Capture, explore, gain understanding of ideas


Cognitive Mapping – a users guide

by Fran Ackermann, Colin Eden and Steve Cropper, Management Science, University of Strathclyde. Copyright 1993-1996. All rights reserved.


This is the summary of the mapping guide. Full details are in the Main paper.

Guideline 1

Separate the sentences into distinct phrases. These phrases are likely to be no more than about 10-12 words long.

Guideline 2

Build up the hierarchy. Get the structure of the model right. By placing the goals (often motherhood & apple-pie type statements eg increase profit and growth) at the top of the map and supporting these first with strategic direction type concepts and further on with potential options.

Guideline 3

Watch out for goals. These will end up at the ‘top’ of the map – the most superordinate concepts. It can help to mark them as goals when writing them down.

Guideline 4

Watch out for potential “strategic issues” by noting those concepts that have some or all of the following characteristics: long term implications, high cost, irreversible, need a portfolio of actions to make them happen, may require a change in culture. They often form a flat hierarchy themselves but will be linked to Goals (above) and Potential Options (below)

Guideline 5

Look for opposite poles. These clarify the meaning of concepts. Contrasting poles may be added to the concept later on in the interview when they are mentioned. In cases where the meaning of a concept is not immediately obvious, try asking the problem owner for the opposite pole. Alternatively put the word ‘not’ in front of the proffered pole. In interviews we ask the question “rather than” – doing so often suggests the more likely psychological contrast implied by the problem owner.

Guideline 6

Add meaning to concepts by placing the concepts in the imperative form and where possible including actors and actions. Through this action perspective the model becomes more dynamic.

Guideline 7

Retain ownership by not abbreviating but rather keeping the words and phrases used by the problem owner. In addition identify the name of the actor(s) who the problem owner states are implicated and incorporate them into the concept text.

Guideline 8

Identify the option and outcome within each pair of concepts. This provides the direction of the arrow linking concepts. Alternatively think of the concepts as a ‘means’ leading to an ‘desired end’. Note that each concept is therefore can be seen as an option leading to the superordinate concept which in turn is the desired outcome of the subordinate concept.

Guideline 9

Ensure that a generic concept is superordinate to specific items that contribute to it. Generic concepts are those for which there may be more than one specific means of achieving it. This follows Guideline 8 and helps ensure a consistent approach to building the data into a hierarchy.

Guideline 10

It is generally helpful to code the first pole as that which the problem owner sees as the primary idea (usually this is the idea first stated). The first poles of a concept tend to stand out on reading a map. A consequence is that links may be negative even though it would be possible to transpose the two poles in order to keep links positive.

Guideline 11

Tidying up can provide a better more complete understanding to the problem. But ensure that you ask why isolated concepts are not linked in – often their isolation is an important clue to the problem owner’s thinking about the issues involved.

Guideline 12

Practical Tips for Mappers. Start mapping about two thirds of the way up the paper in the middle and try to keep concepts in small rectangles of text rather than as continuous lines of text. If it is possible ensure the entire map is on one A4 sheet of paper so that it is easy to cross link things (30-40 concepts can usually be fitted onto a page). Thus pencils are usually best for mapping and soft, fairly fine (eg 5mm) propelling pencils are ideal.

Near the beginning of this guide, we stated that:

“the guidelines are not a recipe which will which will allow any user to produce the ‘right’ model of any given account of problem. There is no definitive map of an account. Models of an account of a problem produced by different users will differ according to the interpretation of the data made by each individual user. Mapping is in this sense an inexact science. Cognitive mapping and the guidelines set out below merely form a prop to individuals’ interpretations of the data they have available. Nevertheless it provides a powerful way of thinking about, representing and asking questions of an account.”

Main paper