Part of the series Making Sense of Making Sense

An introduction to sense-making

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.