One way to approach sensemaking

September 15, 2011

I am still writing up my thoughts on SenseMaker and sustainability that will be my last blog. And so, in the meantime, here’s another topic that is critical for utility – sensemaking.

SenseMaker is of use when the question framework is right, the stories are coming in and the sensemaking process is useful. So how does this sensemaking work? I don’t have any recipes but here is what we’ve undertaken with the Triple S water work.

1. We articulated key questions that we would like to have some input on. These questions were collectively derived, by email, from the Uganda/Ghanaian/international-focused staff and other involved staff in March-April 2011.

2. In late April, when we had collected about 200 stories in each country over a few weeks, we needed to produce material for sensemaking by water professionals in national learning workshops. We used Explorer to analyse the data for Ghana and Uganda. We used the questions mentioned in 1 above. So we looked at what combination of variables would be relevant for those questions and sought patterns that seemed interesting in terms of: is it a strong pattern, an odd pattern, an expected pattern, related to a key topic for Triple S, etc?

3. From the many possible topics that showed interesting patterns, we identified 5 topics per country that related to the key questions but were also most relevant and actionable. We made screenshots of visually salient patterns, and then exported the sub-cluster of stories for sub-sets of each pattern. This is a simple function on Explorer.

Steps 2 and 3 were undertaken in about two days by myself and 3 others at a table with lots of coffee and some sunshine, and then a very late night session. With more time and the experience we now have, this process can be more systematic. And with more stories, it starts to get more fun and salient. We created a powerpoint presentation that was used in workshops in Ghana, which introduced each of the fie themes. We also created group assignments that included: visually salient patterns, a set of questions per pattern and the actual stories that related to an interesting cluster of dots.

4. Right after (only 2 days later in the case of Ghana and after a week in Uganda), the visuals and related story clusters were discussed in learning alliance meetings. So real time insights!

In both places, between 20 – 30 water professionals at national and district met for one of the regular Learning Alliance meetings. Five sub-groups were formed, with each given a set of visuals plus the related story cluster and assignment. Participants had a couple of hours to discuss these, and then synthesis took place in plenary in order to define useful points needing action.

In one of the countries, new insights and ideas were raised, while in the other the data served to confirm participants’ views – ones that had been gut feeling but now had some grounding in evidence from the stories.

I want to highlight the value of the ‘Learning Alliances’ as a natural location for discussions, of which the story-based analysis was part but not the only evidence discussed. There is other evidence and other material that is shared and debated as part of identifying actions.

I would now change this as follows.

1. Engage water professionals themselves somehow in the initial analysis with Explorer. This will make the subsequent sensemaking ‘so what does this mean’ and ‘now what do we do’ more straightforward, as they will know more clearly what they are looking at. This interactive analysis is planned for the next Learning Alliance meeting later this year in Uganda.

2. Locate the patterns and stories in their context. So discussions need to include the question ‘What else besides our interventions can explain the findings? What else was happening: policy changes, politics (eg elections), social relationships, natural disasters, other programmes, etc?’

3. Use the stories and patterns to revisit the theory of change. What stories tell us about different parts of our theory of change? Do we need to revisit our linkages, our assumptions about change, the relevance of our interventions for want of a better word?

Well, I’m not one for short blogs. That’s pretty clear by now! But the devil is in the detail and as there is so little written on using SenseMaker, I won’t apologise for so many words yet again.


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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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