Initiative Mapping: An Introduction.

One of the most important things when working together is to be clear on who is helping who with what and why

Charles Davies
Jun 12, 2018 · 18 min read

It’s one of those things that we basically all know is true, but is so easy to forget in practice: in order for two people to work together, one of them has to invite the other. And, if you want to work together well, it’s absolutely essential that you know who invited who.

If you invite someone for dinner, you are the host and they are the guest.
If you ask for help, then your role is ‘person being helped’ and the other person’s role is ‘helper’. And each of these roles has different rules. So it really matters that each person understands their respective role — and what that means for how you relate to each other. Otherwise feet get stepped on. And you might think you’re helping, when you’re not really helping. And you might end up taking responsibility for things that aren’t your responsibility.

When you’re working together creatively — bringing something entirely new into the world — then it matters even more. Because when you have an idea of something entirely new you want to bring into the world and you ask someone to help, then they really have absolutely no idea what the thing is meant to look like. Because it’s your idea. In your head. And so it’s up to you to tell them — so they can help you bring it into the world.

And — this isn’t always the case — but quite often it takes two people to successfully get something all the way out into the world. Because bringing something new into the world requires two skills: the first is being able to listen inside for what the new thing is and the second is being able to take the steps to make it real. And doing those two things at the same time can be really hard. Some people are better at tuning in. Some people are better at stepping up. Some people can tune in and step up at the same time — but it’s a real art. So, quite often we find a helper and we build a bridge between us, taking one half each. You be the feeler, and I’ll be the doer. You be the visionary, I’ll be the pragmatist. You be the author and I’ll be your agent.

And, intuitively, we all know how to step in and out of those roles.

We know that if you’re the host of a party, you‘re responsible for the space, you say who can and can’t attend, you decide what kind of party it is. You get the benefit of control and the weight of responsibility. If you’re a guest, you don’t get to decide those things. You get to decide whether to show up or not and you get to decide whether it’s the kind of party you like. You don’t get to control the party — but you also get to enjoy not being responsible for the thing.

And we know that a good helper is full of ideas and helpful suggestions, but not attached to which one is right. And that a good receiver-of-help is one who can happily listen to all the ideas — good and bad — and then choose the one that is actually right for them. Fundamentally, we all naturally know all these things.

But, strangely, this elementary aspect of how humans work together well is often overlooked at work. We get caught up in job titles and seniority and expectations and ego and whatever — and forget to check who is helping who with what. Who is host and who is guest. My friend Peter Koenig has been trying to reintroduce these concepts to the workplace by teaching founders of organisations the unique nature of their role as visionary-person-asking-for-help, and then teaching them how best to work with the people who are helping them bring that vision into the world.

For my part, I’m trying to make working together effortless by showing how easy it is to map what’s actually going on when people collaborate. You can normally draw it out on a page. It normally doesn’t take longer than an hour or two. And, if there is any kind of friction between people working together, if there’s any kind of fuzziness in who should be doing what and when, then it normally resolves all of that pretty much instantly.

I call the process initiative mapping and it goes something like this…

How to map initiatives

I’m going to start by talking about just two people working together. Firstly, to keep things simple and, secondly, because collaboration is always only ever two people working together on a shared need. It might look like you have groups of people just working together in big, mushy pile of something, but if you look again, you’ll see that the big, mushy pile is actually an intricate web of connections made of pairs of collaborators. Just in the same way that the internet might look like a big, mushy pile of stuff, but if you break it down, it’s just made up of links joining one thing to another thing. In short: if you understand how two people work together, then you understand how everyone works together.

When you want to get clear on how two people are working together, there are six things you need to get clear on:

  • Who asked for help?
  • What are they trying to do?
  • What help do they need?
  • Has someone agreed to help?
  • What have they agreed to help with?
  • Why have they agreed to help?

That’s basically it.

And it feels so straightforward and self-evident that it feels almost silly to spell it out. But I have worked in offices. I have been stuck in never-ending circular meetings. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked anywhere where always asking these questions was part of the normal routine. (The closest I’ve come is working as a magazine editor, where there’s a pretty good discipline around making sure that editors have briefed writers clearly.)

So, to spell it out, let’s say I have a garden and I want my garden to be beautiful. But I don’t know how to make my garden beautiful. So I ask you to teach me.

Who asked for help? I did.
What are you trying to do? Make my garden beautiful.
What help do you need? I need someone to teach me how to make my garden beautiful.
Has someone agreed to help? Yes.
What have they agreed to help with? They’ve agreed to teach me how to make my garden beautiful.
Why have they agreed to help? Because they love making beautiful gardens and think they might get better at it by teaching someone else how to make their garden beautiful.

And you might draw it like this:

Drawing out the humanity

Here’s the thing.

Have you noticed how literature is full of people who are broken and irrational and desperate and joyful and impassioned and changeable and lovable and irritable and human?

And have you noticed how organisational charts are full of people who are… robots? Where you can just say ‘this person = this job’ — and that’s it? Where they can be plugged in and plugged out (“Oh, we replaced our head of operations.” — like you’re replacing a head gasket or a burned out solenoid or something.) Where everyone is a little bit cardboard and empty and purely rational and devoid of any kind of inner life?

Only one of these pictures of humanity is true. And it’s not the one in the organisational charts. It’s the one that’s full of humanity.

And if you want to talk about how people work together and you try to use the inhumane cardboard charts to do it, it doesn’t work. It’s like living in a fantasy: imposing the wrong set of imaginary expectations on something that is real and alive and sitting right in front of you. Like a car mechanic changing careers and becoming a vet — but thinking he can still use his Ford Escort Owner’s Manual to ‘mend’ a horse. It’s not going to help and the horse is going to die. We have to use maps that are appropriate to what we are working with. So, when dealing with humans, they have to be maps that show humanity.

And this is how initiative mapping works. Not designing an organisation. Not giving people titles. Not drawing what should happen. Not drawing how people should be.

When you map initiatives, you draw what is happening, you draw what has happened. You treat people as people — with desires and dreams and needs and demands. And when those people manage to understand each other’s needs and one commits to helping the other, then you draw that. And when they don’t manage to understand each other’s needs and they don’t commit to helping each other, then you draw that.

And you soon find out that when two people understand each other’s needs and one commits to helping the other, then working together is effortless.

And you soon find out that when that doesn’t happen, everything starts falling apart.

Making initiative visible

As it stands, organisational charts don’t capture who took the initiative to start what. They don’t capture who invited who. They don’t capture why anyone is doing anything.

But they need to.

Because the person who starts something is ultimately responsible for it. The person who starts something ultimately holds the vision for what that thing is. The person who starts something is the only one who will really know when it’s finished. The appetite of the person who starts something is ultimately what dictates how much energy is available for making it happen. (This is the essential insight of Peter Koenig’s work on the ‘sources’ of organisations.)

So if you don’t include initiative-taking on organisational charts, then you all too easily end up with ‘ghost initiatives’, where something was started by someone, but then they left, and the thing carries on in a kind of weird, disconnected limbo. Or someone started something for a particular need, the particular need was met, the thing was no longer needed, but people carry on with the thing out of habit.

And you end up with ‘cuckoo initiatives’, where something is started under the guise of ‘helping’, but isn’t actually connected to the need of the person apparently being helped.

The promise of initiative mapping is that you can actually keep an accurate account of who is ultimately responsible for what and who is really answerable to who. And it does that by working with specific people’s real needs. And it does that by checking whether those things are still live or need. Not by looking at a chart — but checking in with each individual’s relationship to the work they are doing. And it does it by looking for specific personal commitments made from one person to another. Never ‘this department told that committee’. Always ‘this person told that person’.

Mapping initiatives: how it looks when things are working.

When things are working, initiative maps look like very clear, simple family trees. Or river systems.

There is always only ever one person at the top: the person who started the initiative. And you only map one initiative at a time. And you plot everyone (and everyone’s contribution) in relation to that one initiative.

So the simplest diagram (as above) just shows one person with a need getting help from another person, who is also served by that need being met:

And when the person who started the initiative needs help from more than one person, it looks a little more complicated, but it’s still just as clear:

And, more often than not, the person who is helping also needs help to do what they need to do in order to help. (“I can help make your garden more beautiful. But I will need someone to trim the hedge.”) And the person who is helping the person helping sometimes needs help. (“I can trim the hedge for you, but I will need someone to hold the ladder.”) And so the diagram gets a little more complicated again, but it’s just as clear:

The important thing is that the principles underlying the whole thing are always the same and always apply. In order for two people to work together, one has to invite the other. Otherwise, they’re just two people working near each other — which isn’t the same thing at all.

Mapping initiatives: how it looks when it doesn’t work

Of course, when things are working, it’s easy to draw out a nice, neat river system, where every person is plugged in and contributing to the task at hand. It’s when things aren’t working that it gets interesting. And more useful.

Try it with any project you’re working on at the moment:

Do you know which person you’re helping?
Or which people are helping you?
Are you clear what need the work is serving?
And how each helper is contributing?
Are all the commitments clear?
Is it clear who is responsible for each part?

When things aren’t working you’ll notice that the map starts to get a bit cloudy. Because if you don’t know who you are helping and what help they need, then how can you know what work to do? To make matters worse, it’s not enough to help someone because they say they need help. It actually has to be true too. They have to actually need help and want help — and need and want help now — and they have to need and want your help now. Otherwise, it’ll still get cloudy. Because it’ll be like trying to help someone eat when they don’t want to eat. Like pushing an elephant upstairs when really it’s set its mind on coming downstairs. In order to help we can’t just go by the book. We can’t just take things at face value. We need to develop our capacity for empathy and discernment and intuition.

Let’s get back to my beautiful garden:

I need help making my garden beautiful. I ask you for your help and you say you’d love to help, because you love making beautiful gardens. I have a moment of inspiration and realise I need a nice shed to sit and spend long mornings writing. And I ask you to find me a nice writing shed. So, you find me a very nice summerhouse / upmarket garden shed to go in the garden. And I say that’s great. And you say that, really, I need a kitchen in the shed. For preparing barbecue food. And I say, well, OK. That could be interesting. You ask if it’s OK if you go and look for quotes to get a kitchen put in the shed and I say OK. You come back with oak-topped worktops and double sinks and granite breakfast bars and all kinds of beautiful things. And I say that probably all I need is somewhere to make tea and coffee. But you point out that if I’m going to be spending £1000 on a summerhouse kitchen, then I might as well spend £2000 and do it properly. Because it’s always better to spend a bit more money up front, than have to redo it all again later. And I say that makes sense and you go and order the kitchen.

Now, it might sound like a perfectly reasonable conversation — two people collaborating in a creative way to get something done. But if you try to draw it, it becomes obvious exactly where things are clear and where things get cloudy.

It starts off well…

Each step is clearly made. Responsibility is clearly held and clearly taken. And it’s unambiguous who instigated what and why. And it’s obvious how each part contributes to the initial vision of a beautiful garden.

But then as you get further down…

The road to confusion part one: forgetting that you’re helping.

And the thing that has gone wrong, is that the helper has forgotten that they’re meant to be helping. And the helper has forgotten that helping means understanding the needs of the person you are helping. And so a disconnected idea — a cuckoo initiative — has snuck its way in. The idea that a kitchen is “just good to have”. The idea that “you might as well spend £2000”. These ideas are just ideas — disconnected from the reality of the present situation. They’re not even really ideas. They’re more like superstitions. Unquestioned beliefs. And they derail everything.

About twenty years ago my mum needed two light switches put in by her front door. There was a normal light switch (for the light inside) and a timer switch (for the light outside). When the electrician came around she asked for the timer switch to be higher up on the wall and the light switch to be lower down on the wall. And when the electrician installed the two lights, he went ahead and decided that he would rather put the light switch on top and the timer switch below “because it’s better that way round”. And I can’t remember why he thought it was better and I can’t remember why my mum needed the switches that way round. But I do know that it annoys her every day… (I think it must have been that she wanted the one she needed to use every day to be in the spot that was easier to reach.)

The point is that when you’re helping someone the question that matters is “Am I helping?” You need to check whether or not you understand the need of the person you are helping and whether or not the work you are doing is helping to meet that need. When you start talking in terms of ‘better and worse’ — as if those are things that are eternal and unchangeable — then you get lost. (Because ‘better and worse’ are always only ever subjective and depend on where you’re standing and on what you want. In this context, talking about ‘better or worse’ in this way is like asking ‘Where is left? Where is right?” To which the answer can only ever be: “Well, it depends on where you’re standing and who you’re asking and what way they’re facing.” You can never just say “It’s over there.”)

These kinds of little ideas are *so* tempting to follow. And they can easily derail the most mindful of creative souls. But they also have one feature that gives them away. And if you can train yourself to spot this one feature, then you need never be derailed again:

Beware statements that claim always to be true.

“You can’t start a new project unless you know what you’re doing.”
“You can’t ask people for money.”
“You need to make sure everything you do is of the highest quality.”
“It’s unacceptable to be made to look a fool.”

They sound like reasonable assertions, but they’re all things that are only sometimes true. There is no eternal measure against which we can judge things. Our task is always to look at each situation afresh and see what is appropriate to that particular situation. When you lose sight of that, you lose sight of where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re helping — and you’re lost.

The road to confusion part two: using the word ‘we’

Now, a lot of people feel wary about being in charge. And a lot of people feel wary about being told what to do. And, that’s understandable if you’ve grown up in an educational culture that has no concept of consent. Where someone else is in charge and you just have to do what you’re told and show up on time and stand and sit and complete tasks regardless of how you feel about it. And it’s understandable if you’ve been exposed to workplaces that just extend that culture from the classroom to the office. But the problem is never that one person is in charge and another person is being told what to do: the problem is when consent is not respected. (And while our attitude to consent has mercifully evolved when it comes to marriage law and personal relationships, it’s still strangely lagging behind in a lot of workplaces.)

But, because people feel wary about acknowledging who is in charge and who is being told what to do, they often end up talking about ‘we’.

“Well, we decided to put a kitchen in the summerhouse.”

“Well, we thought it was better to spend a bit more upfront, but it didn’t really work out.”

And the trouble with ‘we’ is that it is far too forgiving when it comes to defining who actually did what and who is actually responsible for what. And if you let ‘we’ get into the picture, then it ends up almost impossible to draw any kind of map at all.

And the thing about saying ‘we’ is it often ends up disconnected from the real world, with people saying things like:

“Well, I think we said that we would just go ahead and do it.”

As if the two people involved just were simultaneously moved to speak word-for-word in unison and decided at exactly the same moment on what they would do. And, sure, it may seem like it’s just a figure of speech. And, sure, maybe you can just put it down to the convenience of being a bit casual in talking about exactly what happened when. But — more often than not — the “we” and the “I think we said” are a cover-up. And the truth is there was no ‘we’: one person was in charge and one person was being told what to do. And when someone says “I think we said” what they really mean is “I know that no one actually said this, but if someone had, then I’d have been totally justified in doing what I did, so I wish someone had said it.”

And it’s at exactly this point, where people start talking about ‘we’ decided to do this and ‘I think we agreed to do that’ that everything gets cloudy. Because when things actually work as they should — when the different roles of helped and helper are acknowledged, when commitments are explicit and consenting — then there is no cloudiness. And, when I sit down with someone to map an initiative, those moments, where explicit and consenting commitments are made are memorable and distinctive and ultimately unambiguous.

Mapping initiatives: you don’t have to map everything

Of course, if you tried to map every single bit of work being done at, say, Coca-Cola and show everything that everyone is doing in order to help them sell more Coke (or whatever their ultimate mission actually is), it’s going to be a vast thing. And that’s ok.

But the thing about initiative mapping is that you don’t have to always map everything all the time. In fact, if there’s no need to map anything, then you shouldn’t map anything.

Before you even put pen to paper, you should check:

What am I trying to map out and why?

Because that will tell you how much map you need.

Don’t try to map what everyone is doing everywhere, each for their own reasons. Initiative mapping means looking at something in the world and wanting to learn about what it is by looking at where it came from. Looking at a building site and asking: I wonder who is building this and what they are trying to build? Because if you want to help them build, you need to know what they want to build. And if you think you have a better way to build it, you need to know what the thing is for — what it’s meant to do. And the only person who can actually tell you that is the person whose need is being met by the thing being built.

Mapping initiatives: it’s not about the map.

Also, in the end, the map is not the territory. And the point is not to draw a nice map.

It’s about working out what you’re actually doing. Getting clear on what’s actually going on.

It’s about seeing what’s working and not working. It’s about being able to see why things are working or not working — and fixing it. It’s about getting back to a state of communal creative flow.

And it’s about practising a particular way of engaging with the world. Where we develop our capacity to understand our needs and other people’s. Our capacity for compassion.

And, ultimately, this last part — developing our capacity to understand our needs and other people’s — is the only game in town. So, if drawing maps helps us do it, then we should draw maps. And if it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t.

But we do need to understand each other if we want to work together well.

I write regularly about how to be clear. If you’d like to know how to be clearer about what you’re doing, who you are or how everything gets done, I can teach you. You can read more here, join the next Clear Course or just get in touch and we’ll sort something out.

Credits: My work on initiative mapping builds on the seminal work of Peter Koenig, who taught me a way to understand how organisations work by looking at who started them. His way of looking at organisations — Source — has helped me navigate the relationships between people’s ideas and the way they work with other people. You can find Peter here.


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