Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

What is sensemaking?

with 19 comments

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:

The Approach: a dialogue mapping story

The dilemmas of enterprise IT

…and, of course, you can always have a look at my book or ping me for a no-obligation chat to find out more 🙂

Written by K

March 15, 2016 at 6:02 pm

19 Responses

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  1. Great post. Here’s some background on Sense Making in defense acquistion

    Click to access ARJ48_Paparone.pdf



    March 15, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    • Hi Glen,

      Thanks for reading, and for the very interesting paper.





      March 16, 2016 at 8:54 am

  2. […] Kailash Awati defines sensemaking, in the context of identifying the problem to be solved in the presented situation. […]


  3. I don’t have any objection to your use of the term *sensemaking*, but given the multiple ways that term is defined (as shown, for example, in the Wikipedia article on sensemaking) I wonder if *problem structuring* would be a better term for what you are trying to describe using the term *sensemaking*. What I took away from the chapter on problem structuring methods (PSMs) in your book *The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices* is that you are promoting a more global understanding of problem structuring in general that is not wedded to any particular PSM.

    Here are a couple of relevant quotes from your book: “All the solutions [to deal with wicked problems] are in essence problem structuring methods (PSMs).” And the “combination of governance, problem structuring (and with it, facilitation, shared display and shared notation) helped establish the conditions for rational discourse in the sense of Habermas.”

    The term *problem structuring* seems to communicate intuitively (at least to me) what you are trying to say in a way that *sensemaking* does not. It’s not that the term *sensemaking* doesn’t make any sense; it’s just that it doesn’t communicate your idea as precisely as the term *problem structuring* does. First you *problem structure* with dialogue mapping, PSMs, etc. and then you *problem solve* with analytics, etc.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 22, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    • Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for viewing and for taking the time to comment. You’re absolutely right, a large part of sensemaking – perhaps the most important part – is about problem structuring. The problem with the term (as I’ve found from experience) is that people find it hard to understand because it is unfamiliar. This is why I decided to use the term problem formulation instead: it gets the point across easily, without compromising the meaning. Put another way, one could argue that much of the actual work of problem formulation is about structuring, regardless of the specific technique used. In this sense, structuring is a subset of formulation…but it’s quite possible that I’m splitting semantic hairs here 🙂

      Thanks again for the great comment!





      March 22, 2016 at 8:42 pm

      • Thanks for your response! I agree that problem formulation is an equivalent or nearly equivalent term that is likely to be more familiar to most people than problem structuring. I will also point out that the term problem formulation parallels the term case formulation, also known as clinical formulation, which is a widely used term for problem structuring in the clinical realm.

        Liked by 1 person


        March 22, 2016 at 8:54 pm

  4. I’m glad you quoted Ackoff; problem solving is the easy bit; finding the problem in the first place is hard.



    May 13, 2016 at 4:30 pm

  5. Kailash, if I can be so blunt, I’d say your post is exactly perpendicular to the truth. I agree that there is a difference between analytical thinking and what I’ll loosely call open thinking (in your terms, “collaboration, imagination and a healthy tolerance for ambiguity.”). The problem is that these don’t align with the sense-making versus GAFI-process distinction. Good sensemaking involves analytical thinking as much as it involves, say, imagination; and good analytical thinking involves collaboration, imagination etc. as it does structure and logic. In my own experience, and in work with clients, sensemaking involves bringing some kind of order into the understanding of the situation, and analytical thinking often involves being highly creative (e.g. coming up with good alternative hypotheses).


    Tim van Gelder

    May 18, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    • Tim, I agree with your statement that “sensemaking involves bringing some kind of order into the understanding of the situation, and analytical thinking often involves being highly creative”, which is why I suggested in my earlier comment that what Kailash is trying to describe using the word sensemaking could be captured better with the phrase problem structuring or problem formulation (as contrasted with problem solving) with both referring to general phases of a process (call it a decision cycle and/or a learning cycle) and not referring so much to distinct cognitive styles such as creative and analytical, which can be used in any phase of the process.

      There are at least two different issues in Kailash’s post that need to be separated: what he calls modes of thinking and what he calls problem lifecycle. The former does not correspond to the latter in a one-to-one manner. And even distinct modes of thinking and phases of a problem lifecycle may not always be so easily distinguished! That is why there are so many different problem-structuring methods and problem-solving methods.



      May 18, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    • Hi Tim,

      Good to hear from you! Many thanks for taking the time to read/view the post and for your comment. My apologies for the delay in responding.

      As I see it, sensemaking – the act of giving meaning to experience – is largely about framing situations in productive ways. In essence this often boils down to finding the “right” questions or hypotheses about what is going on. In my experience, this rarely come from following a purely analytical or deductive process like the GAFI method. The following quote from Einstein is, I think, apposite here:

      “Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world. He then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it — .He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience — .The supreme task — is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them”

      Based on your comment, I think we agree that the framing of a hypothesis is essentially a creative activity that involves things like imagination, collaboration etc. – elements you’ve termed “open thinking”. In my view, however, these complement analytical work but fall under the banner of sensemaking rather than analysis as they generally do not follow an deductive or logical process. That said, I can see how there could be different views on this.

      On a broader note, in sensemking situations people will bring to bear their individual identities and memories as well as collective ones as members / representatives of professional or interest groups. This determines what in the situation is salient and to whom, which in turn determines the points that people or groups may raise as being important to them. IMO, the term analysis does not fully convey these and other socially influenced aspects of problem formulation.

      I hope this helps clarify my position. Thanks again for taking the time to read/view and comment.



      PS: I’m back in Oz, it would be good to catch up when you have some time.

      Liked by 1 person


      May 31, 2016 at 6:57 am

  6. […] art of taking problems is what sensemaking is all […]


  7. […] to help the group reach a shared understanding of the problem.  This is essentially an exercise in sensemaking, the art of collaborative problem formulation. However, this is far from straightforward because […]


  8. […] suggests that SenseMaking is more about connecting the dots from a whole range of different sources and coming up with a […]


  9. […] making techniques that are taught in colleges and business schools.  Analysis is replaced by sensemaking – a collaborative process that harnesses the wisdom of a group to arrive at a collective […]


  10. […] an earlier piece, I described sensemaking as the art of collaborative problem formulation. There are a huge variety of sensemaking […]


  11. […] than just picking up technical skills. The biggest missing piece (in my opinion) is the ability to make sense of ambiguous situations. This is a tacit skill that is difficult, if not impossible, to teach but can be learnt given the […]


  12. […] of building a shared understanding is essentially an act of collaborative problem formulation or sensemaking. It is, in other words, the creation of a common […]


  13. […] that happened at work. It relates to what you talked about in last week’s class – using sensemaking techniques to help surface and resolve diverse perspectives on wicked […]


  14. […] prior to using rational decision making approaches to address it. This is the domain of sensemaking, which I like to think of as the art of extracting or framing a problem from a messy […]


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