Part of the series Making Sense of Making Sense

When enough is enough

You’re never going to know everything. So how do you know when you know enough to act?

Sense-making is about making sense of the world in order to act in it. But how do you know when you’ve made enough sense, and therefore when to act? In uncertain situations, you’re never going to know everything. Sometimes knowing everything is merely impractical; sometimes it’s impossible. In sense-making, understanding when you know enough to act, and when to wait and gather more information first, is often called sufficiency.

Sufficiency is partly a philosophical question about knowledge, but it’s also a question of comfort – of developing the ability to feel confident acting even in the absence of a complete picture and in the absence of perfect information.

That confidence comes from reducing the risk of getting things wrong. And getting it wrong is quite easy! You can think you have sufficient knowledge when you don’t and act too soon, too rashly. Or you can fail to act despite having enough information, and cause delay and inertia – or perhaps miss an opportunity entirely.

In the most recent article in the series, we looked at the broad concepts of Cynefin, and how it gives us the tools to recognise different decision-making situations. Different types of situation demand different tools in order to make decisions effectively. (We probably shouldn’t probe and experiment when baking a cake, but instead should follow a recipe; we probably shouldn’t expect an organisation with hundreds of people in it to behave in predictable and ordered ways, but instead should change things gradually and carefully.)

The same is true of sufficiency. What constitutes sufficient information in order to act is different in different contexts.

In the “clear” domain, sufficiency is about having all of the knowledge you need in order to apply best practice. That means understanding what the problem is that you’re facing, how that same problem has been solved many times before, and running through an established process. (My cake has been in the oven for 20 minutes, but is still raw in the middle; I have enough information to know that best practice suggests leaving it in for another ten minutes. An iron fence is at risk of rusting; I know enough to know that best practice suggests painting it. A customer is complaining that they’ve forgotten their password; I know enough to know that best practice suggests resetting it for them.)

The “complicated” domain is similar, but “best practice” doesn’t exist; you’re in the realms of merely “good practice”, where there are several different viable solutions. Sufficiency is about having collected enough data and done enough analysis to evaluate those different potentially useful solutions, and to make a choice between them. (If you’re drilling for oil, there might be arguments for both site A and site B, with complicated analysis to justify each; there’s no obviously correct solution, but analysis can help you decide. Likewise, there might be several different viable approaches to a legal case that a lawyer could take, and they have to use their judgement and experience to choose between them.)

In the “complex” domain, sufficiency is much less clearly defined, because there’s not even “good practice” to rely on. Sufficiency in these scenarios is about having confidence in your understanding of patterns that seem to be emerging; your actions are less about making permanent decisions, and more about giving more resources to the desirable and useful patterns and fewer resources to the harmful ones.

You gain this confidence using “probes”; little safe-to-fail experiments that nudge the situation in a particular direction in a controlled way. Liz Keogh defines the characteristics of a probe as having:

  • Indicators of success
  • Indicators of failure
  • A way of amplifying the probe if it succeeds
  • A way of dampening the probe if it fails
  • Coherence – a “realistic reason for thinking that the probe will have a positive impact” – in effect a narrative about a positive future where the probe has been successful

The important thing to note here is that, in a complex world, you act first. Complexity doesn’t become clearer through analysis; this is definitely the domain where “analysis paralysis” is common. But you keep your actions small, and safe-to-fail; it’s also easy to make the opposite mistake, and to go too big too soon and throw the system out of whack. Sufficiency here is when you’re seeing indicators of success or failure; the further action you take is to amplify or dampen the probe.

Getting a feel for what level of knowledge is sufficient before you act, then, is a crucial part of sense-making, and relies on understanding the context you’re in. But once you understand sufficiency in your current situation, you can avoid analysis paralysis, where you continue thinking about the situation long past the point where you should have acted; and you can avoid leaping before you look, taking rash decisions that could have been avoided with a little more thinking.