Factor mapping: A participatory workshop for embracing the complexity of sustainable development (Valcourt)

Friday, October 11th 9:00am – 11:00am

  • Nicholas Valcourt, University of Colorado – Boulder (valcourt@colorado.edu)
  • Jeffrey Walters, University of Colorado – Boulder

Sustainable development is increasingly referred to as a complex problem, yet few accessible tools exist for development practitioners for mapping and making sense of complex systems. These tools are needed not only for practitioners to develop a more actionable understanding of how to engage with complex problems, but also as a means to provide platforms for local decision makers to share and align their perspectives on complex issues. In response to this need, we have developed a low-resource, participatory ‘group model building’ approach for engaging local stakeholders in discussions of the complexities of implementing sustainable development initiatives. Drawing from our experience of implementing the ‘Factor Mapping’ process in twenty locations across six countries on topics ranging from solar energy adoption to primary school education and water service delivery, this workshop will demonstrate how the process can be applied within virtually any context with minimal training or resources. Attendees will learn about each step of the workshop including how to define a system boundary, identify key factors, map relationships between the factors and extract meaningful insights from the workshop outputs that can be used for planning, implementing and monitoring development projects. Following a concise introduction on the background of the process, attendees will participate in an interactive demonstration of the factor mapping process, including how to facilitate engaging conversations of complexity with local stakeholders, including those who may have limited literacy or numeric skills. For this reason, no prior knowledge of systems or special expertise is required to participate, meaning that by the end of the workshop, attendees will have a more actionable understanding of practical methods for mapping complex systems, including the skills and resources necessary to replicate the process within their own projects.

  • Present and demonstrate a systems-thinking workshop method that can easily be replicated by the workshop participants.
  • Engage academics and practitioners in a discussion of the complexity of sustainable development issues.


·        Background on systems thinking, complexity and applications in developing

·        Introduction to the ‘group model building’ (GMB) approach, the associated analyses and insights (results) it can produce

·        Participants are presented with an overview of the goals of the workshop and agenda. 

Factor Mapping

·        Interactive demonstration of the GMB activity

·        This will involve the active participation of the workshop participants in defining the boundary or the system to be model, identifying the key factors, prioritizing these factors and then mapping the influences of each factor onto the system.

·        During this demonstration, participants will be asked to explore concepts of direct and indirect effects, factor dynamics, polarity of relationships and the context- and time-dependent attributes of factor interaction.

·        These insights will be presented within a ‘cross impact matrix’ at the front of the room and analysed at the completion of the activity to illustrate the emergent systems insights, such as factor influence and feedback, that can be produced from the workshop discussion.

Discussion and Debrief / Feedback

·        Present outputs and results of the example workshops and show participants how these results can be produced and visualized for use in their own work

·        Elicit participants’ reflections on the activity specifically, and how systems tools can be used for practitioners for engaging partners in systems thinking for development more broadly.

  • Participants are shown how to facilitate and replicate a low-resource, short-format systems-mapping workshop technique that requires no specialized tools or knowledge for use in their own work.
  • Participants are introduced to key concepts of systems (e.g. factors, interactions) and complexity (feedback) to help develop a common language for sharing insights about complex systems.
  • Participants leave the session with an improved understanding of how to engage their partners in structured conversations around complex issues that produce salient and actionable outputs
  • The theoretical concept of complexity in the real-world is illustrated through a practical exercise and story sharing so that participants see the practical application of systems theory to the development sector