What is sensemaking?
I’ve recently set up a consulting practice specializing in sensemaking and analytics. Most people understand the analytics bit, but many have questions about sensemaking. I got that question so many times that I decided to do a short (2.5 minute) whiteboard video explaining what the term means to me (and my definition is not the same as Wikipedia’s).
Here it is:
For those who prefer the written word, here’s the script (minus the advertising):
“Most organizations are very good at solving problems. This is no surprise: much of training, right from school to university, focuses on teaching us the skills required to solve problems. Now regardless of the specific technique used, the problem-solving process is essentially a logical or analytical one. It goes something like this:
- Gather information about the problem.
- Analyse the information.
- Formulate candidate solutions.
- Implement the solution of choice.
This so-called GAFI method works by breaking problems down into manageable parts, solving each of the parts separately and then assembling these into a solution. The method works very well for most scientific and engineering problems – even one as complicated as sending a spacecraft to Saturn. Indeed, it is so successful that it underpins all of science and modern technology.
However, there is a serious gap in the GAFI method – it assumes that problems are given, it does not tell us how to formulate problems. And as the management luminary, Russell Ackoff once said:
“Outside of school, problems are seldom given; they have to be taken, extracted from complex situations…”
The art of taking problems is what sensemaking is all about.
Unlike analytical thinking, which is purely logical, sensemaking involves such as collaboration, imagination and a healthy tolerance for ambiguity. It is an art that is absolutely essential for surviving…no, thriving, in the increasingly complex world of the 21st century.
The two modes of thinking – sensemaking and analytical – are as different as chalk and cheese but both are necessary for a successful outcome. We like to think of them as lying at opposite ends of a spectrum of thinking styles. When approaching a new situation or problem, one should always begin at the sensemaking end and move towards the analytical end as one understands the problem better. Unfortunately time pressures in corporate environments often force managers and employees into analytical mode without a full appreciation of the problem they are attempting solve. As a result the solutions are often less than optimal. Sensemaking techniques equip organisations with tools that cover the entire problem lifecycle, from definition to solution.”
As a closing remark (that might be construed as advertising…) I’ll mention that I’ve discussed a number of these techniques on Eight to Late. Here are a couple of examples: