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Jun 12, 2023

How to run your first Impact Mapping workshop

Mark explains how to use this technique to help teams agree and reach their goals

I’ve written previously about what Impact Mapping is and why you might want to use it. 

I’m a big fan of the technique and have used it in my work many times. I’m keen for others to adopt the technique too,  so in this post I will describe in more detail how to run your first impact mapping workshop to help start you mapping.

When to run an Impact Mapping workshop

You can run an Impact Mapping Workshop at any point in your project or product lifecycle. Impact Mapping helps you clarify your goals, generate options for meeting those goals, identify people and groups of people who should be included in your thinking and identify your deliverables. It also helps connect all these things together so you can connect What you are doing back to Why you are doing it.

I’ve run Impact Mapping workshops to help inform business cases, as part of project inception or project reset; when teams have been feeling a bit lost or have been trying to do too much and lack focus. Colleagues have also run them as part of their quarterly planning.

It’s hard to generalise about the length of an Impact Mapping workshop as it varies with scale and complexity of the work being mapped. I’ve had success with 60 minute sessions but have also run mapping in multiple workshops over several days. If it’s your first time mapping I’d suggest 60 minutes for a small team who’s work you know and 90-120 minutes for a larger team or one you are less familiar with. Schedule additional workshops if it’s felt further exploration is needed.

Who’s Involved?

In theory everyone on a team plus the team’s stakeholders can be involved, as you don’t need to have detailed organisational or technical knowledge to contribute, but that might be quite a big group to workshop with. In practice I’ve tended to run smaller workshops with anything from one to ten people, with team and stakeholder leaders.


Workshop participants need some fundamental knowledge of the problem to be solved in order to get the most from Impact Mapping. 

If you are running an Impact Mapping workshop for a new team it’s important they have done some inception work already – e.g. by doing some pre-reading or creating a Discovery backlog.

As a facilitator I’ve both run workshops where I’ve been a core team member – and so had a lot of knowledge of the work – and been a guest facilitator – where I’ve had very little previous exposure to the work. If I’ve had no previous exposure to the work I tend to do some pre-reading or to conduct an initial interview with my main contacts – so I have just enough knowledge to run the workshop successfully.

I’ve run Impact Mapping Workshops in-person and online. If you’ve got participants together already e.g. for inception,  it makes sense to impact map while they are together – book a room with wall space for your participants to build the map with post-its. If not then you can use your usual online whiteboard tool to map together.

If workshop participants have time, I’ll usually send a link to my Impact Mapping introductory blog post, the impactmapping.org website and the Impact Mapping book. I don’t assume people will have read any of these ahead of a workshop so I always begin the workshop with a brief explanation of what Impact Mapping is and how the workshop will run.

First Steps —exploring Goals

In any work it’s essential to know why the work is being done, what outcomes are hoped to be achieved. Goals (the Why of the work) are at the centre of Impact Maps.

Given this I always start Impact Mapping workshops by asking participants to spend a few minutes individually writing down the goals of the work on post-its – one goal per post-it. (Tip – ask people to use the same colour post-it for writing their goals – and later for their Actors, Impacts and Deliverables – this makes the map much easier to read later), When folks have stopped writing we review the set of goals to see what people have written.

One common thing I see at this stage is people’s written ‘goals’ that are actually Impacts (Hows) or Deliverables (Whats) i.e. they are now Whys. To clarify this I’ll ask questions like “Is this a Why or is it a How or a What?”, “What’s the thinking in making this a goal of the work?” or “Is there a higher level goal that this item is helping to satisfy?” – I capture Impacts and Deliverables identified at this stage for use later in the workshop.

A group of sticky notes with "Advertising campaign to attract more applications" highlighted

Example of an Impact written as a Goal

I ask the group to collect post-its together if they represent the same goal and then we discuss each group of post-its to make sure everyone understands what has been written. Sometimes it makes sense to name the group of post-its, to make the wording of the goal which that group represents clearer.

This activity in itself is often quite revealing. It could show for example that the work has far too many goals, that different people only have a partial picture of the goals or that there’s disagreement about the goals.

It’s easier to work with one or a small number of goals when mapping so if there are a large number of goals I’ll ask the group to do a forced ranking of the goals, not allowing two goals to have the same priority. This usually leads to some interesting discussion in the group about priorities. To prune the list I ask the group whether there are goals that could be dropped if they ran out of time or money or ask whether there’s a subset of the goals which if satisfied could mean the project might stop. To prioritise further I ask questions like “If you could only work on one goal, which would it be”?

The point of this part of the mapping activity isn’t to produce a prioritised, shortened list of goals – although if that works for the team then great – instead it’s to explore as a group the goals of the work, whether people are aligned and what the group’s sense of priorities are.

Sometimes teams come up with very high level goals for their work, in this case I encourage them to think instead about achieving some lower-level goals – that are more under their control and more directly-influenceable by their project. It’s OK to show these higher level goals on the map and how they link to participant’s sub-goals.

Next – Quantifying Goals

When setting goals for work it’s important to know when those goals are achieved, this enables you to stop working towards them. This is obvious stuff but I find that teams often have fuzzy goals or disagree when specific goals actually would be achieved or don’t have anything in place to track progress against goals.

I ask the team to think about their top priority goals and say for each:

  • Under what circumstances the goal would be achieved and
  • What a really great (stretch) version of meeting the goal would look like – one that exceeds their expectations
  • How they are or how they plan to measure or quantify progress to meeting the goal

This may be as far as you get in a short Impact Mapping session and can be a good point for a break in any case, to allow longer team discussions about how to answer these questions.

If we have time I’ll then ask the team to pick a goal they’d like to explore further, usually a top priority goal that’s well quantified, and start the Impact Map with that post-it in the centre.

Sticky note with "Increase School Sign-Up by Minimum of 20%" written on it

Priority Goal with a ‘Done’ target of 20% increased sign-up

Next — identify Impacts

In an Impact Map, the next level out from the Goal (the Why) are Actors (the Who) but I usually skip Actors at this stage and go straight to Impacts (the How), coming back to Actors later, or recording them as I hear people mention them when talking about Impacts.

I’ve found that talking about Impacts first – How we might achieve our Goal – is a better order to the workshop because teams often already have some Impacts in mind. Also, when I’ve started with Actors first the Impact Map tends to expand quite quickly with multiple Actors, making it harder for people (including the Facilitator!) to work with.

While people are adding Impacts to the map I’ll ask questions like “Is that a How or a What?” to clarify whether something is an Impact or a Deliverable and “How does this Impact contribute to our Goal?” to check that the participants aren’t trying to “gold plate” by exploring an Impact’ that has no connection to the Goal.

3 new sticky notes saying "email marketing", "event marketing" and "encourage word-of-mouth between school leaders"

Goal with 3 impacts

I’ll also ask people to say, estimate or guess how much each Impact contributes to the Goal – remembering that earlier in the workshop the participants said how they would establish that their Goals had been met. This can give an indication of which of several Impacts will be worth starting with when it comes to the actual work and in some cases it may be that only a few Impacts can be explored to fully realise the Goal.

Goals annotated with metrics

Goal with 3 Impacts. Each Impact has been annotated to show how much we think it could contribute to the overall Goal. In this case, we think that email marketing can contribute the full 20% we think it will take to satisfy our Goal.

Fill in some Actors

Once a few Impacts have been identified I like to ask the participants to identify some Actors – people or groups of people through whom the Impacts can be realised – connecting Impacts back to the Goal through these Actors. Sometimes individual Actors can be Grouped, where their Impacts are shared.

A sticky note with "School Leaders" has been added

Actor – School Leaders – in this example each Impact is achieved through the same Actor

To get participants thinking further I’ll often ask “Are there any Actors who can undermine your Goal?”. Identifying such Actors allows participants to include Impacts that reduce the effect of those Actors on their map.

A sticky note with "Private Sector Competitors" has been added

Actor – Competitors – these might undermine your Goal so it’s important to think of Impacts that might address that

[Actor – Competitors – these might undermine your Goal so it’s important to think of Impacts that might address that]

What about Deliverables?

I don’t tend to get too deep into Deliverables when Impact Mapping but if you’ve identified any deliverables as part of a workshop it’s important to ask participants to trace a route back from them to a Goal through an Impact. If you can’t, they may be a ‘pet’ features.

Map out any Deliverables you think are essential for communication purposes.

You have an Impact Map, what next?

At the end of your workshop(s) you should have a good initial Impact Map to guide delivery. If only a subset of people have been involved in creating the map it’s important to talk through it with the wider team. Once agreed, put it on your team wall — this is a great reinforcement of your focus and options . You should also use the map to update your team’s roadmap.

Keep the map updated if you have a long-running project. As you learn more about the work you’ll get a better sense of which Goals are achievable, which Impacts might help more than others (through which Actors) and what your essential Deliverables are.

Thanks for reading,