How to Use a Concept Map to Get Your Way

Most professionals will, at some point, find themselves in positions of selling: of persuading a skeptical audience that their vision of the future is a good one, and is worth pursuing. Most professionals do this poorly, attempting to use words to appeal to logic, as if the best argument is the most rational. Whether that should be the case is debatable; it certainly isn’t the case in most organizations. Instead, a successful argument for a future state is usually made through a combination of emotion and narrative, and appeals to the heart and soul. I’ve previously talked about one way of making this case, by connecting design research to value. And I’ve also talked a great deal about sensemaking, as the way people understand and form relationships with new ideas. Concept maps are a way of persuading an audience, while at the same time, educating them: helping them to see the world from a new perspective (yours!), and giving them a mechanism through which they can make sense of the new future you are proposing.

This is a step by step guide on how to make a concept map. My point here is not to show how to make one, but instead, how to use one. A concept map is overwhelming when it is first presented. It was an extremely effective tool for the person who made it. It becomes a point of confusion for the person who has to read it, and this is where a concept map crashes and burns: it’s a manifestation of the expert blindspot. In creating a concept map, you’ve learned new things and you see the world in a new way. It’s tempting to present the finished artifact as proof of this new vision. But the audience wasn’t along for the ride. They didn’t learn what you learned, they don’t see the world the way you do, and because the map is visually complex (as was your learning), they’ll be intimidated.

And so I recommend that you use a concept map for organizational change over a period of months, strategically, socially, and with a goal of manipulating the trajectory of your company by helping colleagues view the world as you do.

First, you’ll need to have an end-vision, a target for your organization. This may be a new role for your product, a new delivery mechanism, a platform change, a strategic acquisition, a re-org, and so-on. Over time, as you figure out what this end-game is, a concept map becomes a useful tool to represent the vision – to you. Use it as a selfish tool. For example, if I was pushing a healthy-eating rock up-hill at McDonalds, I might arrive at a big concept map, with a small portion that looks like this:

My intent is to show that the only way healthy eating will survive in a fast-food setting is if it is introduced by corporate, pushed to suppliers, and manifested through massive large-scale discounts, negotiated at the same level as corn. It’s complicated, hard to understand, and while it makes perfect sense to me, it’s of no use to anyone else. There’s no story being told; I literally need to explain it with words, or people won’t understand it or use it.

So, I might start by introducing this:

It seems dumb: it’s so simple. It doesn’t really say much. But it stakes out a view of the world with three major constituents. This is, potentially, not how people in the organization currently view the world – commonly, people in big organizations view the world through the lens of an org chart. This challenges that, albeit it extremely subtly.

I would put this in my presentations, email it to a few people, print it out and hang it on my cube.

And then, over time, I would start to replace it with this one:

I would start to describe how our franchise owners are fairly apathetic about what products are actually served in the stores, and instead, care about minimizing change, conflict, and cost.

After a few weeks, a version like this would start to show up:

Over time, the map is introduced into the organization, and at each step, there’s no announcement, unveiling, or massive production associated with it; it’s not a design artifact in a finished sense. Instead, it’s “released” through one on one meetings, in presentations, in conversations. And over time, it gets traction, because it begins to stand for things. The diagram itself starts to act as a placeholder for the conversations you’ve had, the vision of the future you see, and even the roles and responsibilities of individual people or entire business units. One way of thinking about a concept map, released in this style, is that it challenges the org chart: it’s a way of affecting change in a bottom-up fashion, rather than an autocratic manner.

And one day, you’ll be sitting in a meeting, and someone you don’t know, from an area of the business you’ve never had influence in, will present your diagram back to you, as if they made it. That’s an amazing feeling: your design work has shaped the tenor of the organizational dialogue.

Sometimes, you’ll need to introduce the map slowly – taking weeks or even months – until all of the various constituents have accepted it as a common language. We did just this in a client project at frog for an extraordinarily large client (hundreds of thousands of employees). We offered an initial view of a service landscape through a concept map. It was simple, just a few circles and some words – so simple that, at first glance, someone might say “that’s it?” And the map began showing up in various presentations, and posters, and emails. Over time, the map become more complicated – and was still “infused” into decks and emails. And it became part of the organization language; it became the way people talked about the future. This type of strategic introduction of new design language is extremely powerful. Organizational change can occur through design proxy – slowly, methodically, and purposefully.

If you like thinking about concept maps, check out Hugh Dubberly’s great archive at