Humans tell stories to each other through narrative, pictures, and data and models can help us make sense of things, but do they help us act? Or worse: do these models contribute to inertia?
If you want to get a lot of traction on social media with a certain crowd, put up a model or visual explaining a big idea. Maybe this will be a new way to categorize your professional role, or adding some new twist on an existing framework or model. This will then be followed by the predictable comments of “yes!”, “💯”, “👏🏼 (or add your favourite emoji) and the myriad critiques from others who’ve developed their own visualization to explain the world.
Maybe you’ve defined a system of some sort. Maybe you’ve explained human behaviour in a single chart. Whatever it is, these visuals, models, and parables will attract attention and create patterns of activity around your post. This is what most people want from their social media: to attract attention. But do they serve?
We use these to make sense of the world. But aside from social media value: what do they actually do?
Models for Teaching, Action, and Inaction
Sensemaking is what we do when confronted with situations that are unclear, dynamic and significant to us. These are most often in spaces of high complexity where the links between cause and effect can’t be made, where information requirements change often, and what we know is incomplete, insufficient, or uncertain.
Stories told through many means can help us to make sense of things by taking what we perceive and understand about something and put it together in a way that is coherent. If we can achieve some type of coherence, we can take wise action. That’s usually the goal and why sensemaking is so important. When we can make sense of something, we can do something that can make a positive difference in shaping our situations.
As I’ve written before, models (stories told in visual form) can serve two functions: they teach (create knowledge) and they can inform action. Aside from people wanting to learn things as a hobby or for recreation I am most interested in models that inform and inspire change. By inform, I mean providing new and useful knowledge in thinking about situations that are important and require our attention to address. By change, I mean offering useful tactical and strategic guidance on approaching a situation that can be transformed for some benefit by our actions.
In other words: Are you learning something you’ll use and do you use it to improve situations?
I’m concerned that there are too many models and theories and far too little action. I’ve seen little in the way of evidence that most of these models are 1) informing practical knowledge that can be acted upon and 2) guiding actions in a useful way. Yet, because of the attention economy I see more models, theories, and ideas promoted than ever before. Our quest for attention is leading us to focus on imaginary things rather than concrete actions.
It’s one of the conceits of narrative visualization: a good visual can obscure the meaning of the data gathering. As I’ve written before, there is a tendency to mistake our models for solutions and thinking for action. Even brilliantly created data visuals don’t offer anything if we can’t convert the lessons they share into something useful (e.g., decisions or actions).
Evaluating Accountable Actions
In 2023 we can no longer afford to be spending time on model-building that won’t lead to action. I no longer care that people are more informed or inspired by a new way of putting things together if that insight doesn’t prompt any changes in what they do or how they engage in the systems around them. As the summer of wildfire smoke continues among the world’s hottest days ever the time for useless talk is over. Things like strategic, systems, or design thinking can’t continue if it doesn’t change strategy, systemic or design practice.
There is a strange psychological phenomenon where people who set intentions often fail to connect them to actions. Sometimes we think we’ve done things when we haven’t. Seeing a model can allow us to envision it as reality instead of seeing it as an idea of reality. This can create inertia. More models, data, and intentions can actually backfire and fool us into thinking that we are making progress on solving problems or addressing situations.
Research on intention conversion shows that supporting people in making plans connected to their intentions can improve follow-through. Specific plans with accountability mechanisms using evaluative data can help us. If I intend to change a behaviour, gathering data that allows us to track the steps contributing to the action and whether or not the action takes place and achieves something is a powerful support for behaviour change.
So the next time you see a model that describes a situation, ask yourself:
- Does this model add new information to my understanding of something that I find important or meaningful? If not, ignore it.
- Does this new information positively change my motivational or perceptual capacity to act in some way that makes a difference? If not, what is preventing that? Find that out and address it.
- Do I convert my intention into observable actions? If not, what is needed to help you?
The answers to these questions can help you with better using your time and attention and avoiding the cheerleading traps where we celebrate new, shiny models that wind up doing nothing to improve our situations.
The time for action is now. Sensemaking has never been more important and neither has wise action.
The waves are coming at us. We can learn to navigate or surf them or get washed ashore.
Let’s talk if you’re looking to set better intentions and take wiser action in addressing situations and dealing with threats to your enterprise, team, and organization.