Methods as Mechanisms for Messes and Constituent Problems

Conducting a review of this one important abstract mechanism of how is a nontrivial task. In general, there are as many unique methods for addressing situations that involve messes and problems as there are messes and problems. Our task is not to select one all-encompassing method for approaching problems and messes, but to provide an approach for matching the mess-problem system with an approach that is capable of shifting the mess-problem system from a problem state to a new, more desirable state.

Movement from an undesirable state to a new, desirable state requires us to make sense of the situation with which we are faced. Sensemaking is the formal process by which humans give meaning to experience when attempting to understand real-world situations and any associated data and information.


Sensemaking has been defined by a number of practitioners. Some relevant definitions, arranged chronologically, are presented in Table 10.4.

Table 10.4 Definitions for sensemaking



“A label for a coherent set of concepts and methods used in a now 8-year programmatic effort to study how people construct sense of their worlds and, in particular, how they construct information needs and uses for information in the process of sense-making”

(Dervin, 1983, p. 3)

“The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs”

(Weick, 1993, p. 635)

“The making of sense”

(Weick, 1995, p. 4)

“Sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action”

(Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409)

“A motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively”

(Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006, p. 71)

“Sensemaking, a term introduced by Karl Weick, refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding—a map—of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning, the map depending on how credible it is”

(Ancona, 2012, p. 3)

From these definitions, we can clearly see that sensemaking has, at its core, a structured approach to understanding. Sensemaking has become an accepted practice in a number of programs, with practical applications in:

  • • The studies of organizations (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005).
  • • The fields of communication and library and information science (Dervin, 1983, 1992, 1993).
  • • The design of interactive systems with the computer-human interaction (CHI) community (Russell, Stefik, Pirolli, & Card, 1993).
  • • Naturalistic decision making (Klein, Phillips, Rall, & Peluso, 2007).
  • • Military decision making process (Leedom, 2001).
  • • A generalized method for inquiry in complex systems (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003; Snowden, 2002; Snowden & Boone, 2007).

The next section will review how sensemaking may be applied as a generalized method for inquiry in situations like our messes and related problems.

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