Sense-making Basics | What is Sense-making?
According to Wikipedia, sensemaking or sense-making is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. It has been defined as “the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing”.
Introduced as a formal concept in organizational studies t by Karl Weick in the 1970s, sense-making is an interdisciplinary field weaving together ideas from philosophy, sociology, cognitive science, social psychology, and complexity science.
Taking action is easy. Understanding the real problem is more difficult. Sense-making intends to create collective agreement on what the real problem is. Russell Ackoff said “(w)e fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.” Sense-making is the process of separating signal from noise in order to understand what appears true, and what we can agree is true.
Sense-making examines how we make meaning in the world. It brings awareness to the cognitive (mental) processes by which we sort and filter stimuli, recognize patterns, and build reliable schemas.
As a skill, humans have been giving meaning to their collective experiences for millennia. We have personal experiences of which berries to eat, which snake is poisonous, and which routes are safest to travel. We then aggregate these patterns collectively around the campfire until we have the wisdom needed to navigate our environment. Our environments change, more slowly when nature is in charge and more quickly as humans lasso nature with modern technology.
Sense-making is about dealing with novelty, new realities and unfamiliar scenarios, that might incorrectly be fit into existing schemas which cannot meaningfully explain what is going on. It is an ongoing process of reinterpreting past events and present phenomena and creating new schema and narratives.
Karl Weick, one of the original sensemaking theorists, wrote that:
“Sensemaking is about the enlargement of small cues. It is a search for contexts within which small details fit together and make sense. It is people interacting to flesh out hunches. It is a continuous alternation between particulars and explanations with each cycle giving added form and substance to the other.”
Humans are meaning-making machines who love stories. We make maps to organize the world. Our sense-making examines the stories we tell that organize our experiences and determines how plausible, credible, and accurate those stories are. Sense-making allows us to structure new maps of meaning and tell new stories that resonate with our experiences and enable us to orient ourselves and our actions to the frames of those stories.
Sense-making is done both alone and together. As we each engage individually, we then come together to compare notes, evaluate and trade stories, and iterate our own understandings. By creating collective coherence, we can take actions that emerge from the sense we’ve made of each unique situation. If we’ve interpreted perceptions accurately, our actions are appropriate in measure and method to the situation.
Sensemaking arises from stimuli in the environment. The need for sense-making may be brought by a natural disaster, social unrest, political tension, or a pandemic on the societal scale or a business challenge, friendly disagreement, or X on the personal level. Each of these situations brings on a new sense-making episode, the result of which breeds new experience that is fed into the next episode.
Yiannis Gabriel says that “at its worst, sensemaking disintegrates into spin, pseudo-stories and meaningless verbiage; at its best, it offers the possibility to experiment with meaning-creation free from the burdens of sacrosanct traditional meaning-systems.”
Why It’s Important
Of sense-making, Richard Shutte says that “this shift in how we think about decision making has rapidly become the central skill required to navigate the 21st Century.” The world today is more complex than ever before and the complexity that is the hallmark of our physical, social, and technological systems is only accelerating. Attributing results to their actions is often correlated, but less commonly causal.
We have many wicked problems to solve. And there is greater fragility and uncertainty in our global systems than in the previous decades, a result of our poor collective sensemaking over the same time period. The relationships between and agendas of the actors in the system are opaque. Systems are adapting and evolving rapidly and bounded applicability appears to be a universal principle.
Our planetary, human, and social environment has changed. While our innate sensemaking was effective for discerning less complex centuries, the 21st century requires that we level up our sense-making. Every day we make personal, professional, and societal decisions based on how we make sense of the environment we find ourselves in. The more we understand the systems we are operating in, their characteristics and dynamics, the better our decision making.
In our most vexing problems lies an untapped potential that requires our understanding of the complex dynamics that created our challenges. Poorly defined problems often lead to poor decisions and outcomes. Well defined probelms often lead to better decisions and outcomes. We don’t lack best practices or the capability of evolving novel emergent solutions to our problems. We lack the species-wide capability to cohere and agree about the problems we face.
And when our sensemaking breaks down and we are confronted by “an event for which there is no precedent and no story, we feel anxious, confused and resourceless. Failing to come up with a plausible narrative to account for the meaning of such an event, we clutch at straws, look for scapegoats to blame or for messiahs to restore life to normality. When the narrative we create collapses under its own weight, metaphorically speaking, we find ourselves facing a black hole into which meaning disappears.” (Yiannis)
We are awash in information, a virtual deluge of media with no checks on quality or accuracy. The need for consensus has never been greater at a time when our information landscape is becoming more fractured and divergent. There is more noise and more static drowning out the important signals. Greater vigilance and discernment are needed.
Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari noted in a recent article on education that “in such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world”. (Harari 2020)
With the flood of information and proliferation of the internet as megaphone deteroriating expertise and value, we must find compassion for those with different views and nurture our own intellectual flexibility. The world is not black and white. The more one takes into account, the more difficult clarity becomes. Our complex world cannot be met with simple perspectives. Instead it begs for us to build an appreciation for the full spectrum of ideas and to understand nuance.
Our world is so complex that few can understand it on their own. Sense-making helps us build networks of trust where the aggregate of our efforts becomes a new form of human cognition – distributed intelligence. Together we can engage in tracking, just as our nomadic ancestors once did.
What Sense-making is not…
Sense-making is not analytical thinking. While logic is involved, sensemaking involves intuition, imagination, self-awareness, collaboration, abductive reasoning, creativity, and a healthy tolerance for ambiguity.
It is not the end-all-be-all. It is only useful when paired with appropriate and effective actions.
Sense-making is not debate. In a debate, opposing arguments are put forward to argue for opposing viewpoints. Whether formal or informal, debate is a zero-sum, with the intention that one argument establishes supremacy over the other.
Yiannis Gabriel: Sense-and-sensemaking Brief Introduction (accessed February 2021)
Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons 21st Century What Kids Need to Learn Now to Succeed in 2050 (accessed February 2021)