Drawing diagrams and structuring maps


Drawing diagrams & structuring maps

Scroll down to “Deep-dive” if you want to jump to “how do I…” – but please humor us and read the “Thought Leadership” piece and the “In Brief” sections, especially if you are very experienced ūüôā


3 simple principles for drawing great diagrams

  • use a verb and noun to describe each activity (what happens)
  • describe the output. Otherwise why are you doing the activity?
  • if you have more than¬†10-12 activities, you should probably be putting detail into child diagrams

We believe¬†it’s important to build content that communicates with people from all backgrounds and levels of experience. Applying these simple principles can really help the people in your organization¬†‘overcome the Curse of Knowledge’ – the difficulty we all have in imagining what it‚Äôs like not to know something we know. Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker has written and spoken widely on this. see¬†from 1¬†min overviews to 1 hour talks

There is an art to keeping complex things simple. Understand the following points and you can quickly¬†get good at¬†it. There’s no right and wrong. Just understandable.

The power of this approach is to use the simple building block in Elements to capture the few core and support processes at each level of detail. To keep people engaged, you should aim to keep diagrams to under 10-12 activities where possible. Watch this 9 minute TED talk to get some really valuable insights into how people capture, relate to and solve problems with visual diagrams.


Simple notation

It is simple by design. This simple notation has been proven to make process understanding easy for everyone. Capture process knowledge with a single, simple building block to show WHO needs to do WHAT, WHEN and WHY

Simple building block of Process Knowledge

Some key tips.

WHAT – Keep¬†it active. Verb and noun. ‘Process Orders’ (an activity) rather than ‘Order Processing’ (a function). ‘Design, develop and pilot¬†products’, rather than a box showing¬†“Product Development”.

WHEN РThe key trigger or input that starts this activity. Note, high level inputs may be a summary. at Lower levels, you may have more inputs Рor broken down into more detail.

WHY¬†– The key outcome¬†from the activity. Why was it done? “Sales Orders entered into Production System” rather than “Orders Processed”.

So for the activity¬†“Design, develop and pilot products” –¬†input “Qualified Idea” to the output “Product approved for production”

WHO – The role, the resource. Not the name or the job title of the person who happens to be responsible at the moment. An individual may carry out the activities of multiple roles. It’s very valuable to understand the activities in terms of roles, whoever is responsible for them at the moment.¬†Reporting¬†on a set of roles can give you a dynamic job description if you build this well.

HOW¬†–¬†Drill down to map out more detail where it makes sense to do so. If there is no added value in mapping and the ‘How’ is very well described by a document or media that everyone understands, simply attach that file.

Hierarchical mapping

Hierarchical mapping is there to keep things simple and understandable. Many studies have shown that the human brain is great at quickly understanding 8-12 boxes describing something. As mentioned in the¬†TED talk we linked to, anything over 6-8 boxes on your own, or 14-16 boxes in a group and people get ‘map¬†shock’ and require much more time and mental effort to take it in.

big diagram to hierarchy map

Here the complex flowchart above can be simplified by creating a top level diagram with 8-10 process steps, each of which has drill downs to lower level diagrams….

The red boxes on the big diagram are now a single child diagram under the red high level activity. The Purple all under the Purple box…. and so on. Don’t worry about the colors, it’s about the principle of taking detail and making it the ‘Child diagram’ of a parent summary activity. in fact yo can even group a bunch of activities in Elements, right-click and select ‘Send to Child’ from the menu to do this automatically.


Whether you start from capturing a few high-level activities (which we recommend), or mapping everything on one level and then breaking it up (hard to manage by doable), the end result is the same: a hierarchy of Diagrams from a high-level summary diagram showing the key responsibilities, handovers and (ideally) well articulated inputs and outputs that will help CSF, KPI and objective based management.

This hierarchy then drills-down to whatever level is useful in whichever areas are appropriate, to the operational detail of How things are actually done today – to deliver the business outcomes you are looking to achieve.

Hierarchy Diagram



Hierarchical mapping – What can you apply it to and how deep do you go?

You can literally capture how anything can be achieved. If you wanted to map out the process of putting a person on the moon, including the design and build of the spacecraft to get them there, you could. It would take a hierarchy of thousands of diagrams linked to all kinds of supporting systems and documentation, but you could do it – and communicate how to put a person on the moon to anyone and everyone who was a stakeholder in that process.

Ultimately there could be a top-level with the 6-10 key steps to get from the first inputs to a person safely returning from on the moon, for instance:

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 22.39.11

Underneath each key step, you would drill-into the 6-10 key steps to achieve that, and repeat…There are many organizations across many industries who have used this approach over the years to map out and manage operational and support processes of entire companies, supply chains and projects. It works.

A major North American bank has mapped their entire operation; retail, commercial investment and wealth management. They are regulated so everything needs to be documented. The process map has over 10,000 diagrams. But that is not a problem as it is structured so that it is easily digestible using the hierarchical approach.

But we are already used to big swimlanes diagrams. Can I have Hierarchies and swimlanes?

Indeed some organizations are very keen to use swimlanes, which are available in Elements. There is no doubt that swimlanes can provide¬†a simple¬†visual cue for hand-offs and departmental responsibilities. But they can also compromise on-line viewability and engagement around process knowledge as they tend to produce larger and more ‘technical looking’ diagrams. It comes down to your focus and organzational culture. But if you are adamant, check out the discussion at swimlanes help page.

Activity boxes:

Double click on the canvas to draw boxes. Double click on an activity box to edit the text.

To Link activity boxes or draw lines:

Rollover an Activity Box (don‚Äôt click) and green ‚Äėx‚Äô line handles appear along the edge.

Activity box with rollover anchors highlighted           click and drag a line from the highlighted handle ….      What box adding another activity

Select ‘Add Activity’, terminator or connector as appropriate, or click on the canvas to leave a floating line.

To link existing boxes, drag the end of line into the center of another activity box or to a specific anchor point to link.

Another way to drag lines out, add boxes or link boxes, is first to select  an existing box:

Select Activity and then click on the '+'Click on the ‘+’, then drag and let go and then select ‚ÄúAdd activity‚ÄĚWhat box adding another activity

Useful Tip: Hold Ctrl down when you click and drag from an activity box handle or ‘+’ to reverse the direction of the line.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 12.19.32

Line text:

Double click on the line text (or orange dot) to edit. Select the text and then click and drag (the text or orange dot), to move.

double click on line text to edit            When adding long line text put in manual line returns

Note that line text does NOT auto-wrap and cannot be sized by dragging. You need to put in (or remove) any returns manually.

Drill down:

Right click and select ‚ÄúAdd drilldown‚ÄĚ.¬†This creates a new Diagram which is the ‚ÄėChild Diagram‚Äô of this Activity box. The Diagram title of the child¬†diagram matches the activity text of the parent activity at the time the child diagram was created. To edit the diagram title, you need to click on ‘SWITCH TO EDIT’, open the right panel and edit the Diagram Title text there. The diagram title and parent activity text does not stay in synch by design, since the diagram title can sometimes be a summary of the parent activity text. In the same way, when you initially create a new Drilldown, any inputs and outputs to the parent activity are copied to the left and right of the screen as appropriate to guide you as to the scope you should be mapping between. But these are guides/reminders only – they do not stay in synch. Often a high-level input might be a summary, whereas in the child diagram, that one input becomes multiple detailed inputs.

Right click on Activity box to create new drill-down

If you want to delete a drill-down, you right-click on the ‚Äėdrill-down‚Äô corner¬†top-left on the box. Deleted Drilldowns will be saved as a map in the DELETED tab on¬†the¬†Maps page.

Delete drill-down

Restoring Deleted Drilldown

If you want to restore a deleted Drill-down (which could be a whole hierarchy in itself). Go to Maps, click on DELETED tab. The deleted drill down will be there named [mapname it was deleted from – level no. under the box you deleted it from]. e.g. Deleted drill-down from box 5 on level 1.2 of Map called “Lead to Revenue”. You will find it in the Deleted Folder as “Lead to Revenue – Level 1.2.5”. It is now a Map in its own right.

Highlight the deleted map, then click on RESTORE. It will restore it to the ACTIVE maps in the Space. Now you can go back to the activity you deleted it from and import it back into the hierarchy.

If you want to delete a Map permanently, select it in the Deleted folder and delete it.

Drilldown – Import:

Instead of drilling down to a blank diagram you can import (copy) an entire map of diagrams as a drill down.  Select Drilldown-Import.   Then select the map you want to import from the list. The map can be in the Deleted folder.


You can add single or multiple resources to an Activity box. Right click and select ‚ÄúAdd resource‚ÄĚ and start typing. Select from the list of existing resources or create one. When you create a resource, you can choose what type (Human, Facility, system) and provide a brief description if useful.¬†Reorder resources on an activity box using¬†click and drag. Manage details in the right hand panel.

WARNING: Resources you create are visible to all users in your Team.

You can [report] on resource allocation across your Map. For example; to highlight all the activities a given resource is involved in, or understand the relationships between activities, roles and (for example) the systems or facilities used. Combining with metadata tables you can expand the scope and value of those relationships. See [metadata structures] and [reporting].

In Process Knowledge Pro*, you will have the ability to add hidden resources to activities, and (in the right hand panel), control what is displayed on a diagram and attribute RASCI tags by resource (Responsible, Accountable, Supporting, Consulted, Informed). In the Pro version, reporting and working with a RACI or RASCI matrix adds another dimension of power to the knowledge you have captured.

*Process Knowledge Pro is planned for October 2016 release


Right click and select ‚ÄúAdd attachment‚ÄĚ. Attachment types are Notes, URL and Data Structures.

Data Tables are added, edited and managed in Elements Home.

Note: The fastest way to link URLs is to copy and paste the URL you want.

Free text:

Alt-double click in space. Double click to edit.

Note: If you’re on a tablet, this is the only thing you really need to open the left panel for. You can then click and drag from the left panel onto the canvas with your finger or stylus.
Alt-double click to add free text

Alignment and Sizing

When you drag activities to move them, alignment guides will automatically appear in the canvas. You can also use the arrow keys to move single activities, but the guides don’t appear.

When dragging boxes guides will appear relative to other objects

Alternatively you can highlight multiple activities and use the ‚Äėalign and distribute‚Äô icon on the top bar to quickly tidy up diagrams. Note that you need to select a reference object, and then (on windows) shift-select the rest (on mac) cmd-select the other objects.

Align boxes to top of the box you first selected

The next icon to the right allows you to quickly match height and/or width of activities (again, select your reference activity, and then ctrl/cmd select the scope of activities to match).

Set height and width to that of box you first selected

Note: In both cases you can “drag select” a range of objects, but if that re-selects your reference object, it will change the size/alignment to the earliest object created. So select and ctrl/cmd drag works, but only if you are not re-selecting the reference.

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