Remember the movie ‘Back to the future’ where Marty (Michael J. Fox) travels through time, whilst figuring out what is happening and how to influence the future whilst simultaneously dealing with the current situation?
It reminds me of sense-making. Sense-making is about how we give meaning to a situation. Sense-making is based in our decisions and beliefs and it is influenced by aspects such as power relations, hierarchy, autonomy, linguistics, temporalization (focus on now, the past or the future), justification, culture and traditional society, equality, bargaining power, locus of control, openness to change. Sense-making is done individually or collectively in organizations and communities. Capturing these underlying nuances in our perceptions allows deeper insights into why an organization or community are angry, failing, succeeding, innovating, etc.
Brenda Dervin, Gary Klein, Karl Weick and David Snowden are a few of the contributors to sense-making. They all describe their own theory about sense-making either as individual or collective activity. Snowden combined several sense-making theories into one tool. For my studies I am using his tool to capture community perspectives regarding cost as a barrier to access emergency care.
Today I’m sharing my understanding of Brenda Dervin’s metaphor for sense-making. Dervin sees sense-making as the individual activity of information seeking, processing, recreating and application. Information is described as a tool designed by humans whilst making sense of reality. Methods of communication and the application of information (knowledge) are key aspects of sense-making.
It starts in a time-space milieu, implying constant energy and movement. This environment is never static and time-space energy propels us forward or pulls us back, always fluctuating and never stable.
Moving through time-space we have Mr. Squiggly. Humans are depicted as squiggly because we are caught between certainty and uncertainty. Thus there is a constant flux within the person (internal) and between the person and the environment (external). Mr. Squiggly carries an umbrella, symbolizing mind-set, perceived constraints and enablers. (I feel that it should be a backpack – demonstrating our baggage).
Whilst moving through time-space, a gap or barrier is encountered. For the purposes of my work, the gap is a life-threatening injury or illness requiring urgent care. The gap can however be any barrier or difficulty in daily life (in an organization it could be new policies, a new boss etc.). The gap forces Mr. Squiggly to stop until a way has been found to ‘bridge’ the gap and reach an outcome.
The outcome depends on how the gap is bridged. Some potential outcomes are not obvious in the beginning and it may only become apparent retrospectively, influencing future decisions and beliefs.
Moving from situation to outcome requires a bridge. The building blocks used to build the bridge consists of different types of blocks. One being the individual mind-set, during a life-threatening emergency it would include individual beliefs about health, healthcare, medication, culture. Building blocks also include inputs from others, the stories within the community about a time that something similar happened to someone else, financial hardships suffered, patient outcome etc. Mr. Squiggly consciously and unconsciously use all the information in the form of building blocks to create the bridge.
Once the bridge is built, Mr. Squiggly can leap across the bridge to the outcome; this is aptly called gap-bridging. The building blocks of information is now applied, thus knowledge are created. Dervin use the term ‘verbing’ as an important gap-bridging and sense-making tool. Everyday examples of verbing include the use of words for example emailing, googling or ubering. Verbing thus occurs when a noun is turned into a verb, creating action or experience. It certainly fits a methodology where knowledge is seen as a context-specific sense-making activity in a specific point in time and space.
I’m using sense-making to capture the various roles within a community perceive gaps, bridge gaps and view the outcomes during a life-threatening injury or illness. Perceptions will be captured using a type of narrative enquiry, where the participant is asked to tell a descriptive story. After telling the story, the storyteller explains the meaning of their own story by indexing it onto a predesigned framework. This is very different from ‘traditional’ research where the investigator assigns meaning to the stories. Neutral questioning is used to guide the indexing. Questions are framed in such a way to capture the nuanced aspects of hierarchy, autonomy, equality etc. After capturing, the data are combined and the software allows for it to be visually displayed, enabling easy identification of patterns and trends. More details on the software are a story for another day.
This technique has been applied to monitor, evaluate, communicate, and create feedback loops in projects, organizations, communities and even broader society.
I am using sense-making because I’m passionate about the voice of the ‘voiceless’ in organizations and communities. I feel that tacit knowledge is often overlooked. Sense-making provides a tool to capture many voices, combine the different perspectives and seek common ground, emerging trends or underlying moods. This is powerful, whether in an organization, community or development project. It prevents the implementation of one perspective, ‘outside’ views or only top-down approaches. Inclusive sustainable implementation requires more than one story, one perspective and more than one type of knowledge.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her powerful TED talk about the danger of a single story:
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
I adapted the pictures from: Facing a gappy situation. Sense-making methodology: communicating communicatively with campaign audience. Dervin, B. 2003. In Dervin B, Foreman-Wernet L (Eds). Sense-making methodology reader: selected writings of Brenda Dervin, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press 2003.