider them to be secondary.

Instead, Field Mapping uses a different lens, focussing on the underlying creative process of realising a vision in the world.

Mapping not design

It’s rarely a good idea to start redesigning something without understanding what we already have, nor should we start designing something without a creative brief. Field Mapping helps get these things clear.

So get out of design mode. What we’re doing is more like surveying a landscape and drawing the map, not town planning or designing road layouts and buildings. We want to map the most truthful picture of what’s going on before trying to change anything.

During the mapping process, we want to prioritise thoughtful listening and intuitively reading between the lines over designing anything or blindly accepting the official answer to our lines of enquiry.

The process

Mapping a creative field is an investigative process. Depending on the size of the initiative, you may need to interview or hold sense-making conversations with a number of people. Field Maps are only useful if they’re an honest reflection of what’s really going on, so you need to create the conditions for truthful discovery. Nobody should have anything to fear from a genuine attempt to map a field. If you’re facilitating the process for others, offer reassurance, and do what you can to instil trust in everyone you talk to as part of the process. The four steps to of field mapping are:

  1. clarify the outer circle of the map
  2. map the nested circles within it
  3. acknowledge tensions
  4. maintain the map

Step 1: Clarify the outer circle of the map

Begin by drawing a big circle. You can do this on paper, a whiteboard or digitally using Maptio. Think of the outer circle of the Field Map as representing the creative space – the field – within which all other activity is happening.

First up, we want to establish which individual has overall responsibility for the field. It’s a special role that Peter Koenig calls the ‘source’.

The source is the person who first took responsibility for realising an idea in the world by taking the first risk in the form of a tangible first step. This first act of creation opened the field that we are mapping. So to do this, we don’t just look at the situation as it is today – we go back in time to its founding.

Identifying the source person

In many instances it will be immediately obvious who is the source. But if not, start by investigating the founding story of the initiative to find its original author.

For older initiatives it may be someone down a line succession from the original source. This means looking for the moments when responsibility was clearly and sincerely released by an outgoing source and taken from them by someone new.

If you’re struggling with the idea that it’s just one individual alone holding this role (not two or more co-founders or a group jointly) then read this. Here’s an excerpt:

Every initiative starts with exactly one source. Even if two or more people were there at the start, if you re-tell the founding story carefully you can identify the one originating founder. They were the person who took the first risk to start realising the idea […]

Don’t worry if your mental model is about completely equal co-founders and shared authority. That’s a useful lens sometimes too. I’ll just say that having this extra level of precision in the mapping process, and acknowledging natural, individual authority, is incredibly useful for sustained efforts to realise ideas.

Another way to think about this is that it’s technically impossible for two or more people to simultaneously begin to realise precisely the same idea in precisely the same instant. It might seem like a subtle difference if they were all present at that genesis moment, but it makes a profound difference later on. So acknowledging who was first and has the natural authority is extremely valuable.

Getting the vision clear

We also need to clarify the vision for the field, which serves as a dividing line between what’s in and out of scope. I also like to think of this as the overall creative brief for the endeavour. If it’s not already clear, I like to use Charles Davies’s Very Clear Ideas process with the source to make it so.

Now you can add the name or initials of the source on the edge of the outer circle, together with a short summary of the vision in three or four words – something that’s descriptive, in plain language, and easy for anyone reading the map later to understand. If you’re mapping using a digital tool, the map can link to a more detailed description of the vision.

To complete the mapping of the outer circle, ask the source to list who is directly helping her to realise the vision: not necessarily everyone who is involved in the whole initiative but the immediate collaborators who work with her at this outer level. You can add their names or initials to the map as well.

Step 2: Map the nested circles

Next, work from the outside in to map the ever more specific circles, establishing through interviews and conversations who has taken responsibility for more specific parts of the overall vision. We call these individuals “specific sources”. For each sub-circle you are looking for a specific moment when

  • somebody took responsibility for realising part of the vision
  • an initiative was brought in from outside, or
  • a succession of the role of source occurred.

For every sub-circle, use exactly the same process as you did for the outer edge: identify the specific source, get the vision for that part of the whole clear, and note who is directly helping the specific source. Draw these sub-initiatives as circles nested within the outer edge. You may have initiatives several levels deep. Here are some tips for mapping the sub-circles:

Be wary of organisational thinking. Those who haven’t yet integrated the mindset of Field Mapping may slip into organisational thinking as their frame of reference. For example, if you ask them who is responsible, they may point to an officially designated manager or leader and perhaps miss the individual who is naturally holding that part of the vision. You might hear things like: “Well, I do accounts and report to my manager, Betty Evans” or “This project sits within the marketing department.” Each time, you need to get beneath the formal organisational structure of managers, departments, and other constructs. A project may sit formally within a particular department and a person may formally report to a particular manager, but in the creative field, responsibility for the project may lie elsewhere and the person may be helping someone else. It’s these creative connections that you want to map, so you may need to read between the lines as you listen.

Every initiative should be distinct. It should be a specific idea that is being realised. Each should be clear and completely inside or outside all of the others, not overlapping with them. If an initiative runs over the edge of its parent initiative, you’ll experience this as unnecessary tension or confusion.

Note who invited who. Was the vision for the sub-initiative conceived by the global source and then passed along to a specific source, who assumed responsibility for it? Or did the specific source effectively recruit herself in by creating her own proposal for her sub-initiative, to which the global source gave her blessing? This impacts how that part of the vision is held and the likely level of oversight needed by the global source, and it can be useful for understanding why the work in some sub-circles is flowing well or poorly.

Note the links between sub-circles. Since people in organisations typically contribute to more than one thing, circles often have natural links between them. So while each circle is a distinct idea being realised, all circles are simultaneously interlinked by these human connections. (Maptio offers a network view of a map to show the links between individuals working together.) Additionally, there can be themes or other connections between initiatives, and you can create a colour code to highlight related initiatives. You’ll often see the same names crop up multiple times, sometimes as specific sources of initiatives and sometimes in other roles. This demonstrates how there is a network of relationships as well as an overall creative hierarchy. There is both a natural decentralisation and a natural centralisation.

Don’t go into unnecessary detail. You may wonder how granular the mapping should be. A simple rule of thumb is that, if you notice yourself starting to get bored while you’re mapping out all of the circles, you’re probably going too far! Stick with circles which are relatively stable, perhaps things which will last at least a month. Don’t map every single minor project or task. If you need to track those things for various initiatives, it’s better to allow the people working on them to choose whatever system they prefer. A digital field map can just link to wherever these other systems live.

Step 3: Acknowledge tensions

The mapping process will naturally surface tensions in an endeavour. This should be welcomed, because it shines a light on issues that will already be causing problems. Acknowledging these tensions is the first step towards resolving them. Here are some typical tensions to look out for:

  • There is no acknowledged source, or the source has left the team without fully passing her role on to a successor. These ghost ship initiatives are usually adrift and not helping to realise the vision.
  • Somebody is the source for something she doesn’t really want to do. These initiatives will likely be those which are neglected and not delivering results. It’s arguably impossible to get someone to take responsibility for something she doesn’t really want to do. Instead, encourage a succession to someone who genuinely wants to be responsible for the initiative, or facilitate the closure of that initiative to free up time, resources, and energy for something new.
  • There’s a power struggle for authority over an area, or authority is viewed as being distributed. Handle this sensitively, since a polarised debate about whether there is a single source is unlikely to be helpful. You can encourage trying an experiment to recognise individual, natural sources and see in practice how useful that is, or you can try out an alternative perspective and see how things play out, and perhaps come back to acknowledging individual sources later.

Maintaining the map

A map is only useful if it’s kept up to date. There are a few approaches you can use to ensure that it is: setting up a transparency task force, building the map into your regular organisational rhythm, and integrating the map with your internal communications systems.

Transparency task force

If you use a tool like Maptio, everyone in the organisation can contribute to the map. They can update it with their own activities, so everyone else in the organisation can see what’s going on. While everyone benefits from this level of transparency, there might not be enough of an incentive for individuals to keep their own parts of the map up to date. The risk is this leads to the map gradually becoming out of date and less useful.

You can address this by creating a small, centralised transparency task force. See who naturally steps up as a specific source to take responsibility for this; it will most likely be whoever in the organisation has the most interest in creating a transparent organisation with lots of clarity and alignment. This might be a founder, the CEO, or an individual who has taken on some significant operations roles in the organisation.

The responsible person may call on a team of people to help keep the map up to date. This team may train other teams in how to create transparency around their work, use gentle nudges to get people to update their initiatives on the map, and present the map back to everyone to keep it visible.

Integrate into your rhythm

There is usually some kind of regular rhythm to how teams and organisations operate and develop. For example, there may be an all-company quarterly retrospective where everyone comes together to review progress and look together at what’s coming next.

These regular moments are ideal for getting the field map up to date. You can add mapping to the standard agenda and find a way to do a round of updates to the map that works for the size of the group. For example, a member of the transparency task force could show the current map on a big screen, remind people how to make edits, and invite everyone there and then to open their laptops and quickly make any changes relevant to their initiatives. You can have the map up to date in a matter of minutes. Additionally, members of the task force can encourage individual teams to add mapping to their own regular meeting agendas, so they can make their work visible to the rest of the organisation.

Integrate with communications systems

Most participatory organisations use internal communications systems like Slack. You can take advantage of this to keep your map up to date, since it means you already have a place you know you can get people’s attention. For example, Maptio has a feature that allows you to share a snapshot preview of the current map into a Slack channel. You can use this after the task force has coordinated a round of updates to the map, or you can use it as a nudge by saying something like: “This is the map our new recruits use to learn about our organisation. If anything’s out of date, then now would be a great time to change it.”

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