Systems Practitioner 6: Stakeholders’ Mental Models

Mapping the system starts through exchanging the perceptions of a problem and exploring questions such as:

  • What exactly is the problem we face?
  • How did the problematic situation originate?
  • What might be its underlying causes?
  • How can the problem potentially be addressed?
  • What barriers exist to deal with the problem?
  • What or who are potential drivers in the system?


Running a workshop to elicit the mental models requires a good facilitator and some key ground rules such as:

  • All knowledge, opinions, information are regarded as valuable.
  • Allow for discussion in order for stakeholders to understand each other’s mental models.
  • Avoid conflict by respecting each other’s knowledge and recording all opinions.

It is important to remember that in order to communicate with another person, one does not need to think (construe) in the same way, but be able to construe how the other person is construing.

This means that while divergent views occur, the appreciation of one another’s views gained through ‘mapping the system’ helps stakeholders to converge on a common understanding of the management system.

Effective communication can also help to change perceptions and expectations to make them realistic and achievable.

Workshop settings with all stakeholders involved could often lead to a group of people that, say, work for the same organisation, but have different levels of seniority.

We have conducted many of these workshops, for example in sustainable tourism in Cambodia, where the stakeholders included the full range from top government officials, such as the Minister of Tourism and Director General, to officials responsible for implementing policies, young officials still in the lower ranks of government, hotel owners, and taxi drivers.

In this situation it was not possible to obtain honest and in-depth insights into the mental models of all the participants.

Changing the nature of the workshop to a ‘silent’ sharing of people’s perceptions and ideas solved the problem of domination by senior officials, while juniors and people with no power remained totally quiet.

All participants put their mental models (responses on the above questions) on notes that were then anonymously put into big containers. This process revealed a very rich picture of the tourism sector through full participation by all stakeholders.

The downside was that very little discussion took place that could improve the understanding of each other’s mental models.

However, once the mental models were obtained and integrated into a systems structure, much discussion and co-learning eventually did happen.


In the following example women small-scale farmers and relevant stakeholders (in a Gates Foundation’s project) identified the issues they see as the key to their problems, potential solutions, barriers and drivers.

Participants in the workshop were encouraged to share their mental models of how they viewed the circumstances under which they live and farm and to think about potential solutions towards achieving their main goal, namely to improve the quality of their lives.

The various ideas were written down on sticky notes and then pasted on a white board. Many of the notes were the same, in which case the participants put the notes on top of each other.

The participants were then asked to discuss the different variables and to identify the main themes that emerged. The notes were rearranged around these main themes to produce a visual map of the mental models that evolved.

This step provides an opportunity for the stakeholders to discuss their mental models with each other and develop an understanding of how different stakeholders construe. Even if people do not agree with each other, all the ideas are left on the board.

This is the first step towards co-learning and developing an understanding of what the system under consideration looks like.

It creates a basis for reaching consensus on the main goal, and initiates the process of thinking how the different variables relate to each other.

The grouping into main themes significantly helps to integrate the mental models into a systems structure/model.