Challenge Mapping

How to Break Down Big Nonprofit Challenges

Challenge Mapping is a visual sensemaking method for breaking down ambiguous strategy into more smaller manageable ones.


Other names: Challenge Systems, Challenge Architectures, Challenge Constellations, Challenge Ecosystems

It's no secret that real world problems begin as fuzzy, ambiguous, and multi-facted moving targets. SWOTs and PPCOs alone are not enough to break down the complexity related to business model issues, information flow, work processes, branding issues, product/program/service challenges, and much more.

SWOTs by themselves do not guarantee that the group has properly defined the problems, so it's important that nonprofit leaders deconstruct the strategic thinking processes being facilitated. Otherwise, this can become a dangerous and expensive wheel spinning exercise. Read the Skylance.org entry on Strategic Thinking: Separating Strategy from Planning.

Well-facilitated challenge maps are critical in preventing these misteps for two reasons:

  • It breaks down vague objectives into more practical ones. Sometimes, finalized strategic plans are too general to be actionable. Challenge maps can help participants come up with multiple tactical "Hows"
  • It shows how the nonprofit's strategies and tactics are really interwined. When these maps are constructed with participants, they can finally see all their objectives as an interconnected system of whys and hows.

This is not meant to be deployed as a standalone method. This is a pivotal midway technique used when a nonprofit's objectives have been clearly defined.

After the maps have been facilitated and created, these insights are then taken to the next step of the creative process.

Over-Dependency on SWOT Charts

Time Sinks.

SWOT charts alone can't guarantee that an organization has correctly defined the challenges. It's entirely possible to design the wrong solution or devise the wrong strategies and tactics, and then carry on for years with those assumptions.

Challenge Mapping tests high level assumptions

If tessting assumption is so crucial, let's put that mantra to practice. If facilitated well, groups may find new angles to old predicaments; Or multiple new pathways towards different desitnations.

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