Create organisational clarity using initiative mapping: A guide

How to map and visualise who’s responsible for what, who’s helping who and how an overall vision breaks down into the smaller ideas which contribute to it.

This Maptio guide is an interpretation of Charles Davies’ original work on initiative mapping, and based on Peter Koenig’s source principles. It wouldn’t have been possible without their ideas and I recommend you also read their work.

Version 1.1. January 2018.

In this guide we’ll cover:

  • the lens which initiative mapping uses to explore creative endeavours;
  • what initiative mapping is and is not;
  • principles for good initiative mapping;
  • how to create an initiative map;
  • tips to make it easier and more effective;
  • how to work with an initiative map once it’s clear.

Why initiative mapping?

The purpose of initiative mapping is to get collaboration flowing much more smoothly and naturally. This allows the creative vision for a company or any other human endeavour to be realised faster, with less unnecessary tension.

If you work in a company or other organisation and you want things to be more autonomous, aligned, accountable and agile then initiative mapping will help.

Initiative mapping basics

When you consider these benefits it’s quite natural that your head is in a mode where you’re focussing on ‘the organisation’. You may well be thinking about structure, and about org design.

Here’s the thing about initiative mapping: It’s not about “organisations” as we usually perceive them.

What initiative mapping is not about

  • Legal structure and ownership
  • Official job titles or roles
  • Official processes, reporting lines, departments or teams
  • Official governance and policies
When you’re initiative mapping, it’s essential to not get confused with organisation design or the traditional org charts you might be used to.

This isn’t to say there’s no value in mapping the formal organisation or for optimising the design of organisational elements. But don’t start with that.

What initiative mapping is

Since we’re not focussing on ‘the organisation’, initiative mapping uses a different lens: The underlying process of realising a vision in the world. This is a particular powerful lens since ultimately that’s the point of whatever work is happening. It gets directly to the heart of things.

Initiative mapping is an enquiry into:

  • how the overall vision breaks down into the ever smaller ideas which contribute to it;
  • who has taken responsibility for each part;
  • and who is helping with what.

The promise of initiative mapping

You’ll find that if you get an initiative map clear and accurate, all of the formal organisational matters will become much easier, like paddling downstream not upstream. You may also find the need for quite so much formal organisation can be greatly reduced because things will be flowing more naturally.

This doesn’t mean you won’t find tricky tensions and confusions which need to be resolved. But the initiative mapping process will bring these tensions into sharp relief, helping you to understand deeper root causes and give you hints at how they might be resolved.

Mapping not design

It’s never a good idea to start redesigning something without understanding what’s already there, or worse still, not understanding the creative brief for the design work. Initiative mapping gets these things clear.

So for now, get out of design mode. Think of it as surveying a town and drawing the map. Not town planning or designing the road layouts and buildings.

Map the most truthful picture of what’s going on without trying to change anything (yet.)

During the mapping process, prioritise thoughtful listening and intuitively reading between the lines over designing anything or blindly accepting the official answer to your questions.

The end result

The result of an initiative mapping process is a visualisation in nested circles. It shows who’s responsible for what; who’s helping who; and how the overall vision breaks down into the smaller ideas which contribute to it.

An initiative map presented using the Maptio online tool.

You can use a simple tool like Maptio to make it much quicker and easier to draw, update and share, or you can get started on paper.

Don’t fear hierarchy

Nested circles as a visual metaphor work well to represent how an overall vision contains more specific ideas which are being realised in service of it. But let’s not skirt around the fact that it’s a hierarchy. And that’s a good thing. It’s only the visualisation format which is different to most hierarchies.

Don’t be afraid of hierarchy. It’s a natural pattern in nature. Mapping the natural hierarchy doesn’t necessarily mean reinforcing an old-school hierarchy of power-over-people.

Let’s move on to how you create an initiative map.

Begin at the beginning

The outer edge of the initiative is the first thing to get clear. Think of this outer circle as the creative space within which all other activity is happening.

We want to establish who is the individual with overall responsibility for this space. It’s a special role that Peter Koenig calls the ‘source.’

The source is the person who first took responsibility for realising an idea in the world by taking the first risk in the form of a tangible first step.

We also need to clarify the creative brief for the space which serves as a dividing line between what’s in and out of scope.

Identifying the source person

Start by investigating the founding story of the initiative. You’re looking for its original author.

For older initiatives it may be someone down a line succession from the original source. This means looking for the moments when responsibility was clearly and sincerely released by an outgoing source and taken from them by someone new.

If you’re struggling with the idea that it’s just one individual alone holding this role (not two or more co-founders or a group) then read this. Here’s an excerpt:

Every initiative starts with exactly one source. Even if two or more people were there at the start, if you re-tell the founding story carefully you can identify the one originating founder. They were the person who took the first risk to start realising the idea. This applies to the overall big idea and all of the sub-initiatives within it.
Don’t worry if your mental model is about completely equal co-founders and shared authority. That’s a useful lens sometimes too. I’ll just say that having this extra level of precision in the mapping process, and acknowledging natural, individual authority, is incredibly useful for sustained efforts to realise ideas.
Another way to think about this is that it’s technically impossible for two or more people to simultaneously begin to realise precisely the same idea in precisely the same instant. It might seem like a subtle difference if they were all present at that genesis moment, but it makes a profound difference later on. So acknowledging who was first and has the natural authority is extremely valuable.

Clarify the creative brief

The source person alone is the natural authority on the creative brief. You can also call this the vision, mission, north star or purpose — the label you choose is not important.

What we’re talking about here is authority as in authorship, not power-over-people. You can read Charles Davies’ explanation of authority for more.

It’s impossible to decide who has authority — it just is. Authority is created naturally when someone takes the initiative.

You can use a process like Very Clear Ideas to clarify the creative brief and get it into writing. A key part of this is not just focussing on the outward expression of the vision that’s being realised, but inwardly on the need of the source person which caused them to take responsibility for the initiative. This creates a deep authenticity for the initiative. Think of the source not as a hero entrepreneur, but as a vulnerable visionary. Not just a CEO, but an artist.

Finally, you can ask the source person for a list of who is directly helping them to realise the vision. I advise not necessarily listing everyone who is involved in the whole thing, but their immediate collaborators. Note down these helpers.

Work inwardly to map more specific initiatives

With the outer edge clear you can talk to others involved in the initiative and establish who has taken responsibility for more specific parts of the overall vision.

For each responsibility you are looking for a specific moment when either somebody took responsibility for realising part of the vision, or when somebody brought in an initiative from outside, to within.

Exactly the same principles and process applies:

  1. Identify the original source or the current successor;
  2. Get the creative brief or vision clear;
  3. Note who is directly helping them.

These sub-initiatives can be drawn as circles nested within the outer edge. You may have initiatives several levels deep.

You might see the same names cropping up multiple times, sometimes as the source of an initiative and sometimes as a helper. In Maptio, these connections can be viewed as a network diagram.

Working with an initiative map

A completed map isn’t the end. Rather than it decaying in a desk drawer like an old-school org chart which nobody ever looks at, it can be maintained as an ever-evolving guide to what’s actually going on. It makes on-boarding new people faster and it aids decision-making and initiative-taking.

If you decide to use Maptio, it can integrate with other systems so you can have one overview of the whole initiative and then drill into tasks and other specifics when you need to.

Seven tips for initiative mapping excellence

1. Create the conditions for truthful discovery

Initiative maps are only useful if they’re an honest reflection of what’s really going on. Nobody should have anything to fear from a genuine attempt to map an organisation. Offer reassurance and do what you can to instil trust in everyone you interview as part of the process.

2. Don’t get dragged back into focussing on “the organisation.”

It’s essential that you stay focussed on mapping the underlying creative initiative, not “the organisation.”

Watch out for people pulling you off-course when you interview them during the mapping exercise. You might hear things like ‘Well, I do such and such work and report to my manager, Betty Evans…’ or ‘This project sits within the marketing department.’ Each time, you need to get beneath abstractions about managers and departments and map what the creative idea is that’s being worked on, how this sits within a high level idea, and who took responsibility.

A project may sit formally within a particular department, or a person may formally report to a particular manager, but in the creative initiative, they may be helping someone different. It’s these creative connections that you want to map.

3. Never map overlapping initiatives

Every initiative should be distinct — a specific idea which is being realised. Each should be clear and completely inside or outside all of the others.

If an initiative runs over the edge of its parent initiative, you’ll experience this as unnecessary tension or confusion.

If you use Maptio to draw your map, the tool won’t allow any initiatives to overlap. It’s one of the very few rules it enforces because it prevents all kinds of mischief.

However you can map how initiatives are related, which leads us to the next tip.

4. Use colours to map categories of initiatives or links between them

Initiatives often have natural links between them since people in organisations typically contribute to more than one thing. So whilst each initiative is a distinct idea being realised, they are simultaneously inter-linked by these human connections. (Maptio offers a network view of a map to show the links between individuals working together.)

Additionally there can be themes or other connections between initiatives, and you can create a colour-code to highlight related initiatives.

Maptio has a feature in development for adding tags and colour schemes to initiatives so you can visualise how things are related, and filter the map to show a simplified version with only particular initiatives displayed.

5. Make the names of initiatives active and descriptive

This is one of my favourite Charles Davies tips and is also used in his Very Clear Ideas process.

The most useful way to label an initiative is with a short one-liner to describe what the initiative is actually doing, not just an abstract name.

For example, you might label the outer circle of the map with a short description of the mission ‘Acme Inc. — Satisfying the hardware needs of Roadrunners everywhere.’

The first word in the description is particularly important. Find the verb — the ‘doing word’ — which describes what’s actually happening: Creating, Designing, Championing, Building, and so on. This makes the initiative active. People working on it can check in whenever they need to and ask themselves if they are actually contributing towards doing the thing that needs to be done.

Avoid typical business-y verbs like ‘Marketing’ as much as possible. They’re ambiguous. Instead describe what ‘marketing’ means you’re actually doing — it may be something unique to you.

Focussing on what you are doing is simpler and more powerful than the currently fashionable ‘start with why’ approach from Simon Sinek.

6. Welcome tensions you uncover

The mapping process naturally surfaces tensions and problems in an organisation. These should be welcomed because they shine a light on issues that will already be causing problems. Recognising these tensions is the first step towards resolving them. Here are some typical ones to look out for:

  • Nobody is acknowledged as the natural authority, or the authority has left the organisation without fully passing their authority on to a successor. These ‘ghost ship’ initiatives are usually adrift and not helping to realise the vision. A scary realisation can be that an entire company or organisation is adrift in this way. It might have a CEO but nobody present who is the natural authority over the vision. No amount of org redesign will save it for long. Urgent steps should be taken to get authority clear again, and then you can work on other organisational matters.
  • Somebody is the authority for something they don’t really want to do. These will be initiatives which are neglected and lacking results. It’s arguably impossible to get someone to take responsibility for something they don’t really want to do. Instead, encourage a succession to someone who genuinely wants it, or close the initiative altogether and free up the time, resources and energy for something completely different. And yes, this can apply to an entire company.
  • There’s a power struggle for authority over an area, or authority is viewed as being distributed. I don’t want to get into a holy war with those who believe creative authority can truly be distributed. Just be aware that my colleagues and I have seen many well-intentioned attempts to do this which lead to a gradual creative decline of an initiative. It’s too large a topic to cover in detail here, so for now I’ll just leave you with an encouragement to uncover the individual with natural authority and encourage them to accept their authority and learn to stand well in that role. More on this here.

7. Don’t go too detailed

A common question is how granular the mapping should go. A simple rule of thumb is if you notice yourself starting to get bored while you’re listing out all of the initiatives, you’re probably going too far.

Stick with initiatives which are relatively stable. Perhaps things which will last at least a month. Don’t map every single minor project or task. If you need to track those things for various initiatives, it’s better to allow the people working on those things to choose whatever system they prefer to manage the work itself, perhaps using a dedicated system like Basecamp or Trello. Your initiative map can just link to wherever these other systems live.

You’ll get the most value from an initiative map if it provides an accurate overview of the whole org. Don’t create too much work for yourself in keeping it up-to-date by going too detailed. It’s not supposed to be a project management tool.


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