In which I introduce my year of action research on SenseMaker

August 27, 2011

The fun of guest blogs lies in their diversity. I’ve really enjoyed Tom’s philosophical reflections. In contrast, my blogs emanate from being neck high in SenseMaker so expect some practical ramblings. With six projects scattered around the globe, at various gestational stages, that is where my mind and time is currently focused. I’m living Tom’s quote: ‘we must feel it for it to become real.” 2011 has become my year of action research on the capabilities of SenseMaker for real-time evaluative practice in international development. I want to use my blogs to make some headway with this.

Let me start with a wee foray into my journey towards SenseMaker as it might shed light on my particular questions and projects.

At the end of 2007, I was dotting the i’s on my PhD on monitoring in ‘messy partnerships’. I had called it ‘Seeking Surprise’, so was delighted to encounter Kurtz and Snowden’s by now much quoted article that then led me to the Cynefin heuristic. The notion of diverse domains helped shed light on my thesis question, namely ‘why the hell the standardized processes of monitoring and evaluation, so ubiquitous in international development, that assumed predictable and linear change processes were so hopelessly ineffective’. As a self-employed person on maternity leave, I then made a for me hefty investment in a Cognitive Edge course. The SenseMaker day was both exciting and woefully inadequate to satisfy my curiosity. I decided it was time for a ‘real project’. That took the better part of a year to organise and, in 2009, I finally managed to link an interested organisation to funding. The work done since then with GlobalGiving (led by the dynamic Marc Maxson who blogged here earlier this summer) led to more interest by other organizations. I’ve now got applications, mainly in Eastern Africa, on water services, girls’ empowerment, community development, agriculture and human rights.

I’m much clearer these days on how to go about generating a signification framework, the ins and outs of story collection modalities in rural Africa, and how to actually put the 100s/1000s of stories to work with people and organizations. Next week I hope to finalise a short guide on SenseMaker for evaluation in development, a 1.0 version that will be updated regularly as the six processes proceed.

But in the process, I’m feeling the need to return to the core principles that gave rise to SenseMaker. The danger lurks of sinking into a standardised Sensemaker method quagmire. Conceptual clarity can balance the ‘wow, what a neat tool’ tendency and avoid overselling it. Plus my action research project is asking for a few answers. So more on that over the next few days.

Time now to sleep after a week with birthday parties for our four year old and our six year old, plus celebrating that of my much-more-year old husband … a week during which I noticed yet again that my husband’s disposition thrives on the complex, nay, chaotic, while mine gets uneasy as the boundaries of the ‘complicated’ are tested. Guess who relaxed more during the kid’s parties??

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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As I mentioned, 2011 is my year of action research on SenseMaker. I’ve got six ...

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