Welcome to the Active Sensemaking Community website!

We invite you to put on new lenses to see the world in new ways. Join us to learn and improve ways to help people better navigate together in our complex yet fascinating world of human systems.

All human beings live and breathe, and are born and die within an intricate, interlocking, and multi-faceted web of human systems. Families, friends, enemies, tribes, formal and informal associations, nations, organizations of diverse kinds, suppliers of goods and services, customers and clients—the list goes on and on and the possible combinations are, quite literally, infinite.  Each and all of these relationships have its own layers—networks within networks, systems within systems.  Our human system on the earth is, in fact, a vast complex adaptive system. Then add to the mix the complexity that human beings bring through their individual and collective agency and identities. Each person plays their various roles as ‘wholes’ and ‘parts’ within that web of relationships and systems. This kind of system is called a complex adaptive system or VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) situation.

Many (perhaps most) human system problems and challenges are complex, especially in this generation when globalization and technology speed up and complexify local and regional dynamics. Organizations, researchers, governments, and individuals are recognizing that so many problems are much more complicated than previously recognized. This has led to new sciences, disciplines, and practices focused on complexity and how to help organizations and communities thrive in complexity. 

“Active Sensemaking” is one method and practice that was developed in the last decade to help with this.

Background on Active Sensemaking 

Quantitative and qualitative research methodologies have differing strengths and weaknesses. Consequently, the best research designs have sought to integrate qualitative and quantitative sources and perspectives, either sequentially or in a mixed-method design. Mixed-method design is particularly helpful when one needs rich information that can be brought to scale with minimal cost.

We think “active sensemaking” is a method that deserves much more attention. Today, new digital platforms are now available, making it relatively easy to conduct and report active sensemaking-based studies.

Active sensemaking starts with how people make sense of their experiences and lives. Sensemaking is larger than any methodology or platform—it is, we would argue, how human beings navigate in a complex adaptive world. As a methodology, active sensemaking harnesses and leverages the natural human ability to notice patterns in our environment, adding meaning to those patterns to generate insights, and provide a foundation for decisions and actions.

How do human beings do that? By telling stories. We are hardwired to tell stories and to respond to stories. We constantly tell stories to understand ourselves, others, and the world we live in. We respond to stories because they cultivate emotion and a sense of connectedness—a community. As Jonathan Gottschall, the author of ‘The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human’ put it, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”

Active sensemaking takes the same principles and makes them scalable. This is where the mixed-method approach comes into play. First, the participants are asked to share a story or anecdote about an experience via one or more open-ended question prompts. They are then asked a small number of quantitative follow-up questions. The follow-up questions are intentionally ambiguous, designed to allow the participant to provide context and meaning to the narrative they just submitted with no “right” or “wrong” answers.

This approach has three benefits:

  • Reduction of expert bias. The person sharing an experience is best able to make sense of their own experience. The principle of reducing expert bias through “self-signification” is a key tenet of active sensemaking.
  • Participant empowerment. The participants themselves not only choose what their narrative will be about (within a broad, open framework set by one or two prompting questions), they alone assign meaning to their own narratives.
  • Visualize patterns. The structured responses can be used to identify and visualize patterns in the narrative data. Methodologically speaking, active sensemaking is closely aligned with complexity thinking, which sees human systems (ranging from small teams to entire organizations to whole societies) as “complex adaptive systems” (CASs). CASs are complex because each system and its parts are interconnected and interdependent. Further, CASs are characterized by being in a state of continuous change, in which the multitude (literally infinite) lines of cause and effect are impossible to discern if even retrospectively. So, a CAS is ultimately unpredictable. Active sensemaking emerged from this theoretical framework as a method to understand and make sense of complex systems and situations.

An Active Sensemaking Research Framework

Here we introduce one framework’s features for the practice of active sensemaking. This is organized in eight phases. The general direction of inquiry and action follows this order. However, active sensemaking researchers can move back and forth as needed in the phases to achieve the purpose of their research or study. 

Initiate Phase

Key outcomes: 

The complex situation is identified, a study of the situation is defined for the initiative, the stakeholders mobilized along with the necessary and sufficient conditions to undertake the research.

Why this is important: 

Before acting in a complex situation, gaining sufficient understanding is prudent. Whatever the purpose of the initiative study, if this situation is to be better understood, it is important that people start well together. This approach is based on wisdom and experience presented in Active Sensemaking praxis. 

An Active Sensemaking initiative or study focuses on a complex adaptive human system. The purpose of the study could be to seek to improve something that affects many people in the situation. Or a study could seek to identify a policy that addresses a concern related to the situation. Various other purposes are possible. 

Pillars
  • Identify and clarify the emerging situation that affects the population-of-interest and the study’s intended purpose or function.
  • Identify the population-of-interest and sub groups impacted by this.
  • Mobilize key actors who will initiate and support an Active Sensemaking Initiative in Spryng.io. 
  • Mobilize key conditions needed to undertake research (financial, environmental, legal, etc ).
Risks
  • Applying traditional problem solving to make a change will produce poor or worse results in a complex adaptive situation.
  • Misdiagnosing the situation will lead to a less viable initiative and poorer results.
  • Initiating with only a small portion of people affected by the situation, weak support, or missing leaders can lead to counter-productive responses or progress with the initiative.

Discovery Phase

Key outcome: 

A shared understanding among the stakeholders of the challenging situation they are dealing with and the probable factors influencing it.

Why this is important: 

With key people backing and supporting the initiative the discovery phase is a necessary starting point to learn about the situation and frame inquiry tools. No one knows the situation precisely. So, the initiative starts with representative stakeholders who collectively begin to describe the situation scope and characteristics – based on their experiences. This is a phase where ‘complex facilitation’ principles and practices from the popular ‘Liberating Structures’ website, a complex facilitation technique framework, are typically employed here.

Pillars
  • Carefully define the presenting challenging situation and aspirations about it.
  • Practice humility and inquiry with respect for all current and future voices, with respect for the complexity of the system, and with respect for human limitations in knowing and understanding what to do.
  • Follow Active Sensemaking principles and practices to elicit and uncover an initial understanding of what stakeholders are seeing in this situation and what factors may be influencing the situation directly or indirectly and the stakeholders view of interdependence, interrelationships of these factors.
  • Draft an initial collection strategy for the population-of-interest and its sub groups.
Risks
  • Overconfidence and use of authority and power to move the initiative forward will inject biases and undermine seeing hidden and yet substantial drivers in the situation.
  • Conducting a cursory discovery process can lead to a poorly defined set of tools and poor results.
  • Poorly composed questions and story analysis can allow agendas and biases to disrupt getting people’s real experiences and therefore more useful understanding of system patterns affecting the situation. 

Design Phase

Key outcome: 

A draft instrument or set of draft instruments (questionnaires) that are designed to elicit self interpreted experiences related to the challenging situation.

Why this is important: 

With reliance on the stakeholders and their contributions in the Discovery Phase, this is when the Active Sensemaking tools are crafted for the defined situation. The goal is to create the tools that will elicit personal experiences as stories with context and meaning from many more people in the situation, without pressure from biases and agendas. Principles of humble inquiry for maximizing curiosity and exploration are employed here.

Pillars
  • Using the carefully collected insights from stakeholders, craft 2 or 3 prompting questions.
  • Using the story prompts developed and factors discovered in Discovery to design interpretation questions.
  • Ensure that all communications and tools are neutral (non-biasing) and allow a full range of experiences to be contributed – even beyond what the design team can conceive.
  • Attention is paid to the order of questions, presentation of questions, conditions for when and where and how and what and when specific questions appear.

 

Risks
  • Missing candid feedback from diverse stakeholders will limit the framing of the tools and likely lead to missing information from personal stories.
  • Poor quality prompting questions will limit the way people perceive how their experiences relate to the situation.
  • Poorly designed tools (sensors) will limit or confuse the kinds of information from stories and potentially miss valuable perspectives on what is influencing the situation – leading to more poorly informed options for action regarding the situation.

Testing Phase

Key outcome: 

A refined instrument or set of draft instruments ( questionnaires) that are optimized to scale-up its distribution to the population-of-interest.

Why this is important: 

We don’t assume that the first versions of the prompting questions and sensors are well crafted. This Phase requires a robust test of the instruments. Therefore, we test these instruments with the stakeholders to see how well they lead to diverse stories and perspectives on the situation. In this phase, stakeholders compose their stories instead of just creating themes of their stories presented in the Discovery Phase. Statistical Techniques such as randomized testing and benefits of 1-on-1 human interactions (paper testing) are taken advantage of here to test the quality of instrument wording and design.

Pillars
  • Focus is understanding how well the instruments elicit self-interpreted experiences related to the situation. 
  • Encourage careful and thorough contributions free from biasing influences.
  • Carefully study and evaluate results compared to the intents of the instruments . Ask for feedback on how the stakeholders experienced the use of the tools. 
  • Try to use the results in a dry-run analysis to see what emerges. Watch for surprising or confusing results or patterns that could have been the result of errors in the tools. Return to the Design Phase or even to the Discovery Phase to revise as needed.
Risks
  • Running a cursory test may lead to overlooking confusing or biasing cues in the tools, which will affect how people respond with their stories.
  • Shifting from humility to overconfidence can lead to missing important clues or other errors that affect the quality of the initiative and its results. 

Collection Phase

Key outcome: 

A realization of the plan to gather many experiences from the population-of-interest and their respective interpretations.

Why this is important: 

All prior phases lead to this phase. This is when the leaders of the initiative seek to collect as many people’s stories/experiences and their interpretations as possible to give a chance to begin to understand the patterns in and of this situation. Without many perspectives and experiences, we will underestimate or overestimate what is happening and what is possible. 

Pillars
  • Collect multiple and diverse stories from as many people as possible who are part of or impacted by the situation. The goal is to receive a sufficiently robust collection of stories and evaluations of stories to be used in the Analysis Phase.
  • Prepare and launch communications that effectively motivate participants to respond and safely contribute their stories. The goal is to get input from anyone and from many because their experiences with the situation reflect activity in the system and their actions contribute to results related to the situation. Achieving broad and large responses from the population-of-interest is critical to the initiative. This is commonly the most difficult part of an initiative. 
  • Make collecting of stories and inputs as easy as feasible.
Risks
  • If the purpose of the initiative is stated and presented poorly and if bias in communications to participants happens, these can lead potential participants to self-select out from contributing to the initiative. These errors will result in gaps in understanding and weaken the potential to take action regarding the situation.
  • If participants are poorly motivated to participate or if the collection window is short or if it is difficult for participants to contribute their stories these can lead to limited information about the situation. That limited information can affect the quality of the results and ability to shift the situation.

Analysis Phase

Key outcome: 

Meaningful patterns in the situation emerge from careful and creative analysis of participants’ self-interpreted stories.

Why this is important: 

The Analysis Phase is critical to developing theories for action in a complex adaptive situation. The scope and purpose of the study determines how people’s stories contribute to theories for action. Assuming the Design and Testing Phases resulted in well-focused, low or no bias instruments and the Collection Phase led to many diverse stories then there is sufficient “evidence”to explore and discover patterns related to the situation. 

The first part of Analysis is finding patterns within the collected sensor data. Sensor data is the digitized interpretations participants ascribed to their stories. This data is always linked to their stories. Techniques and approaches from group processes and methods from Liberating Structures, Human Systems Dynamics, and similar resources can lead to discerning patterns. Apparent patterns are next presented to stakeholders with experience in the situation. Their experience helps filter what are apparent patterns from what may be real or relevant patterns. After patterns in the data are discerned analysis shifts to focus on what is in the stories that reflects these patterns. This is where the substance in the patterns emerges. Insights from multiple stories linked to data patterns can lead to selecting actions around the situation In the Next Wise Action Phase. Discovering patterns is difficult because the situation is infused with complex adaptive interactions. Making sense of the evidence from stories usually requires iterative dialogues with informants. 

Identifying patterns that impact a situation can be challenging when people’s actions lead to a slow but powerful shift in natural systems that only become evident after years or decades of delayed results (such as degrading of critical habitats for wildlife, global warming, overfishing). Similarly, because the system is complex and adaptive, small and short-lived influences can lead to changes in patterns. Patterns in complexity can be discovered more readily through careful inquiry for the design of the instruments people complete with their stories and with many stories from many people.

Pillars
  • Use the digitized data from story interpretations to discover patterns in the data. Finding patterns in the data is a manageable first step to finding patterns in and insights from the stories. 
  • Finding patterns in the data and stories involves the analysts using pattern-recognition skills and techniques. Importantly, representative stakeholders with genuine experience in the situation can serve like expert witnesses to help make sense of these patterns and clarify meaning within the context of the situation.
  • Review data patterns with stakeholders. Support them as they give meaning to the patterns, suggest what these relate to, and craft hypotheses about the situation. This will lead to identifying patterns that pertain to dynamic interactions around and within the situation. 
  • Develop initial theories or hypotheses that can serve as action options in the Next Wise Action Phase. Use adaptive action and other complex system tools to evaluate and filter story patterns for potential Next Wise Actions. 
  • The design and structure of a sensor with demographic questions prepares the way for effective analysis. During analysis adept filter combinations enable analysts and representative stakeholders to hone in on more relevant patterns in the situation. 
Risks
  • If the number of experiences collected is insufficient, and/or if the diversity of the community in question is inadequately represented, any identified patterns that emerge may be misleading.
  • Rushing to action without thoughtful consideration and inquiry into the story patterns may result in poor insights and ineffective actions in the situation.
  • Over-analysis of respondent experiences and meanings can lead to misinterpretations of patterns and inaction for the study. Only through actions can people begin to know what makes a difference in a complex adaptive situation. 

Next Wise Action Phase

Key outcome: 

Taking action in the human system situation to fulfill the purpose of the initiative and study. Actions can be implemented based on insights about patterns that are discovered. Depending on the purpose of the study, different actions are warranted. Since the system is complex and adaptive, high value options for action can be tested initially as low-risk probes. Informants and the community can help identify what emerges in the situation to inform further action. The purpose of the study will determine what sort of actions will be taken. Many kinds of studies can be conducted using active sensemaking. 

Why this is important: 

All the prior phases are preparation for action. Only with action can people recognize how a system behaves around a situation and only with action can there be better insights into the situation. The purpose of an initiative focuses the study and therefore actions to take in the Next Wise Action Phase. 

Purpose can include: to shift a situation that is currently harming or limiting a community in some way; to recommend better policy; to design something that makes a difference; to report on what is happening in a situation; to help leaders and members of an organization understand how they are functioning. 

The goal is to select and act as wisely as feasible within the current time, resource constraints, and understanding of the situation. Multiple actions may be necessary to fulfill the purpose in the situation. If so, more cycles of inquiry (Discovery through Analysis Phases) and action (Next Wise Action Phase) around the situation may be warranted. Use each cycle to advance shared experience and understanding in the situation. Experience is gained through actions with people and watching feedback within the system as reported by people’s experiences and possibly other relevant measures. This improves theories about the system, the situation, and next actions. 

Human system complexity theory and practice informs the tools and methods for wise actions. Developing and keeping useful measures and documentation can help inform people. This is especially valuable where actions to shift a situation involve many people, groups, or organizations/entities. Because the situation exists in a complex adaptive system setting with likely many people involved, it will take careful communication, dialogue, feedback, and leadership for people to collaborate in any joint actions. 

Pillars
  • From the identified patterns (in the Analysis Phase) develop working theories for prospective actions, based on the purpose of the initiative. 
  • Select the most likely useful action options – hopefully, these will be leverage points in the system that influence targeted patterns. Initial actions may be single or sets of safe-to-fail tests. 
  • Visualize what time, resources, and personnel are needed to accomplish the targeted actions. 
  • Depending on the initiative, coordinate action plans with key agents (people, groups, organizations). Gather resources and launch the action (or set of actions) that address the purpose in the situation. 
  • For studies that seek insight about feedback from actions, monitor and make sense of each action’s apparent “results” in the situation. This may involve feedback from stakeholders and other collected data or measures. These could be analyzed to prepare for the next actions. Return to a prior Phase to reassess plans, adjust theories, revise strategies, develop possible actions, and then act again. 
Risks
  • Not preparing for the degree of complexity of a situation and the scope of people and organizations involved. Active sensemaking was developed to help with this. People may be distracted by the constellation of information and patterns. Consider that is needed in time and resources to make progress with the study. More cycles of learning and action may be needed to better recognize patterns that make a difference. 
  • Insufficient preparations or inadequate resources for action may lead to limited impact from or limited ability to recognize an impact from attempted actions.
  • Inadequately managing the energy, resources, and good will of personnel so that when time arrives to take action these are depleted and no actions are taken. If the initiative is important, design and manage it so that benefits continue to accrue. Some initiatives can be projects but others need to become ongoing activities in an organization or community.
  • Expecting fast or straightforward results from actions can create disappointment. Complex adaptive situations are dynamic. Delays often occur between diverse actions, which can make identifying cause and effect elusive. Emergence and change is the result. This is why collecting many people’s experiences is a useful way to discover how a system is behaving. 
  • Discovering things that were not anticipated may cause people to rethink their initiative. The risk of this kind of problem could be reduced by careful scoping and design of the study in the beginning. It may help to expand the questions being asked to consider more levels and scales in the system that the initiative is focusing on. Yet, the purpose of an initiative is to answer important questions. The answers may surprise, or the answers may confirm.

Iterations of Active Sensemaking for Ongoing Adaptive Action

Why this is important: 

This phase applies to initiatives that seek ongoing iterations of discovery and action. Future iterative cycles build on paying attention to emerging patterns. The process selectively utilizes the active sensemaking steps. This is a creative process: a) Analyze prior inputs from previous cycles plus discovery (stories and data) from participants in the situation from the latest action, b) Adjust emerging theories about the situation and system behaviors, c) Make choices and take actions to influence the situation, d) Observe results from actions taken while the system continues to adjust, and e) Consider new emerging perspectives and insights for further action.

This may involve reissuing a collection to the community to learn more about what is happening in the situation now. It may require returning Discovery and Design phases to potentially redesign and test sensors for the next cycle of action, then Collect data (stories), Analyze data, and convene Next Wise Actions. If you make changes to questions in the sensor, you may not be able to compare stories and meanings between those changed questions. After each cycle leaders reevaluate what will help next in the phases as they learn more about the situation in the direction of the challenging situation’s vision statement. 

Pillars
  • Maintain experience and lessons learned from prior iterations. This could be some kind of repository with reflections on the prior iterations. 
  • Record and share insights and ways of thinking that seem to have benefited and shifted the situation. Compile a collective theory of practice focused on changes in this situation – because some people will leave and new people will join the efforts. New people need to gain from prior people’s shared understanding. 
  • Reuse and possibly revise initiative instruments. The purpose of multiple iterations requires learning multiple times from the population in the situation. Doing this well can enhance insights and guide actions into the future.
  • Develop features or functions for governing and guiding action in the initiative (such as resources, funds, human work, etc.) that respect and honor the different groups and individuals involved. It may help to embed these features in the governance and operations practices of organizations or communities. This may turn a study into a collective action initiative that bridges multiple organizations and groups. 
  • Governing and leading helps ensure that people are prepared and have broad motivation and energy to succeed in the purpose envisioned in the initiative. This requires effective leadership and ongoing, quality communications between many people. This may go as far as to develop self-sustaining, organized local agents that provide resources and time to invest in the initiative – short-term and even long-term. 
Risks
  • If the lessons learned and ongoing governance functions are not established the real benefits of the initiative could be lost or never attained. 
  • The hard work to get to the next wise action could be lost if people’s expectations are dashed because there was no quick change in the situation. Managing expectations could be a big challenge to achieving lasting results.
  • The costs in resources, funds, and time may be greater than the group or organization can sustain. Explore options in the Analysis and the Next Wise Action Phases that are more sustainable and could potentially still engage the situation. Explore options for action that become self-sustaining – especially if many people’s influence on the system is necessary to fulfill the initiative’s purpose in a situation.