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Sensemaking 4: Summary of your comments



That was my first thought about reading everyone’s comments on the sensemaking posts. So many thoughtful comments that it’ll be hard to address everyone. But the collection made for some very interesting reading. So first, a big thank you to everyone who commented. (And forgive me if I don’t mention you here. There really were more comments than I can include in a single post.  If you commented, trust me, I read your post at least twice.)

I read through all the commentary, then decided I couldn’t handle it all on my computer display… so I printed it out and went through with my markers, highlighting all the comments about personal process (in yellow), then highlighting all the comments about tools used (in pink), and then all the comments about metacognitive strategies (in blue). I then talked about it with some of my friends at Google to make sense of it all.

And here’s what struck me…

People resonated with the sensemaking model. That is, it seems to describe a lot of what people do when they’re faced with a sticky problem. That’s good news, as it could have been the other way. More than a few people rewrote the model in their own words, and that’s good (we know that an effective way to learn stuff is to reorganize it to fit your own world, and rewriting in your language is an effective way to do so).

More importantly, commenters point out the importance of continuing to ask questions during the process. This is a great metacognitive strategy in general (see below) and helps to drive sensemaking forward. It’s also important not to get lost in the question-asking weeds as you do this. One really can ask too many questions.

Collecting information is important. As you’d imagine, pulling together your personal cache of information is crucial. Many people pointed out that search engines are incredibly useful in finding data. Alan gave his perspective as a patent attorney who does a lot of collection when evaluating proposed patents. More than a few information-heavy jobs require great skills in information collection.

Yet surprisingly, I’m not sure how good we really are (as a culture). I teach lots of classes on how to be a more effective internet searcher, and I’m constantly surprised to discover how people think about internet search. (We’ll talk about this in a future CPU post.) But the bottom line here is that you can only make sense out of what you collect, as it is played against the backdrop of what you already know.  The collection process can easily skew your results. Be careful here!

Metacognitive strategies.  Aside from being a great word to toss into partytime conversation, “metacognitive” describes things people do to manage their own thinking. And you CPU commenters had lots of metacognitive things to say. LOTS of people commented on giving yourself time to “think about it” and “let the subconscious play” or allowing the ideas to “gel in time.” And that’s good advice—time can be your friend in discovering the intrinsic structure of your information.

Another metacognitive strategy is to consciously ask questions about what you’re doing. If you periodically step back and take the larger perspective, maybe even ask pointed questions “Why am I doing this?” or “What will I learn from doing this?” – then you’re being metacognitive. Congratulations. As is well known from many studies of learning behavior, metacognitive strategies often pay off really well. They help to guide your thinking, and in the case of sensemaking, guide your choices about how much time to spend on collecting, organizing and then working on the target task.

Intuition. Although intuition isn’t exactly a metacognitive strategy, it’s clear that people recognize patterns in the data in ways that they can’t talk about. That kind of inarticulate recognition (meaning that you can’t talk about it easily) is what we perceive as intuition. We’ve all got it, and good sensemakers have good intuitions about how things go together. As Malcolm Gladwell correctly points out in Blink (and we’ve discussed earlier in our blog), intuition isn’t just a mysterious upwelling of innate knowledge, but is based on lots of experience and practice in the field.

So be wary of your intuitions in fields that aren’t your own. I might think I have great intuitions about how steelworkers build skyscrapers, but I wouldn’t trust those intuitions farther than I can spit. I would trust my intuitions about cognitive science, however, since I’ve spent years marinating in that world.

Social aspects. Many of you suggested some wonderful social strategies… Ask a friend. Talk about it with someone who likes a good discussion. Talk about it with someone who disagrees with you. There are entire schools of sensemaking (such as Karl Weick) that see sensemaking as an inherently social process. To them, “sense” is what is made by the community out of many pieces of information—that is, a certain amount of sense is made by agreement. This is a finding with deep consequences. But for us, just working the idea over with friends and colleagues is an important way to structure the information you have at hand. One of my tests of whether or not I’ve made sense of something is whether or not I can tell a story about it. I might call someone (Kathy, let’s say) and try to tell her what it’s all about. If I can do that, then I’ve made at least some sense.

Another great social strategy several people mentioned was “looking for someone else who has already made sense” of the topic. In the internet age, this is an ever-increasingly good idea. (It’s always been a good idea—it’s just easier now, and with a whole lot more coverage than ever before.)

Iteration. Yes, plain old iteration is also key. The consensus of commenters was that nobody got things right the first time around, and that you need to repeatedly look FOR information and look AT the information you have. Just looking once, or just organizing once probably isn’t sufficient.


So… what surprised me?

Representations. The biggest surprise was the relative lack of discussion about the organizations and representations people build up of their sensemaking collections. Normally, I think about people collecting then organizing their information—but how does one organize a collection? In my earlier studies of sensemakers, the particular ways that information was grouped together, sorted out and interrelated was always important. Why didn’t this theme emerge here? Perhaps it’s because people have a set of organizations they always use. Or that it seems too obvious. Or maybe that it’s just too hard to talk about. But it surprised me!

Tools. Another surprise was the number of tools people mentioned. There were very few. Mindmaps, outlines, VooDooPad, Devonthink, search engines – and that was more-or-less it! Is it the case that we just don’t have that many tools to help people with their sensemaking tasks?

Personally, for my sensemaking tasks I use:

> lots of paper notes in various organizations (primarily piles, grouped by common topics), even going so far as to highlight items and use sticky notes as flags;

> many online files that have different roles in my sensemaking process (like “outline” “extras” and “things to do”;

> search engines for discovery and collecting (of course);

> personal desktop search (because I typically collect information into a central repository on my local computer) and I need to find it again;

> Powerpoint --not always, but often for outlining and sometimes for collecting stuff of various media types all together in one place

Sorry to be so low-tech... but it's what works for me!

All in all, I found our sensemaking conversation to be fascinating. It’s been wonderful to hear everyone’s voice in the comments and to get an idea of how varied and articulate the readers of CPU are. Thanks again!

Now we’ll go back to our regularly scheduled Creating Passionate User’s topics… I have a few other things to talk about as well. Custom search engines, color psychology, how people visually scan their world, what it takes to create a really useful user interface… More coming soon!


P.S.  A few people have noted that they're having trouble with the images in these posts.  Would you please comment if you're having trouble too?  I'd like to debug this soon! 


Posted by Dan Russell on January 29, 2007 | Permalink


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I really (!) enjoyed this series of articles. Fascinating. I didn't leave you a comment on the way I make sense of things, but can help you out with the question of why people are having trouble with images. When I read this in NetNewsWire, I see Word trash. When I read the actual web page with Safari it looks fine. Here's some of what I see in NetNewsWire:


Posted by: Virginia | Jan 29, 2007 9:06:28 AM

Well, the raw HTML from NetNewsWire didn't come through in my previous comment, so I posted a screen shot for you here

Posted by: Virginia | Jan 29, 2007 9:11:22 AM

I use notecards as tools. As a consultant and facilitator, I often find myself building models with notecards to organize and coalesce the ideas of a group. I find it works for myself as well, and often when I have hard or important decisions, I'll grab some friends and get them to help check my models and test them.

Posted by: Jeremy Stell-Smith | Jan 29, 2007 9:13:24 AM

I like using my pda as a sensemaking tool. I either use the notepad to create "related areas" like a mind map or I create lists, sometimes hierarchical lists. Since it's in my pda, I can carry it around and add or study it at "brain free" moments (waiting at doctor's office, waiting in line, waiting in traffic, etc).
I am also having trouble with the rss feed. I am using Thunderbird. I am not having trouble with any other feeds. I am not a codewriter/programmer though I have done a little html. The posts always start with:
< d i v xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"> < p c l a s s="MsoNormal">
Yes, I added spaces. I don't know anything about how the comment section would react to code.

Posted by: Tammy | Jan 29, 2007 11:12:06 AM

Great blog.

It would be nice to understand how one's knowledge about a specific thing enhances his/her intuitions about that thing.

Posted by: M | Jan 29, 2007 12:37:39 PM

Great series, Dan, on a favorite topic of mine from way back when (as an undergraduate at Rutgers studying Karl Weick's ideas). I like your story test idea (if you can "tell the story," you have made some sense out of it). That seems right to me.

Posted by: Terrence Seamon | Jan 29, 2007 1:54:16 PM

you asked about people having trouble with images in earlier posts... not having trouble in Firefox 1.5, but in IE 7 underneath each image in your prior post, got a second blank image. however, look in the "view source" and here's what you see: (angle brackets converted to square brackets for readability)

[p][img alt="Pbg1_1" title="Pbg1_1" src="https://headrush.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/pbg1_1.jpg" border="0"]
[p class="MsoNormal"][img src="file:///C:/DOCUME%7E1/drussell/LOCALS%7E1/Temp/msohtml1/01/clip_image001.jpg" v:shapes="_x0000_i1027" border="0" height="321" width="293"][/p]

As you can see, there's an IMG tab pointing to something in some local file directory... probably on the writer's PC.


Posted by: friend | Jan 29, 2007 4:24:04 PM

Representations and Tools
About your surprises, when I think about it there really are not a lot of tools for sense making. They are mostly ad hoc things: index cards, journals, outlines, databases, mind maps. They can be paper and/or computer based but there doesn't seem to be a product out there that solves this problem.

If it wasn't for the fact that sensemaking is a real problem you have to wonder about what is wrong. Why is there no book or product out there giving some kind of guidance in sensemaking?

I took a Learning How to Learn class in college and it helped but it's advice was fairly nebulous, sort of a let's throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks for you. Some of it may be because of different learning styles or which of the multiple intelligences we have strengths in.

One thing that may be holding things back is a lack of framework and jargon. There doesn't seem to be an easy way to talk about sensemaking and that is a serious problem. Isaac Newton invented Calculus to make talking about Physics easy. Getting organized has been on everyone's to-do list for decades but it took Getting Things Done to make it easy to talk about and do.

This is your first challenge.

Relationships is the other thing that surprised you. My problem is How do you represent an insight that comes from a totally off the wall, out of deep lift left that grants an insight into the problem you are looking at.

I can't tell you how many times I took a break from solving some problem or another and watched a documentary or read a book from a completely different field and a major insight pops out.

I keep getting the feeling that there are not that many problems out there but there are a whole lot more implementations. It is something related to design patterns, which really is just a structure for defining solutions.

Maybe what we really need a is problem patterns so we can define the problem correctly. Isn't it an old medical quote that half the solution is a proper diagnosis?

Here is something you can do, spend the next several years studying how people who are really good at sensemaking do it. Codify the different things they do. Write a book. Profit! :)

Posted by: Stephan Fassmann | Jan 29, 2007 8:04:49 PM

Btw, Mark Twain has a great couple of chapters on how he learned to pilot a steamboat in Life on the Mississippi. Stylistically longwinded, but relevant to "sensemaking".

Posted by: darius | Feb 1, 2007 2:06:02 PM

Hi Dan, your posts on sensemaking kept me engaged throughout. I loved the idea that you should be able to tell a story about what's happening if you made sense.

There were aspects of the posts, however, that made me feel a little uncomfortable. First, I sensed an implicit suggestion in your posts that there is an answer you can find, a truth. It just requires you to collect the right data, represent it effectively and viola. This might be true for physical aspects of the world we live in such as whether the data warehouse went down or not, but is pretty difficult/impossible in the social arena where everyone has a different view of what happened and why. I guess I'm adopting Karl Weick's view here. Is this a valid interpretation?

The other area I noticed (by the way, noticing is a pre-requisite for sensemaking) was that your example was mostly about your individual efforts to make sense of a phenomena and I was wondering whether similar steps occur in group sensemaking.

In my work I facilitate groups in making sense of a volume of stories as a way to help see patterns, usually in the domains of culture, innovation, learning or change. We tend to represent the data (stories) as clusters of ideas on large walls. We also use the Cynefin framework (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin) to get the group to identify those stories that represent issues that are inherently complex.

I also use the Most Significant Change technique to help people make sense of stories. Worth a look. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_significant_change

Posted by: Shawn Callahan | Mar 11, 2007 12:40:11 AM

Boy, this post has a long tail. People keep sending in comments!

A couple of quick replies...

Shawn -- I certainly don't want to presume that there IS always an answer. In fact, if you're not failing every once in while, then I'd argue that you're in a very pleasant comfort zone, and not pushing the boundaries very hard. Since the new and most interesting stuff is outside of that area (that's why it's research after all), I like to push a bit. So no, don't get trapped into thinking that sensemaking presumes an answer.

Social sensemaking is (as Weick points out), somewhat different and interesting in its own right. When you have a group of people making sense, then a whole bunch of new dynamics come into play--multiple points of view, alignment, reconciliation, divergent opinions, etc.

But do similar steps occur in social sensemaking? I would think so (at least from my anecdotal observations), but I haven't really studied it in detail.

Thanks for your pointer to "Most Significant Change" -- I'll take a look.

-- Dan --

Posted by: Dan Russell | Mar 11, 2007 6:53:02 AM

Kathy, please come back. Your insights and creative thinking are greatly appreciated (and now, missed).

Posted by: Dean A. Nash | May 17, 2007 6:39:30 AM

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