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Mapping Complexity

Submitted by Jack Byrd, Jr.

Complicated issues can overwhelm a discussion group. Discussants can feel daunted by the complexity of a topic or they can rush to a conclusion without fully exploring its complexity. Both approaches fail to constructively engage the topic. This activity introduces tools for mapping complexity.

average rating is 5 out of 5, based on 1 votes, rating(s)
Connected dots and lines of light

Learning Goal

  • Successfully employ visualization tools to help discussion groups organize, structure, and discuss complex issues.


Set Up: Prepare for the Activity

Select a scenario from the collection of What IF…Scenarios or create your own based on a topic that is relevant for your group.

Share the scenario as a handout or shared document.

Share the Fishbone Diagram as a handout or create copies of the file for each group and share electronically.

Organize participants into small groups (4-6 ppl).

Begin by introducing the learning goals of this activity.

Step One: Review the Scenario (5 min)

As a full group, invite a participant to read the scenario aloud while others read along. It may be helpful to share the scenario on an overhead screen if meeting in-person or use the share screen function if meeting virtually. Participants may also want to read quietly and have a copy to refer to details later in the activity.

After reviewing the scenario, ask if there are any questions.

Step Two: Discuss the Scenario in Small Groups (10 min)

In small groups, explore the following prompts. Identify one participant in each group to be the discussion facilitator and record notes on a whiteboard, flipchart, or shared document that can be viewed by everyone in the group.

Discussion Prompts:

  • What is the key issue, concern, or dimension of this scenario? What’s at stake?

  • What are the primary dimensions of this topic that we should consider?

  • Who are the stakeholders in this scenario? Who is affected? Who are the decision makers? Helpers? Influencers?

  • What are the benefits of the proposed policy or course of action? Costs? Trade-offs?

  • What is making us feel uneasy or uncomfortable? What is giving us pause? What unintended consequences should we anticipate?

Step Three: Fill in the Fishbone Diagram (20 min)

Provide each group with an empty Fishbone Diagram. Ask each group’s facilitator along with the other members of their group to fill in the diagram using the group’s discussion of key dimensions and concerns. For example:

  1. In the head of the fish (light pink shape on the right), place a 1-3 word description of the primary issue or topic being discussed.

  2. Then identify the major dimensions of the issue (approx. 4-6 items). Place these in the boxes that form the body of the fish (green, orange, and pink boxes on the top and bottom).

  3. Then identify specific or more detailed aspects of each dimension. These form the bones of the fish (white boxes below each colored box).

Step Four: Review and Discuss the Diagram (10 min)

Once their fishbone diagram is completed, ask each group to use it to identify contrasting and competing dimensions of the topic. Prompts:

  • When we look at this diagram, how does it help us to see the tension of the scenario?

  • Which part of this diagram seems most prominent or concerning?

  • Now that we are examining the scenario with this visual tool, what are we seeing differently? What could we add to this diagram?

Step Five (optional): Share Diagrams with the Full Group (5 min)

If time permits, invite each small group to share their completed diagrams on the board or a wall and ask participants to walk around the room to review the diagrams. If meeting virtually, review them one at a time on a shared screen with the full group.

Step Six: Debrief as a Full Group (10 min)

  • What are the major dimensions and contrasts within your small group diagrams?

  • What are some common themes across the small groups? Which dimensions stood out most to you?

  • Where do you see the most contrast? Are there any outlier topics?

  • Now that you have a sense of all the diagrams, what’s missing?

  • How does visualizing and organizing dimensions of this topic help us to better explore it together as a group?





Critical Collaboration

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average rating is 5 out of 5

February 14, 2024 at 1:03:34 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

February 14, 2024 at 1:02:20 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

February 11, 2024 at 3:55:15 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

January 4, 2024 at 7:22:22 PM

average rating is 5 out of 5

December 12, 2023 at 11:56:40 PM

average rating is 5 out of 5

Lori Britt

October 3, 2023 at 5:00:05 PM

Have done this in the past, but today a group really blew me away. I did this as a Fishbowl with 7 students taking roles. Prior to the converstaion they could seek input from a few other students about what which decision they think the person in their role would support and why. I also asked them to come up with some things that were concerns for them. This 10 minute of prep time helped my role play participants really embody and feel confident in their roles. Great discussion about what deliberation looks like in practice and about how power can impact conversations and how a facilitator can try and minimize these power imbalances. I used the scenario above and assigned these roles (I was not sure my students woul be able to consider roles that would offer different perspectives): • Facilitator (non-voting) • Mayor • High school teacher • 17-year-old high school student • Transportation planner for the region • Local business owner • Economic development office for the region (your community and the surrounding communities served by the train) • 50-year-old who lost his job last year and who has been on unemployment

average rating is 4 out of 5


September 20, 2023 at 5:18:02 AM


average rating is 5 out of 5


September 20, 2023 at 5:17:25 AM

very good

average rating is 4 out of 5

September 16, 2023 at 2:25:09 PM

average rating is 5 out of 5

September 11, 2023 at 9:02:29 AM

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