Making Sense of Sensemaking — Understanding the Emergence of Second Tier Design Methodologies from an Empathetic Evolutionary Framework


Son Conor on the banks of the Columbia River, Revelstoke, BC, Canada, New Year’s Day, 2017

One of the more interesting movements that has been emergent in the management sciences has been termed ‘sensemaking’ (spelled a variety of different ways.)  The larger idea behind sensemaking is, in essence, a combination of direct observation of a phenomena,  and reflective practice that forces one to confront one’s perceptions about a given situation/business case and ask yourself if you should believe what you think.  That places whatever version one uses reaching for  Second Tier thinking in Spiral Dynamics, with all the incumbent permutations across our Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  How ‘Second Tier’ it is dependent on the ratio of observation, assumption of objectivity (no one ever is,) and reflection.

Someone engaged in sensemaking is questioning, at some level, their relationship with the information they have coming into their head through their standard mental models, and working to see if it’s true.  Casting things through the reliability/validity lens, sensemaking is a profound attempt at improving the validity of our observations, and then applying those new perspectives to better design solutions.  It recognizes implicitly that data and data driven methods alone are really only good in what we’ve characterized as algorithmic design.  That’s dominated by the meta-linear lower v-Memes, and that over longer periods, they don’t do such a great job with extrapolation — especially in changing environments.  If system behavior suddenly changes, if there’s a jump discontinuity, or even a bifurcation in behavior, the standard data analytics really start failing.

And you’re likely to need a new paradigm for your product or service.  Which means you’ve got to dump in heuristic information.  And heuristic information — ‘rules of thumb’, as well as variations dependent on differentiation between individuals and preferences of sub-classes inside a larger system — in a data-driven environment, are just going to get mushed up.  Here’s an easy to understand it:  If you have a bimodal distribution, the average will be in the middle.  Not very useful.  You’ve got to go out and talk to the folks in the two humps.

Our model of Empathetic Evolution tells us also that sensemaking clearly places itself with much higher potential on the metacognition scale.  Snowden’s work with his Cynefin model is a great exemplar of this (and deserving of its own post.) Through a structured process, varying with practitioners, it forces us to ask about the context of the data fragments we know, and how we know or perceive it, as well as knowing what we don’t know, and finally, being aware of unknowns that are still out there.  By driving the construction of narratives, it forces the construction of connected knowledge through the inherent context of story.  You can’t just blurt out a bunch of facts and write them down.  The larger story has to make sense.

Two notable practitioners in the space are David Snowden and the Red Associates , headed up by Christian Madsbjerg and Mikel Rasmussen, who have written a book on the generalized approach, called The Moment of Clarity.  Since this is not an academic article, I’m not going to delve through the past literature by originators. The two discussions above will take you there!

And since I just finished Madsbjerg’s and Rasmussen’s (M&R) book, I’ll talk about sense making from their perspective.  Sensemaking is a directed effort to integrate the human sciences into business decision making, through use of a variety of tools commonly used in fields like anthropology and ethnography.  Awesome! Their recommendation is that you go out and find yourself an ethnographer if you want people to understand how people actively use their products.

This is a big insight.  The way they explain it, which is perfectly reasonable, is the context of information collection matters.  Someone filling out a survey, or participating in a focus group inside a room, may very well give a different answer from the actual, executed action.  Economists have terms for this, that can be summed up with this simple maxim: stated preference may be different from elected preference.  M&R state that the solution is to get someone involved who is trained in ‘objective’ evaluation, like an anthropologist or ethnographer — essentially someone else from a Legalistic/Absolutistic Hierarchy — with a new set of algorithms geared toward constructing larger narratives, and put them to work on a project.  The Moment of Clarity that they refer to is the epiphany that comes when you combine the more typical, MBA data-driven world, with actual observation of customers in their native environment, as well as understanding a much-enlarged timescale of association.  New narratives are constructed that allow deeper understanding of a given business situation.  Plus, that deeper connection with business purpose, not surprisingly, moves a company to deeper connection with other purposes outside considering just the bottom line.

M&R draw on many recent philosophers, most notably Heidegger and Foucault, and spend quite a bit of time talking about Heidegger’s definition of ‘care’ — which really can be broken down into two parts — what I call ‘meaning’ and ‘responsibility’.  If you want to move forward, you have to be seeking meaning for yourself.  As we’ve discussed in the past, this flows from self-empathy — connection with yourself.  And in the process of this, you will feel more responsibility for the outcome. And responsibility is directly related to the level of connection that you have with both the people and environment around you.  The case studies are good as well — these guys are professionals, and their list of successes with companies like Lego, Intel and Adidas, all ring true.

Their topically-driven, superficial argument is this: if you add some new people, with different skill sets, tools and algorithms, you now have a much better chance of coming up with an improved outcome on figuring out what your guiding principles ought to be.  And this all makes sense for those of us buried deep in our own professional hierarchies.  If we would just add one more branch to the tree, we’d get at the truth.  And it will come in a flash — a Moment of Clarity.

This gets in deeply to what I call the ‘Intellectual Flatland’ problem.  One of the primary characteristics of our Theory of Empathetic Evolution is that higher truths avail themselves as one moves up a scaffolded empathetic framework.  Anyone willing to do the work can get there.  Scaffolding matters — you can’t build complex, larger knowledge structures without all those knowledge structures below them.  So it’s not like that degree in Anthropology will do you no good.  It’s just not the whole answer.

But when you place the author’s argument for adding folks with more titles, they’re really missing their empathetic secret sauce.  What the authors are arguing for is still, essentially a 2-D knowledge space.  On that plane of knowledge, you have facts and figures.  You have spreadsheets.  You have consumer testimonials and past projects, both successful and not.  You get to take little hops off of Intellectual Flatland to connect various dots.  And every now and again, in a flash, a Guiding Principle drops out, and seizes its own piece of real estate.

What about empathy in this definition of sensemaking?  New, larger understandings don’t come as an immediate result of generating self knowledge and larger empathy.  Empathy assumes another spot on Flatland, perhaps with some empathy training, or empathy circles.  The authors do pull out the work of some of the Heavy Hitters like Foucault or Heidegger who essentially challenged the older boundaries of those disciplinary countries on Flatland, and drew bigger circles around different aggregations of island countries.   You might get to move some of the islands around, of course, and develop different circumnavigations.  But connection and empathy, which are really the relational path to higher validity, are not highlighted.  And of course, having this perspective regarding sensemaking has to come out of the social structure of the company creating the knowledge.  It has to — there is no choice.

One of the more interesting stories involving the success of sensemaking is their profile of Genevieve Bell, a Ph.D. cultural anthropologist with a degree from Stanford.  She was key in flipping Intel’s focus from the “Moore’s Law” paradigm of doubling computer power to one where Intel needed to focus on the future of computing as deeply involved with the user experience. It’s easy to start the focus on Bell’s training. But when you read further, one realizes that it’s not ‘Bell as an anthropologist’ that really won the day.  It was ‘Bell as a dynamic, empathetic individual’ that made the difference.  Cultural anthropology may have provided some of the knowledge structure scaffolding to propel Bell forward in her career.  But it was really Bell’s ability to discuss and connect with various constituencies inside Intel, including both the tech masters and the executive suite.

Even the way she started her career at Intel was because of an implicit ability to connect. She made a tremendous impression on her recruiter, a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur, in a bar! that drove him to pore through various directories of cultural anthropologists in the Valley to reconnect and place her with Intel in their People and Practices Research Lab in Portland.  If the entrepreneur had solely had his interest sparked by an External Definition (cultural anthropology), he could have stopped on page one of his search.  But it wasn’t that, of course — it was that Independently Generated Relationship thing that mattered.  It came down to the specific individual, and her connection with him.

M&R do talk about connection and empathy, the former more than the latter.  In their book, empathy doesn’t make the index.  But throughout the book, they attribute time and again success to the evolved empathetic concepts we discuss on this blog.  Take the concept of context. What is context, really?  Context is more precisely defined as the empathetic system that any given actor is plugged into during the act of observation.  The fact that asking someone a ‘Yes/No’ question (as dichotomous a thinking question as you can have!) doesn’t give the same nuance, or potential multiple solution thinking information that comes out of observing someone in their household, where there are a variety of sentient actors (including the family dog!) as well as relational modifiers, social structures, and culture surrounding them, should surprise no one.   I posted about that idea here in understanding our Theory of Everything.

What does an Empathetic Evolutionary approach tell you about sensemaking? The primary thing it does is take you off of Intellectual Flatland.  Multiple, complex, and probabilistic connections become something that are explicitly prioritized in exploring.  Also, no longer do you live in the world that there are ‘objective’ observers — because there is no such thing.  Instead, Empathetic Evolutionary Theory offers a primary way of understanding ourselves and our biases as an integral methodology, as well as identifying defects in our scaffolding that may be giving us incorrect answers.  We may well have epiphanies — nothing wrong with that.  But we’ll also realize that epiphanies, or any thought that comes in a flash, is a result of some connection in the limbic portion of our brain.  And that they’re potentially as connected to past experience — especially trauma — as they are to anything else. Empathetic Evolution as an overarching structure takes the elements of sensemaking, and makes them explicit.  And by constructing a 3-D model of our understanding, we now are far freer to explore connections.  Epiphanies become less important, as we move our search for guiding principles (Global Holistic v-Meme concepts) into our conscious minds, with thoughts likely shared with others empathetically.  What that gives us is a much larger collective understanding of complex phenomena.

Finally, what is most powerful when we realize the potential of a deep understanding of activating all the different levels of our Empathy Pyramid is that important philosophical concepts, such as Heidegger’s idea of ‘Care’, become naturally emergent.  We don’t have to address responsibility from an Authoritarian or Legalistic perspective, as in ‘this is just your job, and you better do it.’  What we get is a more natural expression of doing what we must do, both to find meaning and be responsible.  For the first part, finding meaning becomes a natural practice in self-empathy, and knowing ourselves.  And as far as responsibility, that also flows naturally from things that we are connected to.

What is M&R’s approach good for?  Lots.*  As I read through the book, it became obvious to me why these individuals are successful.  Many of their techniques they discuss are algorithmic empathetic ladders.  By practicing them, one’s empathy can naturally evolve and change the person who is in charge of both creating the new customer narrative, as well as selling the narrative inside their own company, for new products, services or design.  Exploring customer narratives is a great way of advancing one’s own empathetic understanding, as well as forming new heuristics for approaching different problems. That grows one’s Communitarian v-Meme sense.  And the careful, focused documentation of others live their life, as part of the process of ethnography, has to trigger in the observer the same question, over and over — why do I or don’t I do the same thing?  That’s the reach into Second Tier thinking.  I would also note that Snowden’s work has much more self-examination built into it — not all sensemaking techniques are alike.

And then, dumping the successful ethnographer back into the mix of employees in the company, often filled with technical disciplines, can do nothing but grow empathy in that employee base.  Confronted with someone who is increasing the validity of their own technical output has to increase trust inside the network.  That creates the larger relational network that does a far better job of spanning any given design space than a truncated hierarchy.  And that, of course, protects from Black Swans, and other traumatic events that may doom a company’s survival.

In the end, it is all about empathy and reshaping our relational networks, which then lead directly to reshaping our understanding.  How could it be anything else?

*Further comment — I’m hoping as people read this, they realize that this is not supposed to be some take-down of sensemaking.  It’s really about understanding how sensemaking emerges, and understanding its context in Empathetic Evolution.  We need more validity in our solutions in the world — not less.  And as we expand empathy, through whatever empathetic ladders are out there, declared or not, we come far closer to generating the connected solutions that will save the world.

Laugh for the Day — boy, you have to love the second part of this post’s title – “Understanding the Emergence of Second Tier Design Methodologies from an Empathetic Evolutionary Framework”.  That’s some serious Squirrel Talk there!

5 thoughts on “Making Sense of Sensemaking — Understanding the Emergence of Second Tier Design Methodologies from an Empathetic Evolutionary Framework

  1. Putting people with different worldview (disciplines) together in a team. Will this increase empathy or in-group/out-group separation/conflict? The original organization (Meme) of this organization still plays an important role…..otherwise, people live in ethnically diverse area “should” all develop higher empathy?


    1. I think context is everything. If people are allowed to segregate (status-based thinking), then it won’t work. If people are forced to unify around a goal, or construction of a community, diversity will win out. It’s having that thing that is larger than yourself that drives rational empathy — when you know you can’t achieve the goal without help from the people around you. And that you need to understand them more deeply.


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