Last week, I traveled to Montreal for a conference called “Realizing the Potential of the Arts and Creativity in 21st Century Learning.” Put on by the arts-education not-for-profit ArtsSmarts, the meeting brought together educators, activists, administrators and social entrepreneurs to look at innovative models in education.

I teamed up with Stephen Huddart, COO of the Montreal-based McConnell Foundation to present some ideas on how social ventures can map out organizational structure to explore innovative solutions to barriers to growth.

Our rather cumbersome title (“New Tools for Social Innovation: System Mapping, Design Thinking and Business Model Innovation”) belies a rather simple set of tools.

Systems mapping, argues Stephen Huddart, is a way of mapping out the relationships between your organization and other stakeholders.  The goal is to answer the questions “how are we part of these systems? “ and “how can we influence these systems?”

When putting these relationships into a graphic form, people often realize that they have been trying to influence a system in an inefficient manner,and there exist many other access points to effect change in a system.  For example, instead of selling your educational software directly to the Ministry of Education, it might be worth giving trial versions to parents, who have much more influence on the Ministry’s policies than you do as a solo entrepreneur.

Once complex systems like education or the cleantech industry are established, we can identify the key players and their relationships to one another. We can identify what tactics are currently being used to work with these key players and whether our efforts would be better spent elsewhere, at a more flexible node in the system.

Another visual tool used for mapping is Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, which I’ve written about in this space before. The connections between the different sections of the canvas, meant to map the key components of a workable business model, can be thought of in the same manner.

A functioning business is a complex organism, with many moving parts and players. Mapping out the relationships between these components forces us to identify strengths and weaknesses and prioritize our efforts to be more strategic when working with partners and channels that are outside our direct control.

Check out the PowerPoint presentation here and read more about systems mapping here and business model generation here.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…