Sensemaking, Design and Innovation

We can’t change what we don’t understand and can’t understand what we can’t make sense of.

Design is the discipline of innovation. Innovation is the means of taking what we know and learn and transforming it into value. Sensemaking is what allows us to derive meaning from what we see and experience.

Together, these three interconnected concepts form the bedrock for which intentional change is made.

Of these three, sensemaking is the most vulnerable to the effects brought about when we face crises: limited attention, focus and confusion. Sensemaking is what allows us to deal with information derived from complex, wicked, persistent, and pervasive issues that overlap, intersect and have different time horizons and consequences from action. It’s a structured process of asking ‘how might’ something come about.

The COVID Case for Complexity

The challenges posed by COVID-19 are an ideal example of a wicked problem: one that changes after you start working on it. Consider the global reaction to the (then) emerging virus spread within China at first and the world afterward from caution to lockdown to re-opening to a mix that continues to change and evolve. Along with the epidemiological case trends came shifts in attitudes, knowledge, behaviour, and the interaction of those together so where there might have been wide-scale agreement on and adherence to general principles for collective action (e.g., limit contact, staying home, hand hygiene, and physical distancing), this has changed dramatically.

Yet, the overall concern for people’s health hasn’t changed much, nor has the economics tied to re-opening and changing our behaviour. Healthy people generally lead to better economies and communities.

Some of this is the paradoxes that emerge from seeing the world’s behaviour. At the start of the pandemic, most of the world was in late winter or spring, making it easier to stay inside. The rapid appearance of COVID-19 infections and sharp rise allowed us to have a singular point of focus and the limited amount of knowledge about the nature, spread, and severity of the virus on the human body kept us adhering to a small set of guidelines out of precaution. It was easy to stay at home when all we saw was the world at home, too. But as we see different communities open up nearby, worldwide, a ‘return’ of many professional sports, and a summer season that allows us to be outside our perspectives changed along with it.

As time moved along, our knowledge got more expansive, yet so did our number of unknowns. Some of what we believed was no longer as true as before (e.g., surfaces aren’t great sources of transmission as previously thought and mask-wearing has greater benefits than we first thought). Trust in others — scientists, the media, politicians, and the public — also changed with this new information. Now, we see the tribalism that comes when people seek to cluster, affirm, and commune with those who have similar viewpoints — whether or not those are shared more widely or scientifically supported.

Paradoxes and Other Confounders

Sometimes the more information we have, the less we know. Research confirms this.

What makes COVID-19 such a strong example of this is that we are seeing people having to confront paradoxes, contradictions, and other similar issues with complexity in their everyday lives. The tensions created between being social and increasing our risk. Maybe it’s condemnation of ‘those people’ who are congregating together for parties while ignoring the effects of large family gatherings or that loved one who has a large, gregarious social circle in the bubble that is otherwise tight. This isn’t an either/or, it’s an ‘and‘ situation and can make hypocrites of us while compounding our problems.

Sensemaking allows us to better understand what’s going on and escape some of the judgement that we bring to certain behaviours while allowing us to see opportunities for greater meaning-making and wise action.

Sensemaking in a crisis is what can allow us to escape the traps laid bare by our cognitive biases and our emotions — both which shape our perception. The RSA in the UK has developed a useful framework that has been updated to help organizations think through innovation in a crisis.

This framework helps us to ask: what’s working? Rather than focus on the ‘right’ solution, sensemaking frameworks can help us see what is useful within a context and recognize how that context might shift. The scan-and-track approach involves us reflecting on what actions we’re taking while we’re taking them and encourages that this be done on a regular, consistent basis. In doing so we start to see what kind of things are emergent events, what are propelled by specific behaviours, and begin to get us thinking about the structures and mental models we’re using so we can design them to fit the needs of the future (and present), rather than the past.

Asking: How Might?

Sensemaking, when used as part of design strategy, can allow us to look at data that appears to be contradictory or confusing to help us envision the reasons why things might happen and we might be able to do to influence what happens.

Asking “How might” something come about is a simple technique that connects what people do (what patterns and trends are being observed) with motivations, structures, other behaviours, and events to allow us to consider ways it could be different and how we can make it so.

This is the domain of innovation. Rather than apply judgement, this approach gets us to look at the circumstances that could contribute to a certain behaviour. Consider a list of questions about COVID-related behaviours and activities that could re-frame our understanding of an issue in ways to design with it, rather than ignore it. It’s a companion to the extension of that question often used in design thinking: “how might we…?”

A handful of questions might be: How might someone develop a passion for not wearing a mask? How might we come to distrust our public health officials (or flip this around — how might we foster trust as a public health official?) ? How might we maintain hope and undertake wise action amid changing data and policies? How might we take the uncertainty of the situation and use it to build resiliency and strength — maybe even transform our challenges into a game?

What this question does is foster curiosity, one of the primary drivers of innovation, insight, and optimism.

Take the time. Gather your data and bring people together to work through it to learn. Learning is the only guaranteed outcome in situations of great complexity and only if we pay attention.

Whether you are a corporate innovator, a non-profit, a government or human service organization, taking the time to come together and do sensemaking regularly and systematically will greatly reduce the uncertainty you have and help you better live with the uncertainty that remains. Great designs and innovation won’t come if you tackle the wrong problem and understanding that will come only when you understand what problem(s) you’re seeking to address.

That will help you make sense of a world that is increasingly difficult to comprehend and make the difference we all need.

Sensemaking and design is our key to innovation in times of crisis and complexity. If you need help organizing this and designing your organization for it, contact me. I can help you to learn more.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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