Sensemaking 101: tips for improving your sensemaking in a time of confusion

Notes from the field of sensemaking and tips on how you and your team can improve yours

My work at The National Lottery Community Fund and beyond involves hosting people in sensemaking processes. Good sensemaking is important for any group or team who are trying to make sense of the world and orient their work and position in it. It can help uncover new insights and surface learning that otherwise would not have become visible or possible to work with.

On top of that, we are currently living through an era of civil society that is defined by its polarisation and dividedness. It is a time of narrative warfare, with different groups and interests competing for the narrative, and it can be difficult to make sense of what is real news, what is ‘fake news’, what is a constructed narrative with a specific purpose in mind, and what is a ‘counter-narrative’ aimed at neutralising a dominant narrative. The information and media ecology we exist in is unhealthy, polluted, and some would go as far as to say broken.

I’m seeing a lot of incomplete sensemaking happening, and increasing, in the world. Some ways I’ve found can help in the process: diversify your sources and the textures of information you take into consideration. Imagine what someone who has the sort of blindspots you may have might think. Are you rich? Comfortable? Betrayed by the system?

Are you young or old, what colour is your skin, what political system were you brought up in, what political situation do you find yourself in now? What seems fair or unfair to you? What are your expectations on what other people should say or do for you? What incentives do you have that others may not have? What privileges, or connections, do you have that others may not have?

Imagine the possible blindspots of the person you are receiving information from. But imagine also the contortions they may be in.

Here are some sensemaking prompts I like to go through when evaluating new information, ideas, data. I don’t use it as a checklist point by point, but a kind of heuristic for turning something around in my hand as I examine it.

Consider for the person who is giving you information:

// Information that is missing

Could they have gaps in understanding and capacity?

  • What are their unconscious blindspots?
  • What information might they be missing, or may have ignored?
  • What kind of information or quality or texture might they not be finely tuned to picking up? What is missing?
  • What is their area of expertise? Is it up to date?
  • How is this person’s health and well-being? Is this person under a lot of stress? How much does this person have on their plate? What is the compassion needed to realise that this person might not be fully present or have capacity to bring their full sensemaking capabilities?

Could there be information that is being purposefully withheld?

  • What might this person or organisation be withholding on purpose? Where might their hands be tied?
  • What might this person find it uncomfortable to talk about?
  • What might this person not see as important to mention?
  • What might this person be legally bound from speaking about something? Or what might jeopardise this person’s career, or housing, or financial flow?
  • What are the relational ties this person may be tending?

Could their dataset be incomplete?

  • Where could there be information missing from the data set?
  • E.g. numbers of people with symptoms — will everyone with symptoms self-report? Do people know what accurate symptoms are?

// The information itself

What incentives are guiding this person?

  • What are they pulled to present as truth, and incentivised to share as information?
  • Why might it be helpful to them for you to listen, or even change your mind? Are there elements of persuasion present?
  • What forms of identity or self-worth might be tied up into the information being presented?

Could there be gaps in understanding and capacity?

  • How could this information be wrong?
  • What are the sources this person has got their information from?
  • What is their area of expertise? Is it up to date?

Could there be timelags leaving this information out of date?

  • What are the possible sources of timelag that could contribute to misinformation?
  • Could this person’s expertise in the field be out of date?

// Your own blindspots a.k.a. receiving the information

What information may you not be hearing / receiving?

  • What are your unconscious blindspots?
  • What might you be filtering out?
  • Did the system work for you? Could this be blinding you to how the system isn’t working?
  • Did the system not work for you? Could this be blinding you to how the system is working?
  • What did you grow up believing was true, or what was it like to be you as a child? How is that colouring how you see the behaviours and actions of others?
  • What subtle cues may be important here? What are the non-verbal communications you could factor in?
  • Where is empathy required to understand the information more richly? Where are you being blocked from a potential lack of empathy?

What else?

If you are interested in diving deeper into a full rundown of sensemaking capabilities and ways to increase your skill and capacity in this area, please reach out. If you or your team would like to go through a sensemaking workshop or training, please also reach out. It is impossible to do high quality decision making, strategy and even democracy without the capability to engage in accurate and clear sensemaking. As our sources of news become less trustworthy and the info ecology gets polluted, nurturing these skills and growing this capacity becomes more important.

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Phoebe Tickell — Narratives, complexity, systems. Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.

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Phoebe Tickell

Phoebe Tickell

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.

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