“You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of the truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to help him organize it.” (1)
….and so this leads us appropriately to “Sensemaking”. It is really important to understand why Sensemaking becomes the next step on this path. Every day we are inundated with junk, pseudo-psychology and frankly unrestrained bullshit from all corners of the world of work. Additionally, we have the sheer volume of information that we typically encounter on a daily basis. This is then further compounded by the ever-increasing amount of (fake news) purposely deceptive content that finds its way to our various social media feeds. All this means that for you & I, when trying to enhance our knowledge base and understanding, separating the wheat from the chaff can prove very difficult.
One thing I really struggled with early on in my exposure to the world-wide-web was the sheer volume of information. My filters were less developed and adept at navigating all I encountered. This gave rise to a need for finding a method of eliminating all the unnecessary information. I experimented with different ideas over time but nothing that consistently underpinned the manner in which I critiqued the data overload. For the purposes of this newsletter, I want to not only refine my BS filter but also go a stage further and begin to develop an approach that helps in my interpretation, understanding, and very importantly, application of what I learn. So Sensemaking seems like a natural fit. But what is it?
“Sensemaking is the ability or attempt to make sense of an ambiguous situation. More exactly, sensemaking is the process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions. It is “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively” (2) (1A)
You may be thinking to yourself, “that is all well and good but it does n’t tell me how”. My understanding as of writing this post is that when it comes to Sensemaking, there is no one right way. I’m open to being wrong and as I learn more about this discipline my interpretation of that may change. So if you have a strong grounding in Sensemaking feel free to correct me on that viewpoint. However, for now, I am going to adopt an approach I recently heard from someone whose work I highly respect and who is a strong advocate of Sensemaking (3), Harold Jarche. Harold has created his own model called Personal Knowledge Mastery and explained it as follows:
“In Personal Knowledge Mastery, there is no one way, no recipes or certifications. There is only one measure, the measure is, if it works for you.” (4)
(Note: I have no affiliation to Harold, I just happen to really like his work)
With the above in mind, I am going to experiment with the way that works for me. Or at least what I hypothesise will work for me, to begin with. But I can’t be sure until I try it. So I am going to introduce you to a concept that I have been playing around with for a while. The idea behind it is that in order to understand & gather insights about a topic, I run this topic through what is referred to in Sensemaking terminology as a “Frame” (5). Once I come out the other end, I should have achieved a better interpretation, understanding, and utility of the topic in question. However, I need to validate its effectiveness through experimentation. Luckily for you, you get to watch this process in all its glory or unbridled failure, depending on how it works. So here goes.
This is the starting point of my personalised approach to Sensemaking. Pick a topic and apply each stage of the frame to the topic.
Stage 1: Observe & Listen
“To acquire knowledge, one must study;
but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”
Marilyn vos Savant
“You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your perception…you see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
For this stage, I will provide an overview of my current understanding of the topic based on prior observations or current understanding (however I am conscious this could be influenced by my own bias). Alternatively, it may involve partaking in an immersion in an organization, business or research facility where the opportunity to learn more about the subject matter is enhanced (preferred but not always feasible). For example, if Culture was the topic in question, partaking in an immersion at an organization with a reputation for possessing a strong organisational culture may be a starting point.
Stage 2: Question
“Curiosity takes ignorance seriously, and is confident enough to admit when it does not know. It is aware of not knowing, and it sets out to do something about it”
Alain de Botton
“It is really quite impossible to be affirmative about anything which one refuses to question; one is doomed to remain inarticulate about anything which one hasn’t, by an act of the imagination, made one’s own.”
The next stage necessitates the requirement to understand the topic from a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. So this stage places a strong emphasis on formulating questions that lead to a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Stage 3: Seek
“Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”
Stage 3 is the collection of artifacts (anecdotes, narratives, research, books, video etc.) that should contribute to the answering the questions posed in Stage 2.
Stage 4: Apply
“to learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know.”
Stephen R. Covey
“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
This stage, for me at least is where it gets a little tricky. Collation of information is something I have always been pretty good at. To be honest, I have somewhat of a reputation for it. If my peers are looking for information on a topic, there is a good chance I will know what direction to point them in. But this is where the problem lies. By my own admission I probably need to shift my focus more towards a deeper understanding of the information I gather particularly on the usefulness of that information. While theories are nice to learn about if they cannot be applied, how much time should I dedicate to them? Truth be told, my gut tells me, probably not that much.
Stage 5: Reflect
“There is no future without a past, because what is to be cannot be imagined except as a form of repetition.”
“We see what we are only through reflection and thus the more our reflections occur, the less our mistakes will be!”
Mehmet Murat ildan
During this stage, the aim is to take a step back from the application process and reflect on what worked and what did not work? Why it worked and why it did not work? Here I need to conduct a critical reflection of my own application within the context in which I operate.
Stage 6: Adapt
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”
Having undertaken a critical reflection now I will focus on refining how I will apply the learning going forward. What aspects will I keep, what aspects will I discard, what aspects are useful but require modification?
Stage 7: Integrate
“Context is everything.”
“Then why do you want to know?”
“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”
Finally, in Stage 7 I determine how best to apply what I have learned in a manner that is sustainable. If I adopt a new method can I keep the old one, is there space for both or do I have to remove an existing behavior & replace it with a new one? What elements of what I have learned can be integrated into my day-to day-execution of my business & its interaction with others?
Working out Loud
As you can see, this concept has been influenced by countless sources. Many have inspired me to push my learning as far as I can take it but prior to this point, I did not commit to any systemised approach. Part of me still wonders how this will frame will pan out. What finally gave me the nudge to commit to this was a recent tweet I saw from Jane McConnell @netjmc on the importance of “Working out Loud” (6)
I really like this approach, as working out loud is a term I regularly use despite not having had any idea of where it stemmed from. So this newsletter is my process of working out loud and figuring stuff out as I go. To truly understand how important an approach like this is, consider the following. “To help effectively navigate mounting performance pressures, one of the most important things private businesses can do is shift from scalable efficiency to scalable learning” (7). Scalable Learning is most definitely an area that I shall explore in future issues. If you have not heard this term before I highly suggest you familiarize yourself with the work of both John Hagel and John Seely Brown at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge.
A couple of things are worth keeping in mind. This is not a formalized framework or mental model. I have very strong reservations about labeling this concept as such because I believe doing so would create a degree of stagnation on my part. Everything including the frame itself should be open to change and modification. My rationale for that statement is based on the following:
“All Models are wrong, some are useful”
“Never Codify Method”
Also, in the paper Making Sense of Sensemaking 2: A Macrocognitive Model, the authors state “frames change as we acquire data. In other words, this is a two-way street: frames shape and define the relevant data and data mandate that frames change in non-trivial ways”. Further on in the paper, they propose that, “Frames are by nature reductive…The commitment to a frame must be coupled with a motive to test the frame to discover when it’s inaccurate” (5).
I realise that for many people, statements such as those would seriously challenge their existing views considering how popular frameworks and mental models are. But as time goes on I suspect (in line with the findings of the authors) the frame outlined above will run through numerous iterations due to its inherent and as of yet, undiscovered limitations. The idea that I must be constrained by the frame in its current guise does not sit well with me irrespective of whether or not the authors suggested as much. In time I will expand on that perspective but for now, I will conclude this issue.
In the next issue, I will be taking the frame for a test drive. I am going to focus on the topic of collaboration and look at from a stage 1 perspective (Observe & Listen). Each subsequent issue I will look at it through the lens of each stage and hopefully advance both your and my understanding of a topic that is a major source of discussion at present.
Till next time
(1) Krishnamurti., J. (1996). Total Freedom: The Essential Krishnamurti. Harper Collins Publishers.
(2) Snowden., D. (2008). What is Sense-making? Available at: http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/what-is-sense-making/
(3) Jarche., H. (2017). Sensemaking and the power of the humanities. Available at: https://jarche.com/2017/09/sensemaking-and-the-power-of-the-humanities/
(4) Harold Jarche. (2018) Personal Knowledge Mastery. Public Lecture. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzh9u1kTQBw
(5) Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R.R. (2006b) Making Sense of Sensemaking 2: A Macrocognitive Model. IEEE Computer Society. Vol. 21, No. 5. Available at: http://xstar.ihmc.us/research/projects/EssaysOnHCC/Sensemaking.2.pdf
(6) Working out loud from the Top – Half a Century Ago –At NASA
(7) Hagel., J & de Maar., A. (2018). Key to 21st-century success: approaching performance differently. Available at: https://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/news/2018/08/06/key-to-21st-century-success-approaching.html
(1A) Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R.R. (2006a). Making Sense of Sensemaking 1: Alternative Perspectives. IEEE Computer Society. Vol. 21, No. 4. Available at: http://xstar.ihmc.us/research/projects/EssaysOnHCC/Perspectives%20on%20Sensemaking.pdf
(2A) John Stepper. “Working out Loud”: Your personal content strategy