SenseMaker® and 7 ± 2

February 1, 2016

It’s reasonably well known that retaining more than 5 different things in your memory is difficult. This is known as Millar’s Law. We often explain this with some humour during training referring to why when given directions most people find it difficult to remember past 5 instructions.  The concept here is that the number of objects an average human can hold in their working memory is 7 ± 2.

Now this has a couple implications when you think about signifiers and SenseMaker®. I believe that one reason that triads work well as signifiers is that they work within this cognitive sweet spot very effectively. Take for example below a triad we have used on safety as well as other projects:



Now think about what we are asking the SenseMaker® respondent to hold in their cognitive awareness as they think about their response: 1) their story or micro-narrative, 2) pressure in the context of the specific situation they shared 3) from co-workers, 4) from supervisors or managers, and 5) self-imposed. So the total number of dimensions is within the bounds of short term memory. Dyads hold this as well as they keep to 4 so they are a little easier.  Each response to a stones question can be 4 or 5 depending on the nature of the lead-in or preamble text.

Now as a respondent goes through the process of signifying their entry (experience, observation, hypothetical or micro-scenario) think about what’s happening as they step through each question. Their awareness or cognitive focus moves from signifier to signifier with their natural short-term memory forming a light awareness boundary between signifiers. It’s almost like their awareness is bracketed and moving from question to question.  The images below provide a visual sense of this sliding window as a respondent works through a single SenseMaker® response.





Another way to think about this is that the perspective each signifier frames or orients a respondent to consider stays within the cognitive awareness limit. Hence it works effectively as a single filter. The next signifier a respondent needs to process introduces a new filter. So in this way as each signifier response is added the prior response is more likely not to be considered or influenced.

Abduction and exaptation is therefore aided by making connections to meaning that is arrived at emergently rather than cognitively rationalized in real-time with strong cognitive bias.


Header photo: 

By Wei-Chung Allen Lee, Hayden Huang, Guoping Feng, Joshua R. Sanes, Emery N. Brown, Peter T. So, Elly Nedivi – Dynamic Remodeling of Dendritic Arbors in GABAergic Interneurons of Adult Visual Cortex. Lee WCA, Huang H, Feng G, Sanes JR, Brown EN, et al. PLoS Biology Vol. 4, No. 2, e29. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040029, Figure 6f, slightly altered (plus scalebar, minus letter “f”.), CC BY 2.5


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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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