What is Sense Making?
Understanding sense making could be the first step to identifying what it could mean for you, and how you might find ways to harness its benefits in your life and work
Defining Sense Making
The conscious, ongoing effort to understand connections between people, places, events, and ideas in order to anticipate and work with the development of those connections.
Making sense of what goes on - in and around us, is a process of reviewing that helps with finding meaning. Something like ‘connecting the dots’ of what-is-related-to-what and how the individual parts fit into the whole. We are constantly sense making in a myriad of ways, using all our senses. It may be prompted by becoming aware of a gap between an aspiration - and our capacity to achieve it, if our existing arsenal of problem solving skills isn’t cutting it or the stories we tell no longer seem to fit.
Humans have been passing down stories, or ‘myths’ that explain the fundamental questions of existence in oral traditions since before recorded history. The field of Semiotics investigates how the use of signs in metaphor, myth, language and art, form the core threads of how we understand shared experience. Searching for meaning was suggested by holocaust survivor and pioneering Psychiatrist Victor Frankl to be the fundamental quest of what it means to be human.
Sense making still takes the form of telling new ‘stories’ - or forming, Liberating and revising narratives in ways which both help our understanding of them, and in turn, illustrate what we understand, and enable us to act. They can help us to Integrate difficult information into coherent understandings - by linking events and their contexts, helping us develop a healthier stance toward ourselves and the world.
Stories become the ‘mental map’ or blueprint for how we navigate the world. Having these maps is essential. The challenge is in allowing them to evolve as we grow, and as we encounter new information - both as individuals and in groups. Allowing the narratives we have to evolve, usually involves moving from a simple or a stable perspective, to a complex one (as we wrestle with integrating new ideas into our existing ‘maps’) and back again to a simple or more stable understanding - as the newly formed map settles back in.
During this complex phase, our sense making capabilities enable us to ‘turn over’ new information in our minds until we can either (i) understand how it fits our existing map and integrate it with what we already know (Assimilation) or (ii) re-evaluate our mental map in light of new information that contradicts it (Accommodation). Being able to assimilate or accommodate new information is key to ‘Cognitive flexibility’; or learning on the go - one of the Key employability skills for the future.
In systems and organisations, Sense Making is a well-known set of methodologies for developing joint understandings, supporting organisational change and enabling good leadership decisions. For example, Authentic Enquiry, Systems Architecting, Three Horizons, Agile, and Lean systems models are frameworks used across a variety of sectors, and can be highly structured. Regular and inclusive listening and discussion to ‘articulate the unknown’ is employed at all levels of a system in order to pay attention to what is happening ‘on the ground’, and ensure that the resulting understanding informs the big picture.
Sense making, Curiosity and Creativity work alongside each other like a dream team. Curiosity is the motivation to seek and understand new information, information that is specific and differentiated, or which is out of place because it contradicts what we have already ‘mentally-mapped’ (for example, through asking Open ended questions). Creativity is the risk-taking process of allowing new ideas or insights to emerge from our intuition and imagination to lead to experiments in making connections which will re-form the mental map.
As sense making interacts reciprocally with curiosity and creativity, and as we take informed action based on our new maps - generating yet new data; a cyclical process of evolutionary learning occurs. This is alike the Hermeneutic circle described by qualitative researchers. Sense making in this full cycle makes you your life’s own qualitative researcher!
As sense makers, we continually seek Reflective equilibrium; the periods of simplicity and stability in our sense making in which everything seems to make sense. However, this equilibrium does not last forever, and we must allow ourselves to embrace uncertainty when our world is challenged. It’s how we evolve, and is actually a normal, healthy process that never ends. We need the ability to value the gradients of both certainty and uncertainty in order to welcome each stage of the sense making process. Our Orientation to learning will inform the degree to which we are emotionally open to the dynamic, disruptive and integrating process of evolutionary learning.
Can sense making be sinister?
As we hinted at above, sense making is core to being human. It is an evolved and stable trait of our species. We need stories - so much so that we will usually prefer some kind of story to none at all, even if this is means holding a negative or threatening understanding of something. If it is familiar; it feels strangely safe, and gives us at least something to work with. ‘Better the devil you know...’ is an idiom in English that says a lot about how embedded in our (Westernised) belief systems, this preference is.
And thus - the ‘Self-fulfilling prophecy’ can occur. A phenomenon in which we believe what we are told or what we perceive to be true - so much, that we can inadvertently make it happen. In Psychology and the field of Cognitive-Behavioural science, these self-defeating patterns become the Focus for intervention in therapy. It is a recognised problem for theorists in Economics, Political Philosophy and Social Sciences as well as Education. In our Healthcare systems for example, it is often only the existing established research which informs the kind of new research that is further funded to enable new science ‘stories’.
In the world of Social Psychology, Anthropology and Political Science, we can see huge trends of negative potential occurring, in which the powerful magnifier of the Internet and media perpetuate stories about various kinds of threats which can feed biases then Leading to behaviour en masse which in turn, perpetuate belief in the stories as conflict and negativity obstruct meaning making through associations. We may individually and collectively need to heighten our awareness of these tendencies in order to avoid the pitfalls of manipulable thinking, and make sense making great again!
Am I a sense maker?
How do you relate to the idea of the positive cycle of sense-making; the dance of uncertainty which drives exploration or changes in how you think about the world? What have your experiences of this been? How do you feel about the ideas you’ve read? And how do you think you best make sense of things, even if in ways that might not always be for the best?
Sense making drives learning. Making mistakes and learning from them is inherent to sense making, if we are able to continually revise what we think we know. That includes ways in which we might improve our sense making itself.
Barriers to Sense Making
Experienced threat can work against sense making - precisely when we need it most. Additionally, we might lack motivation, or the internal and external resources needed to articulate - a vital component of making sense.
- Feeling threatened can makes us too rigid or too dependent to sense-make, and fear leads us into vicious cycles
If a conflict or a perceived threat has disrupted the ‘reflective equilibrium’ of sense making (or on a system level, the Homeostasis) - tearing a hole in our map, the result can be highly challenging. It can be overwhelming for our individual or collective sense making capabilities. Cognitive dissonance describes the kind of mental stress we can encounter when we observe two apparently incompatible things taking place together. These ‘tearings’ to our established view on the world (and ourselves) can lead to ways of resisting difficult new information or ‘feedback’.
Our sophisticated psyches may protect us by reinterpreting the information so that we can assimilate it to what is familiar, instead of having to do the costly work of accommodating ourselves to it. This is called Confirmation bias-or, favouring information that fits what we already know. We cling to the existing maps we’ve got. Under extreme conditions of stress, humans can engage in outright denial (and even Reversal) of painful facts which present themselves to us. This denial can be self-reinforcing, because we are so emotionally invested in and attuned to the information we want to believe is real, that even Disconfirming data can be interpreted as confirmatory to our map. As time goes on, the higher the stakes of finding out we are wrong, the closer we cling and the more invested we become in feeling safe: creating another viciously fulfilling cycle.
Letting go of some of these protective strategies, or ‘Leaning in’ to the uncertainty of evolutionary change for the sake of a more accurate map, though it may be difficult, is key to positive mental health and healthy human systems. It takes both individual courage and a group’s intentional commitment. See Barriers to Curiosity for some related issues.
In addition to the difficulties we might face in our openness to new information, we may also lack the skill or confidence needed to establish our maps in light of it; expanding and connecting more widely with the world around us through the confirmation of our senses. We might either doubt the rigour of our existing mental map and be too easily persuaded to tear it up, ignore it, or have it written over by new data that seems to be stronger, or more certain or socially desirable. If we sense threat (at times of urgency in which we often need our sense making skills the most), our desire to be led in any direction might override our ability to spend time trusting and reading the map we’ve already got. We become too dependent, to sense-make. Over time this becomes a self-reinforcing pattern because we only ever experience other people’s sense making successes, and we come to believe less and less in our own abilities.
When under threat, we can become frantic in our search for solutions. This means we quickly and easily give up on our impulsive experiments to change things, or avert danger - which becomes an ineffective way to test out hypotheses or reflect and make informed decisions. Our sense making - and therefore our ability to respond, can end up worse off than when we started.
In each example of how we can behave when under threat, we lack the courage or conviction to change the world around us, or to be changed by it - confounding our sense making capabilities, at critical moments. As a result we can experience a vicious circle which can negatively compound sense making, through the forces of threat and fear.
Lack of motivation
We may find it simply too much like hard work to do the rearranging of our pre-existing mental maps. It can seem at times an unrewarding, and effortful task. It might also be an emotional task if it requires us to revisit difficult memories, contemplate aspects of ourselves we don’t really want to admit to, or acknowledge that the world really isn’t the place we would like it to be. These are all very common human traits and challenges.
So we must have a strong enough motivation or end-goal to encourage us to join the dots - if it’s going to result in a fundamental change in our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Someone else’s agenda will not be enough to motivate us into this ground-breaking territory.
- Problems with articulation
Help from others
We may lack crucial learning relationships in a social or work context in which we can throw around ideas, ‘mind-map’, put the world to rights, ask our deepest questions, or honestly express how we feel about new information that presents itself.
We may have people, or groups of people in our lives who actively resist new information, perhaps through passivity, or the other extreme of over-asserting their opinions. This may inadvertently (consciously or unconsciously) put pressure on us to conform to their worldviews in order to keep them happy or preserve our relationships.
We may be good at ‘making sense’ of things, but perhaps this has never really been acknowledged by others. If our style or marginalised status means that we aren’t always recognised as equal or given a voice, then we are likely to hold back from sharing and articulating our views with others. We might content ourselves with ranting alone at the TV, instead of talking issues of the day over with our neighbour. Perhaps it’s easy to see yourself as ‘a doer’ and ‘not a thinker’ and miss the unique ways in which your doing actually requires you make sense of the world around you, as well as the value of giving voice to your ideas. If you’re someone who learns through doing - you are a sense maker.
Becoming more of a sense maker
The good news is that there are ways to help unblock some of these barriers to sense making, with a little time, practice and purpose. We have provided various pathways for experimenting with improving sense making that you might find helpful as you progress through your learning journey.
Your Learning Journal
Keeping a journal is something highly recommended as you’re travelling this learning journey. It will provide a crucial reflective tool for you to clarify thoughts through creative expression and a prompt and reminder of important learning and your progress as you look back on it. This will be a space for recording your responses to questions or strategies you encounter here but it may also include your own ad-libbing and anything else that is helpful to you.
You’ll notice pointers along the way to encourage and remind you about using your journal.
What do I think that sense making is?
How do I feel about the ideas I’ve found out about here? Do they fit with my previous ideas about sense making?
What more do I want to know about sense making?
What have I learned about sense making that I didn’t know before?
Assuming I now understand sense making better, do I still agree with what my learning power profile says about me?
Do I feel any kind of identification with either of the case examples? How does that feel?
Try a mind-map to represent my knowledge about sense making so far
Choose an image or an object from the space around me that reflects something about me and sense making
Try some free-association writing to express some key words that have resonated with me about sense making
Re-write one of the case examples with an ending I’d prefer
How can you ask questions that make the best sense?
Learn how to ask questions that will introduce better sense making to your learning process
How our senses interact when processing information
Website based at the University of Utah
Short introduction to semiotics - the study of signs
Why we tell stories
YouTube clip - Margaret Atwood
Three Horizons sense making methodology
Online blog article
Agile learning in IT
Lean management in systems
Reflective equilibrium in sense making
Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in sense making
Cognitive Dissonance in sense making
Encyclopaedia Britannica page
Confirmation Bias in sense making
Online blog article
‘Leaning in’ to discomfort for better sensemaking
YouTube clip and transcript - Brene Brown and Oprah
The Science of Narrative
YouTube - Science Festival documentary
Sensemaking and Leadership capability
Online academic book chapter - Sloane school of Management MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Online academic article
Homeostasis and Family Systems Theory
Online academic chapter
Sense making in organisations
Seminal text by Karl Weick
For your reading list
Dervin, B. (2003). Sense making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin (Communications alternatives). Hampton Press
Frankl, V. (1946). Man’s Search For Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press
Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Making sense of sensemaking 1: Alternative perspectives. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 70–73.
Sillitto, H. (2014). Architecting Systems. Concepts, Principles and Practice. College Publications