Concept Mapping or “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

There is a great quote regarding communications:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George Bernard Shaw

What did he mean by this? People misunderstand each other more often than we would like. Sometimes, these misunderstandings are trivial, e.g. a PO can stand for Product Owner (IT department) or for Purchase Order (finance department). These problems are found quickly.

But often, the misunderstandings are more difficult to catch: people can use the same terms in a similar way but with differences. To stay in the example, one person might think a Product Owner conducts the testing, the other doesn’t. These two people might have a completely normal conversation about the POs and both believe that the other  is aligned to their own views – that is until the testing starts.

Concept Mapping supports communication.

What is Concept Mapping?

Concept Mapping is a visual thinking method to reduce this issue. It brings people to “truly” communicate with each other. It does this through alignment on terminology.  It is therefore the perfect method to start any new initiative, whether it is a project/agile initiative, a new team setup, an interest group, etc.

Concept Mapping is basically the reoccurring shared review of one or more concept maps.

Concept Map on Concept Mapping
Key concepts relevant for Concept Mapping

A Concept Map is basically a way to define terminology. Each term (or concept) will be defined not through a dictionary entry but instead through its relation to other concepts. The map above is a simple Concept Map. During a shared review, two or more group members can conduct a shared review of the map.

What is a Shared Review?

In the shared review the group members validate each sentence on the map together. Which sentences? Each of the lines forms a simple sentence. “Concept Mapping results in a Concept Map” is one of them on the concept map above. If you have a sentence “Product Owner conducts the testing” on the map, the group members can agree (potentially after some discussions) or  improve the map in order to have a correct Concept Map. Any changes should then we validated with the rest of the group, which might trigger more changes.

New team/group member can be brought quickly up to speed as run-through through the map(s) can layout the field to them. They will become effective faster.

With any shared review the map normally improves. If there is a different understanding, the review brings it into the open. In my experience, only a few iterations are enough to reach general consensus. Subsequent discussions will shorten significantly as communication uses a shared terminology.

Is Concept Mapping a “Silver Bullet”?

Of course, Concept Mapping isn’t a magic silver bullet. If a relationship between two terms was never discussed then it will most likely not be on the Concept Map and hence differences in opinion can survive. But if you ever find something then add it to the map and spread the new meaning throughout the  whole group – or spark the discussion if the best relation is not obvious to all.

Personal Experience

I have so far made really good experience with Concept Maps. Projects that used them went generally a lot smoother than the others. You can start with a small team and later include new groups more easily. Imaging a project with external IT development (through a vendor) where the developers are simply not part of the initiating group. They join later and need to understand the documentation provided. For them the knowledge transfer of the map is really efficient.

But the biggest value from my point of view is that you simply have important discussions earlier. Just now it happened that we found a major difference in understanding within a fresh department. Key people responsible for a key deliverable had a substantial difference. The difference persisted already for a few months – in spite of regular meetings within the the team and in spite of road map discussions for the deliverable. The wording used was compatible in many ways and allowed both sides to keep two consistent pictures alive. I created a first map by extracting key concept from one member of the group and then conducted a shared review with 4 members. We didn’t even get half way through the map. Instead the scope discussion went off and will continue for a few more meetings. This important scope misalignment would have become obvious latest during go live – with potential severe delays. As we found it earlier, the impact on the roadmap is much smaller.

Concept Mapping is simply the best method I found so far to ensure that all members of any group are “on the same page” and can communicate efficiently.

Closing Thoughts

I created Vithanco for Visual Thinking methods like Concept Mapping. Try it yourself in the Mac App Store. Vithanco has a dedicated Domain for Concept Maps.


Use Templates to make the most of your own Domains

Vithanco comes with a set of Domains, spanning different areas like Benefit Mapping, Concept Mapping, Causal Loop Diagrams or Theory of Constraints Thinking Processes. However, new use cases regularly require a new “language”. New node types and the right recommendations for predecessors and successors create a new syntax for the next diagram. It happens often to me that I adjust existing domains for a specific needs or even create a completely new domain. And these changes are often needed for the next time I create a new diagram for the same area.
For example, I once created a simple graphical language for writing text. It had only a few elements like “Fact”, “Conclusion”, “Experience”. I used it for a while whenever I was writing and sometimes still come back to it.
Templates were created based on user request. They fulfill the need to save local Domains. They are basically diagrams saved for simplified retrieval. Hence, save some nodes in your template and these nodes will be reproduced when you start a diagram based on that template. If you want to create a structure for the use of the domain as with the Evaporating Cloud then you can now do so!
Vithanco makes it easy to find a specific template again by showing relevant template information, like a diagram screenshot, the meta model and a description. If you have improved a template simply override it.
Loading and Saving Templates
Loading and Saving Templates
Access templates saving and loading from the file menu.
Finally, if you believe that you have a useful Domain, please send it to the developer team. We will gladly add good domains so they are available out-of-the-box.

Analyse Systems with Causal Loop Diagrams

Vithanco got a new diagram type. The Casual Loop Diagrams.

Why using Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs)?

Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) are a way to capture systems, to analyse them and to plan how to influence them. CLDs explain long-term behaviour of systems which is otherwise difficult to understand based if you only look at the current as-is snapshot.

CLDs describe systems via “stocks” (nodes) and connections (edges). Much of the day-to-day world can be accurately described as such a system. Let’s look at a simple example: A bank account and the interest earned.

Banking Account as a simple Causal Loop Diagram
  • The amount of the Bank Balance (a stock) will affect the amount of the Earned Interest (another stock), as represented by the connection, pointing from Bank Balance to Earned Interest.
  • Since an increase in Bank balance results in an increase in Earned Interest, this link is of the same kind, meaning more results in more. Interestingly, this even works for a negative amount in your bank account.
  • The Earned interest gets added to the Bank balance, also a link of the same kind, represented by the bottom connection.
  • The causal effect between these nodes forms a positive reinforcing loop, represented by the icon in the middle containing an “R” and showing the loop direction (clockwise).

This system is obviously only a part of bigger system that would include salary payments and withdrawals to live. But if left alone, the reinforcing loop points out that this system would lead to an uninterrupted growth of the two stocks involved.

A CLD is very useful to identify the loops that affect the systems’ behaviour. Especially the separation between balancing and reinforcing loops provides meaningful insights into a system’s behaviour as shown in the following table.

Loop Type Description
Balancing Balancing loops have an odd number of opposite connections (negative links).
Balancing loops are associated with reaching a plateau.
Reinforcing Reinforcing loops have an even number of opposite connections (negative links, please note that zero also is even).
Reinforcing loops are associated with exponential increases/decreases.

The example above with the bank account and the interest earned has a reinforcing loop, which based on compound interest does indeed show an exponential increase.

Loops are automatically identified by Vithanco.

Background on CLDs

Extensive research was done regarding systems (see as a starting point: Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems) as part of a body of knowledge called systems thinking. One interesting way of accessing systems thinking knowledge is by learning about the so-called archetypes.

Learn more about Vithanco’s implementation of CLDs here.

Impact Mapping Coming

I like visual thinking and whenever I come across a new method then I am make notes for future usage. One of these is the Impact Mapping, developed by Gojko Adzic. Impact Mapping is a nice quick way to identify the best approach to achieve a goal. 

The basic structure of impact mapping is very simple. You start with a goal, identify all the potential actors, analyse how they can help or hinder you, and then identify the solutions that might help or prevent your actors in order to achieve the goal. 

Impact Mapping in Vithanco

This is so simple and yet so powerful that it had to find it’s way into Vithanco. Right now it’s only available on my computer, but soon it will be released. 

In case you want to know more, here are two useful sites. The reference can be found here: A quick overview can be found at Magnus Dahlgren’s website:

A quick guide