Mapping Social Messes: A GLEN Exchange with Bob Horn

social change visualization Jan 16, 2019

Recently Stanford scholar Bob Horn, longtime friend of The Grove and fellow pioneer in visual thinking, led a GLEN Exchange * introducing his “mess mapping” process for exploring social messes and their causes. Author of Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, he is a specialist in mapping complex social problems. Currently, he is writing a book called The Little Book of Wicked Problems and Social Messes.

In mess mapping, a group of diverse stakeholders tackles a challenging problem by taking one set of problem-causing factors at a time, looking to understand and visually represent the complexities and cross-boundary causes. The goal is to raise awareness while also creating a possibility for new social constructions of meaning, potentially with coordinated problem-solving.


Defining Social Messes

“I got the idea of ‘messes’ from (early organization-development pioneer) Russell Ackoff,” Bob explained. “Ackoff said, ‘Often many problems are systemically interrelated. We don’t have a word in English for that, so I will adopt the technical term mess.’ I liked that a lot, and I thought it was a deep insight. Because I think that messes are all social, I use the term ‘social messes’ to describe wicked problems, unruly complex problems, important or even urgent problems that affect many people.”


Mess-Mapping Case Example

Bob shared the following mess-mapping case from his consulting practice. It involves problems that a county faced in addressing long-time care delivery for elderly and disabled people. In his words:




Starting with a convener group that could do the mapping, we said, “Let’s look at the mess together and examine the interdependencies and cross-boundary causality issues to get a deeper understanding of what is going on here. Then we will envision goals and solutions.”

We then invited participants to tell us how they were experiencing the issues:

—What is happening?
—What are the presenting problems?
—Who are the provider agencies?
—Who else is involved here? (what classes of organizations)
—What seems to be stuck here? (funding, governance, policy, continuity, curriculum, vacancies…)

Throughout this project, although we focused on the mapping and the visual aspects, group process was just as important. It was remarkable to bring together the directors or deputy directors of a dozen or more organizations that were experiencing the mess, and get them talking to each other—and even more important, listening to each other.

In my first five-minute mini-lecture I commented, “You don’t have problems—what you have is a mess.” After working together for an afternoon, everyone relaxed knowing that “this problem is not all on me.” People saw that they could get their remarks in, while also learning a larger idea: “Yes, you are causing my problem” (remember, this was about cross-boundary causality), “but I am also causing your problems in all sorts of ways.” They became a more unified group when they could see that they were causing other people’s problems and other people were causing their problems, so they had all better work together on solutions.



After the map was completed, the group reconvened for a daylong meeting to answer a single framing question: “What do we need to do for each other to help this situation?” We assumed, for the purposes of this exercise, that the directors had embodied the major interactions among all of them. They didn’t have to have further discussion about the issues, because we had been building a map together, meeting every few weeks for the past six weeks.

Working from Ackoff’s idea that you have to shift a whole lot of things simultaneously if you are going to have even a relative success at changing one thing, we said, “Let’s see how many things we can change at once. Here is our list of 60 problems. We have about one to two minutes per problem. You are all familiar with these issues. Let’s take problem #1. Who’s got the best idea of what we do for #1?” Using a rapid overview process, we got through all 60 problems in an afternoon. Solution ideas were generated for all except five longer-term issues for which we didn’t have enough data.

Participants decided to take the list of 55 solutions to their county supervisors. We walked in with a big version of the map and gave each supervisor a small version of the map along with a solutions mural that I had made. We said, “We suggest that we change all of these things at once.” The supervisors said, “Well, will this cost us more?” “No,” we replied, “we can change these 55 things ourselves.” They replied, “It sounds as though you know what you are doing—go ahead.”

It was satisfying that our work resulted in this highly practical outcome, moving forward a systemic set of solutions.

Bob has found that mess-mapping unifies a group as well as aiding deep analysis of a situation. It is about being systematic and thoughtful and not pointing fingers. It helps groups sidestep the fear and anger that can arise when people approach a challenging conversation.


Mapping Mega-Messes

Bob frequently consults on international task forces that are grappling with mega-messes, such as climate change and sustainability challenges—issues that he has engaged with for more than 20 years. He helps these working groups take on the big questions, such as, “What are the requirements for sustainability for the next 40 years? And how can we cultivate changes in education and culture that can help eight billion people see themselves and life on this planet in a different way?”


Approaching Wicked Problems: “We’re All in This Together”

Alongside Bob’s case presentation, the Exchange participants referenced their own work on “social messes,” such as disaster relief, hunger, homelessness, climate change and more. How might our perspective on these issues be informed by a mess-mapping approach? How might the range of actors and causes of these “wicked problems” be brought into shared focus through the lens, “We’re all in this together”?



* The Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN) is a Grove-sponsored network of seasoned practitioners seeking to create new ways of working collaboratively to tackle the organizational and social challenges that we face. For more information about The GLEN and how to participate, please see the GLEN website. 

The illustrations in this article are from Bob Horn’s forthcoming book, The Little Book of Wicked Problems and Social Messes, and are used by permission.

Prior to the book’s publication, you can learn more about this subject via a series of short blog articles that he co-wrote with Robert Weber about the use of mess maps to address wicked problems. The first article is here. More mess-map examples can be viewed at Bob Horn’s website.

Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century by Robert Horn is available for purchase at Grove Tools.


To be in touch with Bob Horn, email [email protected].

What challenges Are you facing?

Let’s talk.