What is Sensemaking? Part 1: Concepts

Sensemaking allows us to make meaning of what we sense to guide what we can do next.

In a previous post, I proposed a simplified explanation of what design is all about. There has been so much written about design and much of it is confusing and it need not be this way. Much of the writing has made something that is fundamentally human, practiced widely (both skillfully and not), and essential for innovation into something cumbersome, opaque, and elite.

The same can be true of the concept of sensemaking**.

(**Oddly, in more than a decade and hundreds of posts, I’ve never defined the term that serves partly as a portmanteau for the title of this blog – so here we go – welcome to sensemaking).

This is the first of a two-part series where I look at the concepts that make up sensemaking. In part 2, I’ll look at the practice and process of sensemaking.

Much Nothing About Something

A read through the literature on the term sensemaking will find volumes of works of theory, relatively little on practice, and even less that is useful. Ouch.

For those academically inclined this might be attractive and interesting but for those who are looking to address real problems and issues day-to-day I’d argue you pass on the entire lot, save for one thing (see below). It’s sadly ironic that something so human is rendered so inhuman and inaccessible in most of the literature is not lost on me.

Trying to — pun intended — make sense of what the literature tells us in practical terms is a chore. It’s easy to speak of meaning-making and social processes, but what does it mean in practice?

The one thing I’d suggest you read and familiarize yourself with is the Cynefin Framework. The Cynefin Framework was established twenty years ago and recently celebrated with a book edited by Dave Snowdon and others. The book is filled with contributions from practitioners worldwide who have learned with Dave and helped develop it into among the most popular sensemaking frameworks in the world.

The book is worth the read, especially for those new to sensemaking and Cynefin. It’s a helpful guide to the framework and its application in practice. While Cynefin helps us with sensemaking it is only one part of the sensemaking process.

Placing Sensemaking in Design

Sensemaking occupies a critical middle space in design.

Design begins with sensing what is going on and ends with producing a ‘thing’ – a product, process, policy, or service. How we transform what we see, feel, hear, and experience into something most often requires some form of meaning-making. Human systems and circumstances are rarely straightforward where a simple problem has a simple solution.

These phases were articulated in a previous post.

Often what we end up dealing with is something of a mess. It’s not clear what the most salient problem or issue is, what it means, and what its implications are for everyone involved (or even who those people are). This is where sensemaking comes in.

Sensemaking comprises reflection, organization of what it is we have gathered or sensed, a synthesis of that material, and some testing of our assumptions and models.

Simply put, sensemaking takes what we experience through our senses — attending to the world (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, touch), inquiry and research, and gathering data on the situation. What this means is where sensemaking comes in.

Sensemaking is the middle part of helping us translate sense data into production guidance as part of a design.

Who’s Fit, What Purpose?

Great designs are fit for purpose. They are the right fit for the person, place, thing, and values for the purpose we need them. What makes sensemaking critical is that sometimes we don’t fully understand who we are designing for. What are their needs, preferences, values, abilities, and motivators?

We might also realize that the purpose of a design might depend on the person, the timing, the situation, and the presence of other situational factors. For us to design something that is fit for purpose, we might need to assess the diversity of situations, possibilities, and interests that will affect what our design looks like in the world.

We might need to consider designing for multiple purposes or create mechanisms for our design to be able to adapt.

Sensemaking is the process that we engage in — usually with others — to help assess these options and situations. It brings in some foresight (imagining different futures), empathy, and hypothesis generation. It’s one of the reasons we test our assumptions and models of what we think will happen or how something might work.

Sensemaking allows us to consider and deal with issues of complexity, order, and disorder in the various systems with which we find ourselves embedded and interacting.

If we want to design for the world – the kind of situations that the Cynefin Framework provides guidance on — we need to recognize that much of what we sense of it requires some time, care, and attention to process and make sense of. This is where sensemaking becomes our invaluable and often neglected and under-appreciated part of design.

In our next post, we’ll look a little closer at how this is done and what is needed to make sense in practice.

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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