The Birth of Conversation Mapping

The development of many of the Systemic leadership techniques we work with, with businesses, governments and not-for-profit organisations started their life through efforts to support small rural communities perplexed by the rapid changes disrupting traditional practices.

The Conversation Map now used in boardrooms around the world was first conceived in a squatter settlement outside Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Leaders of this settlement (known as the Horse Camp) were trying to get a U.N. development agency to install clean reticulated water. At the time a U.N. policy factor and a Papua New Guinea cultural norm were in stark conflict and prevented any action being initiated.

Papua New Guinea community leadership was entirely male and the U.N. policy required involvement of both men and women in community decision-making. The challenge was to find a way that in the short term both positions could be respected, since establishing water points was critical for public health.

The community workers engaged by the U.N. devised the idea that while women could not speak at community meetings they were allowed to write about community issues and if those writing could be integrated with writing by men, a document could be created showing the active engagement of both sexes in planning the water project. The joint will of the community could be articulated by identifying the issues that emerged from the integrated document and used as the basis for technical planning.

To make visible the participation of both men and women the men used black pens and the women red. Many men and women in the settlement participated in those first hesitant steps of conversation mapping. There were difficulties since the emergent issues were usually a surprise and challenged some entrenched power groups. However, the process succeeded and in the years since Conversation Mapping has become a major tool for management seeking to integrate the diverse perspectives about a complex issue.

Conversation Mapping is a fundamental technique for achieving ‘grassroots democracy’ in the communities and organisations around the world and it’s one of our most-used methods for ensuring egalitarian engagement that quickly co-creates a qualitative database.

Bruce McKenzie is the Associate Director of the Center for Systemic Leadership. He holds a degree from the University of Melbourne, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Urban and Regional Planning, and a Masters Degree in Systemic Development from the University of Western Sydney. He is also an accredited “Cognitive Edge” practitioner. He has been involved in building Graduate programs in business and systemics at Akershus University College in Norway, University of Liverpool’s School of Management and Open University in the UK as well as Dominican University of California’s GreenMBA,  Macquarie’s Graduate School of Management (Executive Leadership Program) and Australian Catholic University’s Centre for Executive and Professional Education. 

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