Unravelling the sensemaking process

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Making sense of a problem is a complex process that involves various experiences.

We deal with problems and make sense of different situations every day: From asking for coffee in the mornings to planning alternative routes when the tube we need to take presents severe delays or is suspended. The essence of problem-solving is understanding the situation, and finding the most suitable solution to address the aspect/s of that situation that is/are not working or need/s to be improved, or creating a new aspect not considered before. This chain of activities is often referred to as the sensemaking process. This process involves various tasks, phases and three major tightly interrelated experiences (Kuhlthau, 1991):

  1. Cognitive experience: Understanding, constructing new knowledge and mental processes, making decisions, and inferring conclusions.
  2. Physical experience: Actions taken during the process to achieve cognitive goals, e.g. analysis, searching, organising, etc.
  3. Affective experience: Feelings and emotions experienced during the process of understanding a problem-situation and creating a relevant solution.

The sensemaking process has been widely studied and there is a wealth of literature about it. This post presents an overview of the process.

The cognitive and physical experiences behind sensemaking begin with our intention to understand a particular problem-situation. Consciously or unconsciously we start looking for the key parts and components (minimal units) of that situation and connections among them. We draw upon our previous experiences and everything we have learnt to identify each minimal unit, define their characteristics and how they relate to each other. We get familiar with the problem by using our prior knowledge to interpret, decode and provide meaning to it

Understanding the problem-situation

The very first step of sensemaking is understanding what the problem is about. This helps determine the necessary knowledge and pertinent strategies to appropriately deal with it. This task is harder when the problem is vague and ambiguous, and it is unclear what methods and strategies would be more suitable to find a solution. This is the case of ill-defined or ill-structured problems. On the other hand, when problems are well defined, the goals and steps to follow are clearer and the process seems smoother and straightforward.

Problems have different levels of complexity too. How we perceive a problem complexity is related to objective (goals, tasks involved, etc.) and subjective factors (experience and feelings). Ill-defined or vague problems increase conceptual complexity (problem definition). In these cases, even though problems may not require a highly complex problem-solving strategy, they may require more thorough understanding at the beginning of the process until the problem is fully defined. On the other hand, some problems do require highly complex solving procedures (e.g. specialised software and skills, tools) but are conceptually simple and present no barriers to be understood. It is important to distinguish these two types of problems. Another factor to consider when establishing problem complexity is the number of sensemaking activities require to solve the problem (e.g. search, decide, interpret, identify, question, choose, define, learn).

Constructing a (mental) representation

For each situation we create a (mental) representation (e.g. stories, scripts, schema, frameworks, maps or diagrams) combining prior knowledge with what we know about the problem, and how we think it can be solved (interpretation). In other words, a representation is a visual construction of the problem-situation based on our own interpretation about the problem, prior knowledge and incoming information. This representation evolves and expands throughout the process as new information is found and we enrich our (initial) knowledge about that particular situation. Therefore, representations:

  • Guide and structure the sensemaking process.
  • Determine how to proceed further in the process
  • Determine what actions need to be taken (e.g. seek information, use what we have, start the process again, etc.).

When we don’t have a minimal knowledge about the problem-situation that we could use to construct a representation, we need to construct that knowledge. (Client) meetings, research, discussions and questions are often used to gain an initial and broad understanding of the situation and begin constructing a representation. In further phases of the process, we elaborate on that representation by adding and removing information, until we find an adequate solution.

As mentioned in a previous post, many feelings are experienced while we are making sense of a problem-situation. Not surprisingly, being optimistic and confident during the full process contributes to the development of more effective and higher quality solutions. Experience helps strengthen confidence, but rigour and consistency too.

Prior knowledge as experience and expertise plays a key role in the way we solve problems and make sense of situations. Initial knowledge evolves throughout the sensemaking process. It can be expanded and complemented, or discarded and replaced for another more appropriate piece of information, until an adequate solution is achieved.

Left: Prior knowledge and emotions play a key role in the way we solve problems and make sense of situations. Both are used to construct representations of the problem-situation, which evolve throughout the sensemaking process. They expand and complement, or are discarded and replaced by another more appropriate representation, until an adequate solution is obtained. / Right: Examples of various possible mental representations.

Key learnings

Sensemaking is a complex process. Phases, tasks, and experiences involved in the process are connected and is hard to explain each of them separately, and even harder to consciously think about each of them when solving a problem. However, keeping in mind the following aspects may improve our sensemaking experience:

  • Our emotional state matters. Understanding how we are feeling at each stage of the sensemaking process is as important as being rigorous and thorough, and essential to achieve appropriate solutions.
  • Previous experiences matter. Everything we have learnt can be useful and be applied in new situations. Prior knowledge complements and enriches new knowledge, and plays a key role throughout the process.
  • Each problem is unique. Even when two problems seem to be alike, each of them has specific aspects and characteristics that make them unique. Identifying and learning those little details at the beginning of the process saves time and minimises the risk of choosing the wrong problem-solving strategy.

Understanding what the sensemaking process involves is fundamental for any problem-solver and achieving positive results, but learning about our own ways of making sense of problems and situations is equally relevant and an intrinsic part of the process.

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– Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Making sense of sensemaking 2: A macrocognitive model. Intelligent Systems, IEEE, 21(5), 88-92.
– Kuhlthau, C.C. (1991). Inside the search process: information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.
– Nokes, T.J.; Schunn, C.D. and Chi, M.T.H. (2010) Problem Solving and Human Expertise. International Encyclopedia of Education, Elsevier, 5, 265-272

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3 comments

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