Hexagon maps were proposed as a tool for Systems Thinking by Anthony M Hodgson in a paper Hexagons for systems thinking (pdf 1992). It was described as “an approach to bridging the gap between the generalist thinking of decision makers and the specialism of modellers by concentrating on the preliminary issue conceptualisation stage of modelling.”
Issues, ideas and possible solutions are written onto magnetic hexagon shapes, and after the first round are clustered into “Issue maps”. These maps are examined for additional ideas that the clustering may bring out, and lines are drawn to indicate influence between areas giving an Issue map like the one on the right.
The paper goes on to introduce the use of colors to encode styles of thinking into the diagram.
lateral thinking yellow opportunity spotting critical thinking black innovation imaginative thinking green innovation judgemental thinking brown quality appraisal holistic thinking blue environmental scanning systems thinking orange designing metacognition white thinking about thinking chaotic thinking grey ambiguity strategic thinking purple directing decision thinking red action
This uses elements of de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, which it mentions in the paper, but extends that to categorize additional thinking styles. And whereas de Bono’s technique assigns a duty to adopt a specified thinking style to each member of a team, the table of thinking categories above is used to classify thoughts represented by the hexagons after they have been collected.
Dave Snowden’s organization Cognitive Edge has an article The Future, Backwards, that proposes a different approach and alternative uses of colors specific to that approach.
- If you have seven colors, they suggest a separate color for each of: Current State (CS); Turning points backwards from CS; Heaven; Hell; Turning points backwards from heaven; Turning points backwards from hell; Accidents on hell or heaven pathway.
- Of for a more restricted case: Current state (CS); Turning points backwards from CS, heaven and hell; Heaven & Hell (marked); Accidents.
But whichever method you use and colors you choose, having colors on the clustered hexagons provides a quick visual overview of the way thinking is trending as discussion proceeds.
In this article, we have picked out the visual elements, but the papers linked to above provide much more on alternative uses and benefits of this method.
To regular users of maps with nodes and connecting lines (edges) the choice of a hexagon, with its limit of 6 neighbors, may seem to have its roots more in the convenience of topology than in any real-life consideration of how issues and ideas are connected.
Software to produce these specialized maps was implemented by (at least) two software publishers, Idon Resources and Visual Concept, though neither website seems to have been updated recently. The Visual Concept link shows more examples of hexagon maps.
Thanks to John Fraser of Arum Systems Ltd for the pointer to this, and for providing the above real-life example.
Thanks to Pascal Venier for pointing out the Cognitive Edge article.