Using SenseMaker®: Proven Research Ethnography Case Studies

July 7, 2022

Catholic Relief Services [CRS] started piloting SenseMaker® in 2015, and has a wealth of knowledge, experience, and implementation advice that they will be sharing with us. They have travelled the world and worked with people most in need. The journey has not always been easy, but, in the words of Dr Maria Veronica Gottret, Senior Technical Advisor for Agriculture and Agriculture Livelihoods Research/Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning [MEAL] at CRS:

When we first piloted SenseMaker® in Nicaragua, suddenly we could map the pathways, and then we started digging into the experiences of why some farming families in the same country, the same region, under the same policies, with the same projects, were able to progress, while others didn’t. The stories were so rich, and its self-signification provided additional layers of information that enabled us to respond to this question and more, that is when I fell in love with SenseMaker.”

CRS is a non-profit that uses a holistic approach called integral human development – a long-term, dynamic process that facilitates collaboration across civil society and the public and private sectors through programmes around emergency response and recovery, health, agriculture, water security, education, microfinance, justice and peacebuilding, and partnership and capacity strengthening. They support hundreds of projects in more than a hundred countries around the world, using tailored, context-dependent approaches. Headquartered in the United States, CRS also has multiple offices in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Maria Veronica has a background in agriculture, food and resource economics, and development and has over 30 years of experience in the field. I had the privilege of connecting with her and learning more about the work of CRS and their vast experience of using SenseMaker.

Why complexity?

“Development has to be human centred.”

Within the work of CRS, everything is complex. Even the more straightforward interventions such as seed distribution or cash transfers may result in different outcomes as they depend on a range of factors such as supply chains, farming systems, gender, location, and climate, among others. CRS recognises the importance of honouring that complexity in their implementation and monitoring work. They place people at the centre of systems and structures, noting that food production, technology, economics, and public policy can’t get anywhere without the people involved.

Projects and experience

“There’s so much research and knowledge in research centres and universities, but there’s very little that really gets into development and makes a difference.”

CRS works all over the world. Maria Veronica told me about projects across Central America, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 they started using SenseMaker as part of their MEAL strategy. Some early experience includes using SenseMaker to map pathways to prosperity in Nicaragua and linking to markets in Colombia, to hear the stories of people’s resilience to multiple shocks and stressors in Central America, East Africa, DRC, and Southeast Asia, and evaluating the experiences of Colombian refugees and Venezuelan migrants that had gone to Ecuador.

“The capacity to reflect through the narratives, making sense of them.”

Other experiences include formative research to refine the gender equity and equality promotion strategy for a large food security project in Niger. The assessment of the performance of a community conversations approach implemented in Ethiopia to promote behaviour change. Assessing and monitoring extension agents, field agents and farmers’ competencies for the adaptive management of capacity building activities in Malawi, Central America, and Ethiopia. Formative research on nutrition-sensitive agriculture in Guatemala. And many others.

Check out this fantastic video of ethnographic research and SenseMaker® in action:

The why and how of SenseMaker® 

“The other thing is that people enjoy it. We worked with Rita Muckenhirn, an expert in adult education and facilitation, and with her, we innovated in the way that the interviews are conducted. Since a key feature of SenseMaker are the visualization tools, we didn’t just use the tablet, we actually drew these visuals on the ground using ropes, so people physically moved through the signifiers. They had to move their bodies. We started to create protocols where people who are illiterate or with low levels of formal education are able to answer it…And we were getting super accurate data…and we found that while people are standing and selecting their responses, they are adding more to their stories. This has helped with literacy barriers and also allows people to quite literally become the centre of their own story.”

I asked Maria Veronica why CRS uses SenseMaker. In her experience she finds that SenseMaker and sense-making gives people a voice. Rather than asking closed questions or filling out a long survey, people are able to share their experiences. And for many people Veronica has worked with, it’s the first time they have been able to express themselves in a way that is important to them. SenseMaker has the potential to raise awareness and empower respondents. Many have even learnt more about themselves and felt empowered while selecting, sharing, and making sense of their experiences.

“In the final evaluation of the program in Ecuador we asked respondents exit questions after the interviews, which made us realize that respondents appreciated and enjoyed the process of responding. It helped them, they said, to reflect on their lived experience in a different way. Some of them even cried. And they said ‘this is the first time in my life I’m talking about what happened to me in this way. I never had an opportunity to talk about it. Even talking in this way that is not extractive, its sharing my experience’. This shows us that the evaluation method matters.”

Standard monitoring, evaluation, and learning tools haven’t been able to generate the types of conversations that SenseMaker and story-telling has.

“For implementers, even though they are constantly in the field conducting the different project activities, while reading narratives they were like ‘wow, we didn’t know those things about the people we serve’.”

Advice for others

“My mantra became, probe, make sense, adapt.”

Veronica advises that those interested in SenseMaker start by reading the guidance on offer and reports from case studies. Then, importantly, to talk to other practitioners about their experiences as on-the-ground implementation can be very different to the theory.

She highlights that you should not shy away from using active exercises that help people understand complexity theory in an easy way and that it’s important to adapt sense-making to the audience. She also advises that you prepare well. Sense-making is not something that follows a typical work plan (design, field test, do it) but rather requires taking the time to learn, get buy-in, adapt, and innovate.

Learning from CRS

CRS has a webpage with a wealth of resources, case studies, reports, videos, and podcasts about their experiences of implementing SenseMaker around the world. Follow this link to check it out.

Following the release of the much anticipated book: ‘The Learning Power of Listening: A Practical Guide for Using SenseMaker®’ released by Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services (available here), The Cynefin Co will launch an aligned training course to complement the how-to guide. The goal is to help development centre workers and agencies apply much-needed, complexity-informed approaches to their work.

If you would like to contact Maria Veronica directly, please find her on LinkedIn or email her at

Contact us at Cynefin Co if you would like to access SenseMaker® or would like to hear about other training and consultation deals on offer.

Banner image by Vonecia Carswell on Top image by Practical Action Publishing

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About the Cynefin Company

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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