What is Sensemaking? Part 2: Practice

Sensemaking practice is social, interactive, and focused on strategies to work through what we think, know, and imagine.

In our previous post we introduced the idea of sensemaking and it’s connection to the process of design. In this post we look at the practical aspects of doing sensemaking and why it matters.

Sensemaking is about making sense of data, contexts, situations, and future possibilities in light of conflicted, incomplete, disorganized, and contradictory information. Sensemaking is a social process of making meaning and connects organization, reflection, synthesis, and testing.

Design involves attending to what’s going on, gathering data and assessing situational needs and circumstances through our senses. Our Sensemaking is the second step and helps us to make meaning of what it is that we are seeing, hearing, feeling, and experiencing.

Setting the Stage

Sensemaking is best done when it engages diversity of perspective in meaningful ways. This diversity is tied to the qualities of the context in which we are designing. It will look different depending on this context for each time we design something.

If we are designing a service, we might want to consider engaging diverse real, intended, and planned clients or customers, those who run and administer the service, and those who are touched by or potentially touched by that service. The same goes for a product, a process, or a policy.

You want to engage those that have a meaningful stake in the design. The fullness of this diversity ought to be accounted for in the data that we gather at the sensing stage. With sensemaking we will want to engage those that are most likely to offer a perspective that can inform a holistic, multidimensional perspective within the systems our design affects.

Engage these individuals and plan for their involvement. This can be a light consultative approach or involvement in a deep, collaborative sense-making session. The key is making sure this is done with an open mind and with as few preconceived ideas about what is going on as possible. We always have our perspectives, we just want to make sure we engage others. If it is a simple or straightforward issue, this isn’t as critical (see below)

Data could be statistics, interviews, photos, charts, and observations. The forms of this data are less important than is their ability to work coherently to allow us to make meaning. For this, we need to organize them so we have a sense of what we have, what’s missing, and what’s needed.

We also recommend apply the Cynefin Framework to help understand the kinds of system conditions you’re dealing with up front. This can be done at the start of the sensemaking process and continued throughout it as needed. Cynefin can help us assess whether we are dealing with something that is straightforward, more complicated, or complex.

It’s in complex situations that sensemaking is most important and useful.

Organization

Sense-data comes in so many forms and from so many sources that it requires organization in order for us to make meaning of it. Ensuring you have some form of means — databases, visual boards, summary documents, or catalogues — of bringing things together. Whether this is a collection of artifacts in a shared drive, filing cabinet, bulletin board or all of them digital, physical or hybrid there needs to be some space(s) that we can bring things together.

Make this data visible, accessible, and three-dimensional by using visual thinking. Things such as systems maps can be enormously useful. The more this data in its various forms can be presented in a manner that allows participants to organize, re-organize and visualize relationships between the various artifacts (e.g., statistical data, narratives, stories).

This information also needs to be made accessible to those who are involved in sensemaking. Visual organization literally allows people to get their sight on the same page. Tools like Miro or Mural are particularly good for this, although physical white-boards or bulletin boards can do just as well. Increasingly, we need hybrid tools as people work at distances and the tools for bringing together digital artifacts becomes so much better.

Reflection

Once organized, we need some reflection time to consider the various relationships and structures that we see. The aim is to look for patterns, recognize the absence or presence of coherence in what we see, and to ask questions — interrogate – what we see.

There is an adage that a system looks different from where you sit in it. Front line staff, senior management, customers, and suppliers all will see the same service differently based on how they interact with it. This is a core tenet of applied systems thinking. In sensemaking we are seeing to develop coherence behind these narratives and perspectives even if there is conflicting points of view. Conflict can still fit within coherence.

Time to reflect on what this means is necessary. It is often the case that even with all of this data before us we still don’t quite understand what’s going on. Reflection is something that is best done both as individuals and together, drawing on process of effective brainstorming . This allows us to bring forth our unique perspective from where we sit and learn from others.

For this reason, sensemaking is often best done in stages or in separate sittings. Depending on the size, scope and sophistication of the issues being discussed, sensemaking could take as long as a day (with time between activities within a day) or go on for months. What is critical is making sure this process isn’t rushed. In many cases, we cannot makes sense of patterns in front of us immediately – reflection helps us do this.

Synthesis

Once we start seeing patterns bring things together. This again is where our whiteboards or visual design tools — virtual, physical or hybrid — come in handy. We are producing a product in this stage, rather re-combining things to make a coherent set of ideas that can be later tested (next step) and then put forward for production.

This synthesis might involve combining multiple insights and artifacts together to find a new sense of what has meaning for what we want to do. It might allow us to see issues we didn’t see before.

One example was the sensemaking that was done around pandemic strategies for COVID-19. What the early data started to show was that the pandemic was affecting certain communities differently and that this was both tied to social circumstances (e.g., housing design, access to services and supports, proximity to others, inability to isolate effectively) as well as the types of jobs and roles that people were undertaking and the means they used to get to and from work.

Many front line workers had shared circumstances, but these weren’t all apparent to those in policy-making or leadership positions because of where they sat in the system (far removed from the front lines).

Add to this, these populations — often racialized, immigrant, and low-income communities of people — experienced more severe health consequences from COVID-19 than others. They experienced a greater overall burden of the disease and expressed it in different ways than others, which had effects on the entire social, care, and economic systems.

What seemed obvious after the fact was not to those making many of the policy decisions ahead of this process being done. That’s why sensemaking is needed: it brings different perspectives to bear to see what’s going on and make meaning of it.

Connecting these together meant that strategies that treated the entire population or region as similar would not work and that tailored, local strategies were required to effectively deal with limiting and addressing the COVID-19 spread and impact. This came through synthesis after data gathering, organizing and reflection and involved members of the affected communities along with health professionals and policy makers coming together.

Testing

Prior to moving ahead with a production model — a full design or prototype – of our ideas we need to test out some assumptions first. We may not have all the answers, but coming together can allow us to speculate and engage in foresight about what might happen based on the early synthesis and insights we’ve generated.

Testing our assumptions, creating and challenging our mental models, developing and running through scenarios, allows us to consider a variety of possible futures and strategize which ones we want and the ones we can reasonably achieve. It’s part of a foresight-driven approach to strategy. It’s thinking about what something does and what it can do if put into practice.

This process can be done as a workshop, through developing things like personas, and as part of a vision-setting exercise to help us see and anticipate possible outcomes that come from what we learn. It’s important because it can help us determine if we’ve missed something or had a bias or assumption we’d not fully considered.

Practice

Like most things the more this is done, the more straightforward it will seem. Sensemaking is affected by the resources available including time and attention and the nature of the problem at hand. The greater the level of complexity within what’s being considered, the longer this process will take and the greater the need for engaged, diverse perspectives.

Sensemaking, when done well, brings added benefits of ensuring you design for the right problem, not the problem as it initially presents. Very often layers of complexity can be peeled back through sensemaking to reveal structures, relationships, and circumstances that once appeared benign and later are revealed to be key levers or drivers in the change-making process.

It also can bring together people in dialogue about the topic, which brings alignment of interests, surfaces conflicts and sometimes unknown points of agreement, and enlists people in the project of design by recognizing people’s place in a system.

Sensemaking is among the most powerful parts of design and is often what separates good, effective, just, and sustainable outcomes from bad ones. If you want help with this process and setting it up for your organization as part of your design strategy, contact me.

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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