Agorastos Papatsanis, Mushroom Magic

Making sense of all the sense making

Thomas Aston


I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there seems to have been a boom in sensemaking.

… I’m struggling to make sense of it all.

Defining sensemaking

Humans have around 70,000 thoughts per day, but we struggle to process them.

Richard J. Cordes wrote a fabulous blog on making sense of sensemaking related to pandemic research. So, I’m by no means the first to reflect on the reflection or learn from the learning. Cordes provides an elegant explanation of what the individual cognitive process of sensemaking is:

“Sensemaking is what you are doing at this very moment as you concurrently interpret dozens of symbols by shifting spatial attention at a rate of up to five times per second in order to parse and integrate the information encoded in those grouped symbols using your brain’s complex adaptive network of over one hundred trillion synapses.”

Though there are rather more prosaic epistemic and methodological definitions of sensemaking in the world of management. The Cynefin company argues that there are five schools of organizational sensemaking. They argue that while it can be traced to the 1980s and has been in psychology in some form for decades, it emerged in earnest in the 1990s. According to Karl Weick, who wrote a much-cited book on the subject of organizational sensemaking, sensemaking is:

“Literally the act of making sense of an environment, achieved by organizing sense data until the environment ‘becomes sensible’ or is understood well enough to enable reasonable decisions.”

The Chôra Foundation more recently argued that:

Sensemaking is a process, in which we (an agent) make sense of something (an object) by reference to something else (a Strategic Intent, a purpose, terms of reference, standards, etc.).”

They provide an interesting, but rather confusing, graphic to unpack this:

Sensemaking can be at both individual level, as in Cordes’ example, and at the multiple collective level. For Weick, we’re talking about intra-organisational sensemaking, but we increasingly find sensemaking as an inter-organisational process within an initiative or portfolio.

For the Center for Public Impact (CPI), for example, sensemaking is:

A collective process of turning data into meaning. It involves creating space for listening, reflection and the exploration of meaning beyond the usual boundaries, allowing different framings, stories and viewpoints to be shared and collectively explored.”

In CPI’s case, the collective process typically involves a variety of different organizations. For CPI, the sensemaking process is linked to the data from explorations and experiments, it’s underpinned by a (now very fashionable) design-thinking approach.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) refers to sensemaking as:

‘An activity and a process that extracts insights, induces learning and creates meaning from experience.’

Their emphasis is on sensemaking across a portfolio (i.e., a suite of projects/initiatives). It’s guide assumes that project-level sensemaking and/or learning has already taken place. Often, one assumes, this is not the case.

In September 2022, Sophoi referred to a Results, Sense-making and Learning (RSL)” approach. In this approach, they refer to sensemaking as ‘the process of, and capacity to, make sense of the world so you can act in it.’ I’m pretty sure this definition essentially comes from Dave Snowden (of Cynefin) who defined sensemaking as ‘how we can make sense of the world so that we can act in that (see his blog entitled What is Sense-making?).’

So, perhaps in synthesis, sensemaking might be understood as:

A process through which we turn information (symbols and data) we perceive in the world into (shared) understanding and meaning. Sensemaking connects experiential insights and more formal evidence sources (e.g., intelligence). It generates learning, and in turn, enables us to take action.

Sensemaking is generally conceived as an iterative process rather than a one-time thing. It can be formalized through particular events and tools, but is also informal. You don’t stop making sense of the world when you leave a workshop. As Karl Weick puts it, “to talk about sensemaking is to talk about reality as an ongoing accomplishment.” But, what the inputs, outputs, and outcomes of the process are seems somewhat confused in recent discussions.

The Chôra Foundation argue that ‘the output of this process is Intelligence. Intelligence is a particular form of meaning, an asset with which Actions are designed.” UNDP contends sensemaking is a process of “extracting insights and intelligence from the presented projects of their coherence and alignment with the organization’s expressed intent.” So, insights and intelligence are inputs into a portfolio-level discussion, but presumably outputs from a prior discussion at project level. For Sophoi, insights are the output from sensemaking which become the input for learning.

But, then, how different is collective sensemaking from collective learning? Learning is also a social and reflexive process through which we gain individual and collective understanding and insight about the world around us by thinking deeply about our assumptions and beliefs and how these relate to that world (see Argyris, 1977; Ramalingam et al. 2009; Roche, 2010; Prieto Martin et al. 2017). The difference seems little more than a nomenclatural fissure between epistemic communities.

We might also argue that sensemaking has lots of overlaps with evaluation. For example, Andrew Hawkins wrote a blog entitled A Matter of Life and Death: Evaluation as the Alpha Discipline and the Subordinate Role of Science. In the blog, he argues that:

“Evaluation is life. To evaluate is to survive. It may be pre-cognitive, but fight, flight or freeze; explore, exploit, or conserve are driving forces of survival. It is that part of natural selection over which we exert some control. In humans, our survival is largely a cognitive affair and evaluation is the motor of cognition. Cognition finds its highest expression in logic.”

Hawkins’ argument, following Scriven, is that evaluation is the “alpha” discipline (rather than merely a transdiscipline). His appeal to cognition and logic turns evaluation into a kind of supra-disciplinary praxis for what Daniel Kahneman refers to as system 2 (or slow) thinking (i.e., logical, calculating, conscious). Arguably, quotidian sensemaking is more like Kahneman’s system 1 thinking (fast, automatic, unconscious). Structured sensemaking is perhaps more of a collective system 2 thinking exercise.

I’m not convinced that any of this jockeying of position between learning, evaluation, research, or sensemaking is all that helpful. But, I can think of two potential areas where sensemaking might be somewhat distinguished from the others. Or, at least, I can think of two reasons for why people are making a big deal about potential distinctions.

Firstly, I think people are trying to make an argument about the value of sensemaking in the looser quotidian sense. I think there’s an aspiration to incorporate both formal and informal (or structured and unstructured) sensemaking into project and portfolio assessment and planning. For instance, the Chôra Foundation refers to sensemaking as “a constant effort that events trigger” — in other words, it’s a quotidian and organic response to the world. Summarizing and extending Polanyi’s paradox, Dave Snowden points out that “people know more than they can say, and they can say more than they can write down.” The paradox expresses the importance of tacit knowledge. And I think that the boom in sensemaking, like the prior boom in double loop learning, expresses the desire to make something more out of tacit knowledge, and bring tacit knowledge more explicitly into decision-making processes.

Secondly, I think these organisations are trying to make a point about what should count as “data” or “evidence.” As ground theorist Barney Glasser famously said, “all is data.” Qualitative researchers have, for generations, argued that there should be no special status given to quantitative data. Data don’t become valid simply by virtue of their quantity. For instance, Sophoi makes the point that an enhanced learning approach is about integrating “evidence” with “stakeholder experience.” In my experience, stakeholder experience (and experiential knowledge) has always been an important source of evidence. In recent years, the veneration of “lived experience” has brought such experience into everyday discussion. There’s been a growth in interest with storytelling. For Sophoi and the B Team, for example, sensemaking plus stories is seen as an alternative to relying on metrics.

Yet, this clashes with the evidence-based policy crowd which continues to denigrate such knowledge and experience as of being of low value and validity. Take the World Health Organization’s new evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) guide which proposes an evidence pyramid which puts case studies at the bottom and systematic reviews at the top of a validity pyramid, or consider the Johanna Briggs Institute’s pyramid for levels of evidence:

The experiences of ordinary people aren’t even considered as the lowest level of evidence. Last year, I explained why much of this architecture is so misleading, and unhelpful. See also this provocation paper by the Alliance for Useful Evidence on the dangers of such hierarchies.

From principles… to action?

The Chôra Foundation outline 8 principles for sensemaking. In their view, through sensemaking there is: (1) always an agent (or agents) doing the sensing; (2) an object being sensed; (3) a situation for the sensing; (4) a “we” involved in the process; (5) an extraction; (6) iteration; (7) generating meaning and intelligence; and (8) sensemaking has effects.

But, what do we do with or through sensemaking?

I’m not convinced there’s agreement on the process of practically translating what we’ve made sense of into action. CPI argues that sensemaking should be about “providing explanatory possibilities rather than a body of knowledge or plan of action.” The process and the “space” sensemaking provides as part of a learning cycle is what seems to matter most to them. Sensemaking and action-learning are conceptualized by CPI as being inter-dependent, but I can’t help feel that in such a conceptualization learning is the end rather than simply the means to social impact.

For the UNDP, by contrast, the sensemaking process, and the insights and intelligence therein, should materialise into an action plan to change ways of working and accelerate the potential impact of the organization’s current and pipeline portfolio. This suggests that sensemaking is the means to a particular end — improving results.

Tools for sensemaking

There are various guides and tools out there now for sensemaking. The Cynefin framework has been referred to as a sense-making device. I’ve always found the framework’s typology (epistemically) problematic. So, the framework itself hasn’t helped me make sense personally, but the process of distinguishing what is simple, complicated, and complex I believe is valuable. And I know many others who champion its virtues.

Cynefin’s SenseMaker® is also a common tool used for sensemaking. David Snowden has a helpful video explaining the origins. It’s supposed to ‘get at the narrative behind the stories, as told and interpreted by the narrators themselves.’ I’ve personally always wanted to try it, and I’ve seen it used well by others (there’s even a recent White Paper on using it for MEL), because it seems to be an interesting combination of micro-narratives and pattern analysis. However, I’ve never had the money nor the scale of data collection needs that it ever made sense for me personally.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) also recently prepared a sensemaking workshop guide. This is geared towards collective sensemaking at portfolio level.

There are other collaborative learning tools out there which seem to significantly overlap with sensemaking processes. Results for Development (R4D) has a useful toolkit for collaborative learning. CPI also lists a series of useful tools in their human learning systems guide. INTRAC refer to learning workshops and stakeholder reviews as different types of sensemaking activities. And I think they’re right.

Grounded theory memo writing or ethnographic diaries might help to hoover up some of the quotidian sensemaking on an individual level. We made a start on doing this within the Partnership to Engage, Reform and Learn (PERL) programme in Nigeria, but never got the chance to make the most of it, and I’ve seen others struggle with journaling. So, I’d be keen to hear more about others’ experiences with these techniques and what value they may add to more punctuated reflection moments.



Thomas Aston

I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.