So much of what I’ve written on Roblog over the years has been about one particular question, the question that Dave Snowden phrases as “how do I make sense of the world so I can act in it?” I’ve dealt with lots of topics around the practice of sense-making, but never really addressed the broader concept.
I think that’s a shame, because the world of sense-making, and its tools for dealing with complexity, deserves to be much more widely known, especially outside of the academic circles in which it’s often confined. So I’m starting a series of articles called making sense of making sense.
I’m going to cover some practical elements of sense-making, some tools and frameworks that you can use, as well as some of the historical context of where these ideas come from. It’ll be the main focus of Roblog over the coming months. I hope you enjoy it!
The first article is an introduction to the idea of sense-making itself, and why I think it’s a useful lens through which to view the world.
This week’s article
A guide for the rest of us.
Everything I do in my day job is about making sense of things: trying to navigate through complex situations and establish what on earth is going on. In the time that I’ve been doing it, I’ve been drawn to those who do similar things in different fields; other people who practise sense-making.
“Sense-making”. It’s a lovely phrase, I think. Making sense of the world. Simple. But though it’s simple, it can also be tricky, and it can be impossible to get anyone to agree on a definition of it. Making sense how? With what tools? On your own, or with others? In your mind or outside it? Consciously or subconsciously? Before things happen, or with the benefit of hindsight?
I don’t want to get bogged down in any of that, though – not yet, anyway. To me, sense-making is the practise of dealing with situations that are complex and defy easy understanding, or that are changing rapidly, where the relationship between cause and effect is unclear. I like Dave Snowden’s straightforward definition: to him, sense-making is answering the question “how do I make sense of the world so I can act in it?” It’s an appropriately action-oriented definition, I think. Sense-making isn’t about theory or abstract modelling, but rather about trying to make the right decisions in the real world.
Sense-making, then, is a timeless and universal human impulse, something we’ve been doing since the dawn of human culture and must do every day of our lives. Complex stuff happens, and we deal with it as best we can. Sense-making is about narratives, the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world and our roles within it; it’s something we do unwittingly and unconsciously.
But sense-making is also a practice: something we can reason about, and analyse, and get better at. Given how universal sense-making is, it’s perhaps not surprising that sense-making techniques and language about sense-making have emerged and evolved wherever there’s complexity to be dealt with: in academia, in finance, in technology, and in practical disciplines, particularly ones with a focus on safety such as aviation, fire and rescue, and medicine.
In those disciplines, making sense of the world more quickly and accurately can mean the difference between life and death, justice and injustice, millions of dollars gained and lost.
In the past couple of decades, we’ve become more aware of the complexity of the world, and more aware that simplistic quantitative models can be imperfect, and brittle, and lead us astray. The rise of the internet has been this extraordinarily connective thing, and that connectivity is what breeds complexity. Cause and effect is no longer localised and isolated; everything connects to and effects everything else.
The pace of change, too, feels like it’s quickening. And if everything’s changing all of the time, there’s less we can learn from the past; the world isn’t going to behave like it’s behaved before, and so we must navigate its new behaviour. That puts more weight onto sense-making, and less onto, say, the rote learning of case studies.
So, I firmly believe that sense-making is essential for navigating the world. But all too often its techniques and knowledge are only framed in the context of one industry, or hidden away in silos, or bound up in complex jargon that makes them hard to use for those who aren’t willing or able to wade through dense, academic language. If we could only change this – if we could only simplify and explain sense-making itself – we could open up these tools to a wider audience, and give people more powerful ways to navigate complexity.
This week’s three interesting links
Clear analysis on the potential upcoming Ukrainian offensive from the peerless Lawrence Freedman:
“Putin and his commanders cannot afford to get many more of the big strategic decisions wrong. If they do so then they will face the prospect of not only futile stalemate but of humiliating withdrawals. I am less convinced than others that they can continue to brush off one setback after another simply because that is what autocratic police states can do, pretending to their people that nothing seriously has gone wrong. Insouciance and misinformation can take you only so far.”
I went to see the crowds at the coronation this weekend, to see if it felt like history in the making. The mood was hard to gauge; the rain really put a dampener on things. But the crowd felt so much less reverential than when the Queen died, so much less moved, so much less interested. If someone travelled back in time and told me that this was in fact the last ever British coronation, I wouldn’t be enormously surprised. #
The Gentle Author went with photographer Tom Bunning to see William Oglethorpe, who makes his Kappacasein cheese under a railway arch in Bermondsey. (It’s incredible cheese, if you get the chance to try it; they do a “London Raclette” that’s every bit as good as you’d hope.)
“‘Cheesemaking is easy, it’s life that is hard,’ Bill admitted to me with a disarming grin, when I joined the cheesemakers for their breakfast at a long table and he revealed the long journey he had travelled to arrive in Bermondsey. ‘I grew up in Zambia,’ he explained, ‘And one day a Swiss missionary came to see my father and asked if I’d like to go to agricultural school in Switzerland.’
“‘I earned a certificate of competence,’ he added proudly, assuring me with a wink, ‘I’m a qualified peasant.’”