Flow diagrams

There are countless ways to use diagrams to help make sense of different processes or complex systems - to explore cause, effect and inter-connections.

Why? To help capture complex processes or systems in an image that can be analysed in its parts and as a whole - exploring, for example, how change in one element may have effects on others.

When? A basic level of literacy is helpful in using these tools as it is often difficult to represent all the information in a purely visual form.

How? Flow diagrams are a means to explore causal relationships between events - following the process as each event causes another event to occur and so on.  They are particularly helpful to identify negative cycles and actions which can break them.  Flow diagrams have been used in Reflect processes to analyse the impact of many issues, including conflict, deforestation, drought, girls' education and road building.

To begin constructing a flow diagram, place a card representing the central theme in the middle of a large, empty area.  Participants can then start to identify the causes and effects of this phenomenon, making a card for each suggestion using words or symbols and placing it in relation to the central theme.  These might be of different colours to capture different categories or types of event.  It is essential to use moveable cards, as flow diagrams can get very complex with new connections identified during the process, leading to radical restructuring.  Threads of different colours can be used to make links with different meanings between cards.

The facilitator then urges participants to consider the effects of each effect (and if relevant the causes of each cause) and the flow diagram starts to expand. Each time a new card is laid attempts are made to link it to any others that are already there and gradually concentrations of cards are likely to occur around certain key cards.  At some point the group will have to decide to end the exercise, stepping back to review the overall picture and discuss where action or intervention might be most effective.

Process diagrams: Similar to a flow diagram, a process diagram shows different stages involved in a process. It can be elaborated to include many details such as roles, time or costs involved at each stage.  A process diagram might be constructed to analyse the steps involved in accessing a certain government scheme or entitlement, making a legal claim or producing something.

Process diagrams can be started at the beginning or at the end of a process:  for example it may start with a goal and work backwards to determine the steps necessary to achieve it; or it may start with the current situation and work forwards. Each stage is set out on a separate card, and the more detail that can be included the better, including the precise actions, those responsible for making them happen, times and dates, materials needed and so on.  The result is often an effective action plan.

Systems diagrams: Another similar diagram explores the interdependence of different elements within a system. It may be used to demystify how a specific government system such as social security works; how a household economy functions or how a small business or organisation works.

The aim is to map out roles, activities and outcomes within a given system, using the same technique of movable cards and links as described above.  Once the diagram is complete, questions can be asked about how to improve the system, where it is failing and what actions would most effectively change it and key points of leverage often become clearer.

Examples from practice: In Pakistan flow diagrams were developed to analyse the causes and effects of different traditional cultural practices. By laying these out clearly in a collective process participants could agree effective ways of changing certain deeply embedded but harmful cultural practices

In Ireland flow diagrams have been used to analyse the causes and effects of alienation and disillusion amongst young people.

In India a form of systems diagram has helped communities to map out their access and entitlements to different government schemes. In the process they demystified government bureaucracy and were able to expose examples of corruption or mismanagement.

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.