The Sense-making Winter

Winter provides a literal and metaphorical season ripe for sense-making if the other seasons are different

Winter creates a natural opportunity to reflect. The cold weather, darkness, and general lack of ability to grow crops has meant that people traditionally spent this season telling stories and making sense of the world as they awaited the dawn of spring.

The literal and metaphorical winters of the 2020’s have so far proven to be different. While there has been much reflection, I’m uncertain whether or not the sense-making we are engaged in is as useful as it would be in previous years.

The pandemic – as it has for so many things — has provided a way to understand sense-making or sensemaking in a new light and it has exposed some of the often unacknowledged barriers and limitations to the practice as well as highlight ways we might do it better.

Contrasting Experiences

To everything there is a season, it’s been said. Seasons shape our collective understanding of change and our environment. It’s the reason why winter was that time for sense-making: it made our world smaller while also providing the most stark contrast among the seasons. The darkness, the snow, the lack of vegetation all strip contrast from our gaze and allow us to focus on the essence of what’s before us.

Sensemaking is all about contrast — placing what we find together so we can compare and see patterns. That is becoming much more difficult in a time when much of the data that we are drawing from lacks this contrast. Our interactions are too often mediated through Zoom calls, emails, WhatsApp messages and our settings are mostly our homes and immediate neighbourhoods. It starts to all feel flat.

It’s one thing to look at economic data about retail and restaurants, it’s another to walk down the street and see closed-up shops and cafes. We can talk about the effect of working at home on office space in the abstract or we can travel by office districts to see the near-complete absence of people. It’s easy to say ‘we’re all stuck at home’ when our jobs are possible to perform at a distance and with the tools and technology at our disposal. We aren’t the ones having to take a bus across town to a job that requires physical interaction with people.

Contrast is about difference and that includes richness. This winter — which is a metaphor for the pandemic in many ways — we have flipped the script where this season is the one that dominates our year. We’ve had little richness.

Sensemaking Data

Sense-making is only as good as the data we have available to us. It’s becoming clear that the data we have might be more suspect than ever. When once the ability to cocoon and get away from the world was a distinct advantage for seeing patterns and possibilities that were unavailable to us because of the noise of life, now it’s that noise — or rather, its absence — that is what we need.

As I’ve written before, our design research methods are going to need to change — or at least increase their sensitivity — in moving forward, if we are to design new services, policies, and even organizations that meet the needs of what comes next.

This is what’s been on my mind as I continue to see my fellow professionals make forecasts and claims about what is to come. I wonder: are they getting out?

Are we going to remember the seasons? The normal that is now is about lack of contrast. Sensemaking data requires that contrast and its easy to forget that sometimes and this will change what sense we create from our data and the actions we take from here.

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

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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