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"The State of Sensemaking"

Not Exactly :-)

Happy end of summer readers. This was recently published on the Humantific blog and on LinkedIn...We are sharing/reposting here for our SenseMakers Alliance readers.

This week we are reflecting on the evolving and increasingly bumpy subject of sensemaking. With so many folks jumping into the topic of sensemaking today there is inevitably going to be added complexity arriving around this subject. In this context there are bound to be hit and miss publications, some of which clarify, while others tend to muddy the waters, confusing readers. Some expand, while others compress what the subject already is. Some take the subject off into the weeds. It is sometimes a little startling to see newly arriving folks jump directly into instant expert publishing, but so be it in a wild-west self-publishing marketplace.

With presumed good intentions, we noticed the folks over at Rebel Wisdom have jumped into the community conversation around sensemaking and have recently, published a new pod-cast series ambitiously entitled: “The State of Sensemaking”. Contained within are numerous interesting thoughts, many deeply buried, and certainly a few head spinners.

Happy, in this limited format to offer up to our long standing, innovation leadership oriented Humantific readers just a few clarifications:

1. All things considered, and to be fair to readers, what gets presented in the Rebel Wisdom series is more like the state of awareness of the subject that presently exists over at Rebel Wisdom and less like the actual current “State of Sensemaking”. Evidently Rebel Wisdom has come to like the subject so much they have repositioned their strategy around it! For sure, sensemaking remains a compelling subject for many.


2. The Rebel Wisdom series unfortunately misses the messy reality that the history of the subject today has multiple root streams, only one of which appears in the forshortened/partial picture explanation provided. The explanation seen in the series confusingly positioned as holistic, focuses on what we know as the Weick/Dervin historical root stream. Completely abscent was mention of the Neurath/Wurman* root stream that is evidently outside the expertise of the guest doing the historical explaining. :-) In large measure the Neurath/Wurman* historical stream preceded the Weick/Dervin stream. The truncated historical perspective seen in the Rebel Wisdom series presents a picture, self-serving to the guest explainer, but misleading to readers arriving into the subject. Guessing that hiccup was not intentional on the part of Rebel Wisdom. Much of what is seen in real world practice today, such as the data-driven, societal sensemaking journalism of the Measure of America series, has its roots in the Neurath/Wurman* stream, much more so than the Weick/Dervin stream. Neither historical root stream fully explains what sensemaking practice is and currently does today. Clearly there are some folks practicing, what is being depicted as sensemaking without any historical knowledge of, orientation to, or expertise related to the Neurath/Wurman* stream. None of that was mentioned in the Rebel Wisdom series.


3. The Rebel Wisdom series fundamentally missed conveying the messy reality regarding purpose, and current use of sensemaking, instead presenting another foreshortened/truncated explanation, not questioned or clarified by the moderator. This was particularly odd since the described focus was current state. The purpose that gets depicted reflects the explaining guest’s personal background and practice orientation being positioned as current state. In the sensemaking practice community it has been known for more than a decade that supporting and informing convergent thinking (decision-making) is only one dimension of what sensemaking is and does today. Any savvy innovation leader would be well aware that changemaking involves both generative/divergent and narrowing/convergent thinking, in equal measure, in equal value. Positioning convergent thinking as the highest form of value comes from traditional management circles and has little to do with organizations gearing up today to meet the challenges presented by ever-changing VUCA. One might point out that it makes little sense to be depicting an arriving set of challenges in the future of work, juxtaposed with a traditional (business school) management paradym. Presenting that truncated, tilted picture as holistic, under the banner of current state, served only to add further confusion to an already confused subject. An opportunity was missed by Rebel Wisdom to clearly point out to viewers that there is more to the use of sensemaking than supporting/informing convergent thinking. While one of the moderators refers in his own dialogue to the subject of “cognitive bias” there was no recognition that the use truncation represented exactly such bias. The fact is, it’s been known for some decades that it’s not possible to get to inclusive culture building in organizations by continuing to privilege convergent thinking and convergent thinkers. The cultural implications of that bias were completely abscent from the Rebel Wisdom conversation. We noted that one of the Rebel Wisdom moderators states at one point: “We are still living in ideas that are wrong and should be buried a long time ago”. With that we would agree and this particular unacknowledged cognitive bias is among those old ideas.


4. Current state is tricky business. For the innovation leaders operating in real world complex organizations that we know and work with “The State of Sensemaking” does not have anything to do with “energy gradients”, “a thing called the triple point”, “a balance between pressure and temperature”, “solid, liquid, gas”, “3 plus 1”, “driving on the left”, “hotplates”, “liminality”, or “magnets”. No organizational leader we know, working on organizational adaptability talks in, or would have much appetite for such lengthy theoretical riddles. That is not “The State of Sensemaking” in the real world as much as it is one philosophical, theoretical take on the subject as if the audience is intended to be fellow philosophers. Suffice it to say there is no general agreement in the practice community regarding that particular take on the dual subjects of sensemaking intertwined with complexity. The noise to signal ratio tends to be very high in philosophy exposés, not so much in real world practice. A central dimension of the Neurath/Wurman* root stream is to deliberately, by design, move away from the impenetrable language often found in science and various academic circles and towards a closer relationship with real world society…to speak the same language, with the help of thoughtful visualizations. (This differs significantly from the Karl Weick perspective.) This part of the sensemaking humanization underway was completely missed by the moderator in the Rebel Wisdom series. What happens when the subject of complexity theory meets the Neurath/Wurman* root stream is a community collective work in progress. Part of current state truth is that organizational leaders do not have to become philosophers in order to engage in sensemaking oriented complexity navigation. Missed in the Rebel Wisdom dialogue was that on the other side of theory ruminations, there are practical “applied” things that leaders can learn and do right now to advance their sensemaking and changemaking capacities.


5. Many who are entering the subject using the terminology sensemaking are talking about it as an important skill that everyone has, to varying degrees and one that collectively we need to sharpen in the context of rising complexity and the ongoing data and information tsunami. Oriented towards the ethics, responsibilities and opportunities of "alternative media" where the Rebel Wisdom moderators seem to be landing in their series is within that overloaded universe but interpreting sensemaking as collective truth-telling, truth deciphering which in itself is a bit of a side-stepping alteration. Telling the truth, the policing of truth-telling and making something understandable to cognitively diverse audiences are 3 different things. Let’s not get them confused. While inside the visual sensemaking community there has been a long standing concern, ongoing debate, regarding accuracy of information visualizations, let’s understand that the general policing of truth-telling is not the central tenant of current state sensemaking. That noble pursuit, of significant interest to various media platforms, does not supercede what visual sensemaking already is. What is central to visual sensemaking is to deliberately move conversations, communications beyond just talking, beyond just throwing words around, jargon around, in recognition of diverse information processing orientations among viewers. (This differs significantly from the Karl Weick perspective.) Truth-telling is one consideration within the subject of sensemaking…not the entirety of the subject. To engage in sensemaking without this knowledge present is to slow processing and endure a lot of time consuming wheels spinning without much actual uptake. In many organizations that wheel spinning is often the current state that they seek to improve upon in order to move more rapidly and remain competitive. Aiding and accelerating that processing and uptake in the context of high complexity is the central purpose of visual sensemaking. Certainly in the shifting sands of the post Trump bull-shit spin era and the danergerous covid related misinformation era, the role of so-called truth-telling or truth-deciphering is surely an important subject. Pasteing that subject, that activity unto the terminology of sensemaking might not be the best thing to be doing.


6. Last but not least our Humantific readers will already know that while sensemaking continues to grow in importance, it is recognized to be not enough by itself to deliver changemaking. Making complex situations and subjects more understandable does not ensure that change will automatically occur. Sensemaking is not equivelent to changemaking but rather provides the fuel. This seemed to be less than clear in the enthusiastic Rebel Wisdom series. While we want to embrace the diverse rich history of sensemaking, as well as its evolution beyond just data and information visualization, we want to be honest about its known limitations. Let’s not be equating truth-telling, truth-deciphering or sensemaking with advanced problem solving. (This subject connects to other root streams of knowledge but that is a story for another day.) Telling each other stories, expressing strong views on subjects, even visualizing, analyzing complex data for corporate or public consumption is not in itself changemaking. Analysis is not changemaking. We already know that other mechanisms, other skills and tools need to be present in order for participants to drive change in complex contexts. We would have liked to have seen the Rebel Wisdom series, so interested in current state, clearly delivering this very real aspect of “The State of Sensemaking” that is already known. Building capacity for continuous sensemaking is very important but is not going to be enough to drive and deliver change in organizations and in societies. In closing, I will mention quickly that I could not help but notice the irony within the Rebel Wisdom series describing an earnest need for a "higher form of collective sensemaking" (presumably beyond just talking) while not being aware of the norms and the knowledge of a significant part of the sensemaking community that already exists and is already actively engaged in organizational and societal visual sensemaking. Whether we all like it or not this awareness gap is also part of the current "State of Sensemaking".

I could spend all day on this but I think these few pointers will best serve our innovation leadership oriented Humantific readers.

Welcome to Rebel Wisdom and good luck to all interested in this sensemaking subject. Big thanks to all those historical figures whose shoulders we all stand on.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series focused on Rebel Wisdoms' “Making Sense of Sensemaking”.

*NOTE: Societal visual sensemaking has a very long history. We use the term Neurath/Wurman root stream as a recognizable short form to denote the deep historical roots that connect from Joseph Priestly (1773-1804), William Playfair (1759-1823), Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870), Willard C. Brinton (1880-1957), and others to Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Richard Wurman, Jacques Bertin (1918-2010), Edward Tufte and many others. That history is a giant subject unto itself. Scholars of this subject would certainly point out that visual sensemaking preceded the arrival of Priestly in the 1700s. Large scale, complex societal sensemaking visualizations, created for public consumption, was the specialty of the still influential Isotype Institute led by Otto Neurath, Gerd Arntz and Marie Neurath in the 1940s. This is an evolving expertise that has operated under numerous evolving banners as its applications grew in scope from visualizing data to visualizing all kinds of complex phenomenon. This form of visual sensemaking often precedes changemaking or as Richard Wurman has stated: “Understanding Precedes Action.” It is an inclusive exercise taking into consideration differences in human cognitive processing. It is among the most significant root streams in play in real world sensemaking practices today. Ignore this root stream and it is unlikely that you would be doing much general audience sensemaking.

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