Collective Sensemaking’s Ridiculous End

Sensemaking is having its day – but how much of that is a good thing? In this post I ask whether its popularity and spread is actually making less sense of the world than more.

In his book The End of Education Neil Postman explores the purpose of our educational system and what it actually does. His critique is one that points to an education system that does a lot of things and only a few of them are supporting actual learning. By looking at what educational institutions actually do and how they do it Postman makes a case that schools are ill-suited to promoting real learning. 

He’s far from alone in this critique. 

I have a similar sentiment to the idea of sensemaking.

It’s an enormously important concept, but its importance can’t mean we extend it beyond practical means. While it’s wonderful to see more discussion of practical sense making practices and tools, there is a risk that in making it accessible we mistakenly try to make it universal and collective

What I want to critique is this over-reach. 

Scale and Sensemaking

Sensemaking in organizations requires social engagement. Complex social issues require multiple perspectives to appreciate them and to understand what they mean for those involved. It’s not about having the smartest person in the room’s perspective, but the perspective of the room itself. 

To simplify: to learn more about wholes we need to engage the parts.

However, there is also a matter of scale and ensuring we have processes in place that are fit for purpose and designed for humans. While systems practitioners look to the idea of creating sensemaking processes aimed at incorporating diversity what can get missed are the social and psychological factors that affect our ability to gather, share, learn, understand, and gain agreement. 

Every one of these factors are complicated at best to manage. They are also highly sensitive to scaling effects. The more people you have involved, the more challenging things are. 

There’s a saying that two’s company, three’s complexity. Anyone who’s engaged in facilitation knows that this is not only true, but that it gets even more so with more people and perspectives together. It’s not easy work – which is why it seems foolish to believe in some idea that collective sensemaking is not only a viable solution, but an attractive one. .

Sensemaking Together

Collective sensemaking is an idea that begins to break down as we increase the amount of diversity — the number of people, perspectives, and constraints — and related complexity within the process of sensemaking itself. What’s troublesome is that many authors, scholars, and management leaders seem to ignore this. 

The ridiculous idea that we’ll coordinate and work together to solve the greatest global challenges of our day is made so because we have no example of a planetary-wide system working. We have few examples of mass, collective shared decision-making in the absence of a hyper-acute, time-bound threat (e.g., COVID-19 — in the initial days of the pandemic being a small exception). 

The idea that collective sensemaking will allow us to address problems outside a local scale is divorced from solid service design principles or an understanding of complexity and scale

To begin with: if we require a coordinated response — who is going to do it? Who, in an age where there are mass protests of healthcare and healthcare workers by those upset at government regulations (that have little to do with frontline heath staff or evidence of any sort, is going to be that trusted convenor? 

How will we understand the whole space where the problem resides? Can we agree on what the problems might be enough to convene? Do you have the time and the focus to commit to the kind of collective sensemaking that’s being advocated for? 

What are the boundaries of ‘collective’ on issues where boundaries are fuzzy, moving, or even planetary in nature?

This sounds to me like the kind of delusional Silicon Valley-inspired thinking that we can work together seamlessly and just trust that the (self-appointed) smart people in the room will do the right things and that the right software or technology will help us solve human problems without complication. 

Humans At The Table

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are far from unified in our beliefs, values, and morals. It’s also taught us that evidence, emotions, preferences, and beliefs must be considered as separate as much as we consider them together. 

It’s easy to ascribe a belief that there is a collective interest in addressing problems like COVID-19 or climate change. Yet, the evidence for what I see around me is that: some people just want to watch the world burn

It’s a difficult idea to accept, but what these collective approaches neglect are real human differences

We always make choices. When we choose to identify with a collective, we neglect the uniqueness of each individual. When we elevate that uniqueness at the expense of a group, we neglect the shared qualities that bring us together. 

We can hold both ideas at the same time, but we can’t amplify both at once. We’re always making trades. We can’t be both collective (across groups) and individualistic (within groups or individuals) at once.

Collective approaches can sound attractive and appeal to people who feel disconnected and embrace a sense of community — but at certain scales they become unworkable. They only work when they fit the scale in which we can manage the complexity and volume of information available on the problem we seek to address.

We can design means to work collectively on important problems that require sensemaking, but we must do so at a human scale. That means working with smaller, much more visible systems, not at ones that brings the entire world to the table. 

Practically, we are facing challenges that are at a scale, scope and speed where true collective action to address the whole would be impossible to meet the change in conditions. We can only make sense of what we can appreciate — the things we can sense. That is what sense making is about. This is not about individual over collective, it’s about finding the appropriate scale.  

This isn’t to say that we can’t try to address global problems, but the process for making sense has to be different at that scale. I don’t know what that is, but I do know it involves leadership. It has to involve participation, too. 

Design for Sensemaking

Design isn’t a ‘nice to have’ thing — it’s a foundational part of what makes us human. When we humans who, for the most of our history, have gathered in small tribes, villages, and collectives seek to make sense of things we have established ways to convene.

With social science, human migration and global connectivity we have come to learn approaches that have worked well across the globe and shared that across cultures. Add in the usefulness of information technology to gather, organize, and help synthesize knowledge and we are in the best position ever to appreciate complexity and diversity. Lastly, we can convene people in ways that bridge physical and social distance that we couldn’t do before — we’ve learned this firsthand from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While this brings greater ability, it doesn’t absolve us of the need to design our sensemaking processes. Collective sensemaking requires some kind of design (thinking) to create processes that work. Arguing that we all should come together to make sense of complexity is useless without adding design to the conversation and the willingness to design collective sensemaking for real humans

We can work together to address problems. We have much sense to make of our world to create ways to solve problems, address issues, or at least keep ourselves healthy and mitigate the challenges we face. The ‘end’ of collective sensemaking is to allow us to make sense of the world around us and make better decisions to help us survive, thrive and develop.

Without design in the conversation about we achieve this end we will continue to recommend things that make little sense.

Photo by kayleigh harrington on Unsplash and by Toa Heftiba 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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