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What Is It?

Feedback loops are a way to make sense of what is happening in your iceberg maps by looking for patterns.


A key idea in working with systems is that durable and effective systems change is only possible if deeply embedded patterns can be made visible and then shifted. Identifying feedback loops can help with finding these patterns, and understanding how they are working to shape the system that you are trying to change.

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Adapted from Omidyar Group, Systems Practice Workbook

When Is It Used?

Feedback loops can be done first as a way to build a systems map. Solutions Lab practice tends to use them as a way to find, name, and make sense of what is happening in a map that has been made.

How To Use It

  1. A legible, credible, well-bounded, and fulsome map (or maps) will be the source for this work. If you’ve used a systems mapping process that has generated lots of different maps, you may want to aggregate, discard, theme or use another technique to get to a manageable set of maps for your group size and the amount of time you have available.

  2. The maps that you are using should be made on large-format - butcher paper is a good option. Post these to the wall, and gather in groups of 3-6 to work on your map(s).

  3. Share the types of feedback loops - virtuous, vicious, stagnating, and stabilizing. Make sure that everyone has a sense of the differences between them, and provide a few examples.

  4. If you can, work physically on the map - use yarn and tape or another tool that lets people find and connect different elements into feedback loops. Task the group to find a set number of feedback loops (~3-5 is good, depending on your timing). Constrain them with the instructions that a feedback loop can have no more than 5 elements, and that it needs to loop back on itself. Capture these loops on the map, and potentially also on separate sheets for ease of working with them later.

  5. Once the groups have identified a series of feedback loops you can work with them in a few ways. They can share them with one another, you could prioritize them if needed. They will lead you into your creative question canvases and crystallizing on which areas of your complex problem space you think have the most promise to shifting systems, and thus to carry forward into prototyping.

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