First of all, the title “Space Analysis” sounds really epic, doesn’t it? Like we’re going to be cosmologists or meta-astronauts analyzing outer space.
We’re not going to be doing that.
But, what we will be doing is equally cool—and definitely more useful for you.
What Is It?
Conducting a space analysis is a way of taking a huge potential set of activities and options and looking at them in an organized way that you can understand and communicate. It’s about finding the gaps in your thinking, and seeing the relationships between pieces.
It’s going from a heap of books to a library.
It’s going from a random jumble of websites to Google.
It’s turning the massive physical world into a small paper map.
It’s going from infinite uncertain options to understandable finite choices.
If you’ve ever felt uncertain, or like you’re missing something, or like you don’t know how to tie a bunch of different things together into one unifying story, then a space analysis can help you.
Personally, I’ve used a space analysis like this for some of the most important turning points and projects in my life, and it always helps me gain clarity into the situation. (In fact, I have a project this week where I’m going to be using it again.)
Let’s Get Technical
“Ok, ok,” you might say, “but what’s the definition of ‘space’?” I’m glad you asked.
I come from a math background, so that’s how I usually think about things—and that’s where this concept of “space” comes from as well.
If we want to get technical for a minute, there are a couple of mathematical definitions of space that we can look at. These definitions are from Wikipedia:
- In mathematical optimization, a feasible region, feasible set, search space, or solution space is the set of all possible points (sets of values of the choice variables) of an optimization problem that satisfy the problem’s constraints, potentially including inequalities, equalities, and integer constraints. This is the initial set of candidate solutions to the problem, before the set of candidates has been narrowed down. (source)
- In mathematics, a space is a set (sometimes called a universe) with some added structure… A space consists of selected mathematical objects that are treated as points, and selected relationships between these points. (source)
Basically, a space is a way of thinking about a range of possibilities—the whole spectrum of possible solutions, the complete picture. We want all the relevant points, and we want them right here. That’s our space.
The “relationships between points” mentioned in the second definition is something we’ll come back to later, but essentially it’s helpful to think about where things exist in a space, in relation to each other.
But enough with definitions. Let’s get some practical examples going.
First, Think of Maps
When we talk about “space analysis” or analyzing a “space” of options, I want you to think about a map.
A map shows where things are in relation to each other, and this is what a space does. It can also show holes in your knowledge—blank spaces on the map where you don’t know what’s there.
Furthermore, perhaps you’ve drawn the boundaries of the map where you currently think they are, but maybe there’s actually more to be discovered outside those boundaries. Maybe some of your locations and shapes and names for things are wrong. Maybe you totally don’t know that Australia exists and so you just put ocean and sea monsters in that part of the map.
This is what we’re doing with space analysis.
The key is—and this is kind of sexy—we’re not just doing it for things that can be physically mapped… we’re doing it for…
Spaces That Can Be Analyzed
Let’s get some specific examples in here related to animal advocacy so that you have a better idea of what this is all about.
One space we could look at is the space of tactics an organization might use: from leafleting, to protests and disruptions, to corporate campaigns, to individual animal care, to app building, to legal advocacy.
Did I leave anything out of that list? Of course I did—I can immediately think of open rescue as something I missed, as well as writing pieces for the media. I also missed social media activism, creating plant-based products, and a whole host of other things.
Asking the question “What did we miss?” is a big part of conducting a space analysis.
You’ll notice that this space currently isn’t organized in any meaningful fashion. We’ll talk about that more later.
Here are some other spaces we could look at:
- The space of projects you could work on in the next 6 months.
- The space of people working on animal issues. (Potentially including individuals, nonprofits, companies, grassroots groups, etc., or some subset of these categories.)
- The space of products that involve animal exploitation.
- The space of organizational structures.
- The space of types of impact we want to have for animals. (Like ACE’s menu of outcomes, which we’ll talk about later.)
- The space of kinds of technology.
- The space of habits you could develop.
- The space of subject matter you could study.
- The space of places you could look to hire new staff or find new activists.
Whenever you’re faced with a big brainstorming session, or some question about vision or strategy or choosing among different options, ask the question: Can I map this out? Is this a space I can analyze?
Most of the time, it is.
In our maps above, we have a bit of a problem…we didn’t define what distance means.
Why did I put “plant-based products” close to “app building”? Why is “open rescue” closer to “sanctuary work” than it is to “disruptions”?
Maps need some meaningful measure of distance, and that definition of distance is what determines where things go on the map. Without some way to talk about distance, we might as well just create simple lists of things rather than mapping them out. (Borrrrrring.)
For example, on a map of physical places, we define distance in terms of units of physical distance such as miles or kilometers. If we have a map of the internet, distance might be in terms of page links or topics.
Distances can be precise, or they can just be guesses about the relationships between items.
One easy way to begin mapping out a space is by building “quadrants” composed of two axes, where each axis is a quality or descriptor. If something is far along one axis, it means the thing is very like that quality that the axis represents.
This is all kind of confusing to write about—it’s easiest to just see one first:
We don’t have to be all boring with these, either—quadrants can get as weird as you want:
You can also construct a graph that doesn’t have the “opposites” on the other side; this is basically the upper right section of a quadrant. (Certain things we might want to graph don’t really have opposites, like the graphs below.)
Let’s construct a graph that we actually care about.
Even with a very rough graph (not very precise, no tick marks on our axes, no labels, etc.), one of the most important results jumps out at us: China has way more farmed animals than other countries. This is one of the powers of visualization—you can easily see the important points and filter out the noise.
Humans are much better at visual analysis than they are at pure number crunching or equations. Even in mathematics—the subject that’s known for endless numbers and equations—you’ll find that many of the greatest mathematicians think about things in terms of pictures and visuals before translating their thoughts into equations. (For example, Einstein had his now-famous “riding on a beam of light” thought experiment.)
The human brain just works better with visuals.
If we could easily graph things in three dimensions (or four, or five…), we could use more axes and get a better understanding of a space at a glance. But alas, we can’t—so for now we’ll stick to two-dimensional quadrants.
We can, however, use multiple quadrants to analyze the same space in greater detail. Let’s analyze animal rights organizations in two separate quadrants.
And those are quadrants. Tada! Keep them in your mental toolkit. If you want an easy way to create quadrants in Google Sheets, see the example I created: Space Analysis – Graphing Quadrants in Google Sheets.
Another simple way to look at a space of things is to simply categorize them into some logical buckets.
NewProtein.org does this pretty nicely with a couple of infographics they have for “new meat” and “new dairy” companies, using categories like “Creating New Foods” and “Supporting New Protein” and subcategories within these such as “Cell-Based Food”, “Plant-Based Food”, “Manufacturing”, and “Incubators”. This is absolutely one way of mapping out a space. (The URL for this section of their website is even called “maps”.)
Animal Charity Evaluators has a very helpful categorization of types of impact that they call the Menu of Outcomes. They asked the question, “When we’re advocating for animals, what types of impact are we trying to actually create?” Asking the question and coming up with categories is absolutely one form of space analysis—and it’s both simple and helpful. In this case, ACE conducted a space analysis of “types of impact”. (We’re actually going to talk a little more about ACE’s menu of outcomes in the section below.)
One really helpful way to use this approach is to divide the full space up into a few very big categories, and then work on dividing those categories up into subcategories, and so on. Here’s one very practical way that I do this for my own life:
Steven’s Categorization Of: What’s Important in Life?
- My Well-Being
- Reduced stress
- (same as physical)
- Good organization
- (same as physical)
- Time with friends and family
- Helping others
- Feeling productive
- The Well-Being of Others
- My friends & family
- Other humans
- People in my city, state, and country
- Those living in extreme poverty globally
- Other nonhumans
- Farmed animals
- Wild animals
I first start by asking one of the biggest questions that exists: What are the important things in life?
“Well,” I say, “the only things that matter are those things that matter to conscious beings. I’ll say there are two main categories, my well-being and the well-being of everyone else.”
By starting there, I can begin to break things down further into more actionable subcategories, such as “physical health”, and even more specifically “exercise”. Once I’m satisfied with the specificity of my subcategories, I can decide how to take action on them. In this specific case, I could list out specific routines or habits that would tie in all of the important pieces: a morning routine that involves exercise, a healthy breakfast, and journaling, for example.
Categories are just a way to divide up your space into smaller, more manageable pieces. And while we’re talking about dividing things up into pieces…
Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive
Let’s talk about “mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive” ways to divide up a space.
(We’ll call it a MECE division.)
MECE basically means “make sure you’re aware of all the pieces, and that the pieces are all unique.” No overlaps, and you’ve covered 100% of whatever you’re analyzing.
As a more concrete example, let’s go back to our example of a map of the world. On a map, one possible MECE division would be to draw lines between countries (and also lines dividing countries from bodies of water). Any point on the map will only be a part of one country or body of water, and the whole globe will be sectioned off into countries and water. It’s both mutually exclusive (things can’t be in more than one group) and collectively exhaustive (the whole map has been categorized).
(Of course I know that geopolitical boundaries aren’t actually this simple, but let’s just assume they are for the sake of the example.)
When we’re coming up with a MECE division, we want to ask: “Is the full range of possibilities listed here? And are my boundaries between options clear cut?” Dividing up your space into MECE divisions gives you an easy way to talk about different areas of your map.
As another very straightforward example of a MECE division of a space, let’s suppose the space we’re looking at is all real numbers—which, simply put, is just a number line. A MECE division of this space is to create three groups: the negative numbers, the positive numbers, and zero. All numbers are included, and no value is part of more than one set.
Maybe you’re looking at the space of strategies you could employ for the next three years. You might try to define the potential impact areas, as ACE has done with their menu of outcomes that we mentioned above. This menu of outcomes represents the full space of outcomes that ACE thinks we might be trying to achieve with our work, where the different outcomes are pretty distinct. In other words, all the possibilities are listed and the boundaries are clear. That’s MECE.
This isn’t the only way to look at a space of course. It’s perfectly possible (and sometimes desirable) to have items that overlap in various categories and have more complicated connections and relationships between them. For example, we might take more of a systems thinking approach where we consider pieces both by themselves and also as part of larger entities (“systems”).
But that’s a very big topic for another day.
Trying It Out
Are you ready to dive in and try this for your own project or problem?
Here are some ways to think about conducting your own space analysis.
First, what is the space you want to look at?
This might actually not be easy to answer. (“Uhhhh…the whole animal rights movement?”) Something that’s too big or not clearly defined at first might begin to take more shape as you start asking more specific questions about your space and the pieces of it.
Try to think about the specific domain that your problem or project fits into. Are you looking at tactics? What kind of tactics? Or are you looking at people, or ideas? Try to clearly define your space so that you have an easier time analyzing it.
And sometimes it’s totally fine to have a big, vague answer like “the whole animal rights movement”. That might be what you’re trying to analyze, and that’s great. (In fact, when I’m doing these kinds of exercises I usually start with the big picture and then gradually zoom in as needed.)
Second, what’s the goal you’re trying to accomplish?
Do you want to have a clear decision that comes out of this space analysis, or a choice? Or are you simply trying to categorize things to understand them better?
There are many different goals you could have with this process, so knowing what you’re trying to accomplish is important. You can ask yourself: Am I looking to make a decision or am I simply looking to learn?
Third, what approaches are you going to use to analyze your space?
Maybe you’ll start with a simple categorization, and then construct some quadrants as a means of better understanding your space. Or maybe you need to start by just writing everything down on post-it notes and moving them around to see what kinds of patterns emerge.
It’s usually best to start by getting something down on paper and then getting more specific and precise from there. Action leads to understanding—if you’re having a hard time knowing where to start, just pick something to do and figure it out as you go along.
Fourth, after you’ve discovered something or made a decision, how are you going to document what you’ve learned?
It can be really helpful to summarize the analysis you did afterwards, both as a means of better understanding it yourself and also as a way to store it for future reference. One easy way is to create a Google Doc with the basic steps you went through and insert any graphs or visuals you made. This resource might be helpful for others to look at as well!
This is a tool I use all the time for breaking down complex, uncertain topics into understandable pieces. When I’m faced with an important decision, or when I’m trying to determine some kind of strategy for the next six months, I’ll turn to a space analysis, breaking down the space of decisions that I could make.
I hope this is useful for you as well—and if you have any suggestions for additional tools or ways of thinking that are helpful for you, please let me know!
Appendix #1: Some Spaces That Can Be Analyzed
Here is a list of some of the spaces that you could analyze that might help your understanding of the animal rights movement. Some of these spaces are applicable to building grassroots activist communities; some of them are applicable to creating new vegan products; some of them are applicable to any kind of public-facing messaging you do.
I only included things here that I think have a direct application to some aspect of the movement.
There’s no limit to the kinds of spaces you can analyze. The main question is, how will understanding one of these spaces help you to help more animals?
- Professions and skill sets that we need more of in the movement.
- Personality traits of activists, non-activists, non-vegans.
- Types of vegans.
- Types of non-vegans.
- Types of activism.
- Types of animal advocacy groups.
- Aspects of sentience.
- Aspects of animal exploitation.
- Parts of society that need to change in order to reach a vegan future.
- Parts of the animal rights movement.
- Categories of food items that we can create vegan versions of.
- Social/religious institutions, and their relationship to animal rights.
- Forces that indirectly prop up animal exploitation.
- Structures and types of communities.
- Types of popular media outlets.
- Types of social media.
- Types of websites.
- Ways people spend their free time.
- What people spend their disposable income on.
- Kinds of new technology.
- Movement funding sources.
- Movement funding recipients (organizations or tactics).
- Types of other social movements.
Appendix #2: Some Questions to Ask When Analyzing a Space
This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, but more to spark your imagination and see what types of questions you could ask yourself during the process of conducting a space analysis.
- What are the main categories of this space?
- Is there a way to break up the space into categories and subcategories that help me understand things better?
- What are the main items inside each category? What are the less important items?
- What’s missing? Has my own perspective or bias prevented me from seeing whole areas of the space that I’m leaving out?
- Is there a MECE division of this space that I want to try to create? (In other words, can I create non-overlapping categories that cover the whole space?)
- What kinds of quadrants could I create to help me get an understanding of the space?
- Am I analyzing the most important aspects of things? Are my axes and my “distance” the most relevant for what I’m trying to accomplish?
- Who else thinks about or works on this particular issue? Is there anything they do or know that’s missing here?
- Can I reach out to anyone to ask questions or talk more about this?
Appendix #3: Organization Acronyms
- ACE: Animal Charity Evaluators
- AE: Animal Equality
- ALDF: Animal Legal Defense Fund
- AV: Anonymous for the Voiceless
- CIWF: Compassion in World Farming
- DxE: Direct Action Everywhere
- HSUS: Humane Society of the United States
- MFA: Mercy For Animals
- NhRP: Nonhuman Rights Project
- PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
- SAVE: The Save Movement
- THL: The Humane League
- VO: Vegan Outreach
The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.
We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.