Sensemaking practices

There is an excellent discussion of learning as sensemaking going on over at Creating Passionate Users.  Dan Russell has a series of posts (Sensemaking 1, Sensemaking 2, Sensemaking 3) about his thoughts and practices when he takes on a new research based project. In addition to the value of Dan’s thoughts, each post has also sparked excellent discussion threads, which are also worth your time.

Here’s a definition of sensemaking that Russell gets to today:

Sensemaking is in many ways a search for the right organization or the right way to represent what you know about a topic. It’s data collection, analysis, organization and performing the task. [Sensemaking 3]

Sensemaking is a concept I’ve found useful and valuable in much of my work in organizations. I first encountered it in the writings of organizational theorist Karl Weick (e.g. .The Social Psychology of Organizing). Central to Weick and Russell’s thinking is that understanding is something you build over time as an active effort.

My sensemaking practices run along the following lines.

Data Immersion and Convergence. Like Russell and many of the commenters on his posts, immersing myself in the data is a primary component in my sensemaking practices. If I’m doing work inside an organization that includes getting my hands on whatever previous work I can find, public information, interviews, and keeping my eyes and ears open. I am a fan of Yogi Berra’s advice on this; “you can observe a lot just by watching.”

I’ll generally wrap up the initial data collection when things start to converge and get repetitive. Sometimes, this represents a plateau and more data collection will be needed later. More often than not, I have reached to point of diminishing returns and more data by itself won’t help.

Mindmapping and Issue Finding. I’ll draw a variety of mindmaps over the course of most projects. In them, I try out various ways of organizing and relating what I currently know and don’t know. In particular, I’m looking for issues and themes that provide a way to account for the data. With the advent of good software tools for mindmapping (e.g, MindManager), I have started to use my mindmaps as the primary tool to organize and link to the various data I am collecting.

Trip Reports. I’ve mentioned trip reports before as one of my sensemaking habits. At the end of a day collecting data I write myself a memo trying to understand what I might have learned. In my early days as a doctoral student, these were Word documents. They’ve since morphed into private blog entries. They are not transcriptions of my interview notes. Rather, they are first attempts to put my thoughts into story form.

Pictures and Diagrams. Stories are one form of sensemaking, pictures are another. I will play with various kinds of pictures and block diagrams to see what they might reveal about the subject at hand. I almost always start with hand drawn diagrams. If I need to share the drawing, I’ll create an electronic version in Visio. One problem that I sometimes encounter with sharing diagrams in Visio is that they may appear more “precise” than warranted. A partial solution I have had some success with is to use a font called Charette courtesy of the folks at Mindjet. This is a font the mimics the hand-lettering you might see on blueprints and helps convey the notion that what you are looking at should be seen as provisional and subject to revision and elaboration.

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