Think: Making sense
Group sensemaking can create unexpected and complex patterns
Sensemaking refers to how people make sense of the world in all its complexity and uncertainty in order to make decisions. Group sensemaking means a group of people thinking about something together. In a story project, groups can use the body of collected stories and answers to questions about them to think about issues they care about or decisions they need to make. Group sensemaking with stories can either involve discussion or exercises (or both).
Here are some ways to make sense of the stories and answers collected from a group of people.
- Distribute the collected stories to group participants so that everyone has read at least a few stories and every story has been read by at least a few people. Ask people to talk about the stories they think are the most -- something -- resonant, important, dangerous, useful and so on. Talk about why those stories were chosen. Talk about what each means about the issue and what can be done about it.
- Have several people spend some time looking at the stories on their own. Ask them to bring some observations, interpretations and implications to the meeting. Swap observations and derive new interpretations and implications, then talk about the similarities and differences and what they mean.
- Have groups of two or three people sit down and look at the stories together, in the style of extreme programming (an approach where all programming is done by teams working together). See if you can increase diversity between groups and decrease it within groups, so as to maximize the range of viewpoints represented. Have each group come up with observations, interpretations and implications; then swap and discuss.
- Have several people or groups look at the stories and come up with observations and selected stories. Then paper one or more walls, or maybe even a whole room, with printouts of stories and graphs of trends, and have a group of people -- either those who made the observations, or others, or a mixed group -- walk around and talk about what they see.
- If the group doing the sensemaking is not in the group of interest, remember to ask people to separate statements and provide provoking perspectives, as described in the patterns section.
The exercises mentioned here (twice-told stories, composite stories, histories, and emergent constructs) can be used in either the generative mode, that is, to generate stories, or in integrative mode, to bring together existing stories into convergent understandings. In generative mode the output of the exercises takes a back stage to the stories told, but in integrative mode the output of the exercises is a jewel of great value.
To use any of the exercises as an integrator, distribute the collected stories to group participants as you would for a discussion. Handing out papers at the start of the session is the easiest way to do this. I don't recommend sending people things to read beforehand as some will and some won't. Ask people to sit quietly and read their stories (which should be short), then ask people to put away the stories and go through the exercise using the stories they read. Don't allow people to refer to the printed stories after they have read them, since you want them to have to remember the stories and think about them. Having the story in front of people tends to make them focus too much on details and not enough on what is meaningful in the story.
Now ask people to carry out the task with the stories they have read. It is fine if people tell more stories during the exercise and incorporate them into their task. After the task is complete (a story has been chosen and retold, a composite story has been built, a history has been outlined, constructs have emerged), ask people to talk about the thing that has been created and what it means about the issues at hand or decisions to be made. I've seen quite a few instances where the task outcome contains surprises that turn previous thinking about project issues on its head.
Optionally, people can then go on to talk about what implications the task outcome has for what they should do with regard to the issue. They can even use the task outcome to try out ideas -- for example they can place new items on a history, or have a personification tell a story about an initiative, and so on. This can be a way to explore ideas that come up as a result of the integrative sensemaking.
The rules about generating interpretations and implications (separate statements, provide provoking perspectives) apply just as much to sensemaking exercises as to general discussion, because the exercises are primarily interpretive activities. One way to make sure exercises provide provoking perspectives is to deliberately populate your sensemaking groups with people you expect to have different viewpoints. You will then be able to compare outcomes to see how the interpretations differ.
Be aware that people sometimes become upset about the outcome of the exercises used in integrative mode. Sometimes the result of the exercise is that people are confronted with something that turns their prior beliefs on their heads and pushes on tender spots, possibly for the first time. These are a few of the (real but heavily anonymized) incidents I remember taking place:
- participants discovered that people they revered shared attributes with people they despised
- people in authority found out how their subordinates really saw them, and vice versa
- staff members were confronted with their true feelings about their customers
- two merging groups saw their unspoken misgivings about each other come out into the open
- people saw that the real reason they were failing was their own prejudices
I've seen and heard about people leaving the exercise in a huff, and worse, when cherished beliefs were toppled in this way. The danger is greatest when you have two or more groups integrating information separately and then sharing the results.
What is important during these moments of discomfort is to stay calm and not become defensive yourself, because people will undoubtedly attack your methods when they see results they don't like. Explain carefully and clearly how the results came about, and allow people some distance and time to ponder the result. It can sometimes help to give people a task to carry out that allows them to save face by coming up with new ideas based on what was discovered (thereby turning an unpleasant discovery into a productive insight). Usually when people are given adequate information, time to process it, and something constructive to profit by, they can move past defensiveness and come back with new insights and ideas that transform the experience from disabling to enabling.
For further reading
The other exercise I recommend for sensemaking with stories is building a sensemaking framework. I'm not going to explain how to do that here, because I already wrote (with Dave Snowden) a fairly detailed description of that method in the paper The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world, in the IBM Systems Journal. Another description of the method can be found in the article called Model Creation by Social Construction on the Cognitive Edge web site. Building a sensemaking framework, while wonderfully useful, is a more advanced activity than the exercises I describe here, so I'd recommend you get some practice with them before you attempt it.
Reader comments, tips and advice can be found on the Think: Making sense Google Group page.