Tool: Sensemaking Sessions

Why?

Complex situations are characterized by the fact that there are hardly any transparent cause-effect relations, but it is rather a matter of making sense out of an apparent confusion. If you want to understand the movements in a living organism, you should get inside it and try to look behind the scenes of facts. Only in the exchange with others one begins to understand their perspectives and has the chance to put oneself into multi-layered contexts. In this way, “warm data” emerges – numbers that are alive and that are enriched with meaning and stories. This search for meaning cannot be outsourced to committees and expert panels, but takes place in direct exchange, in direct communication between those who come together in a virtual or physical space. A sense of meaning in complex issues is not found in a quiet chamber, but in communication itself. This is the purpose of our Sensemaking Sessions.

Example

As part of a semester project, a team of students has set itself the goal of creating greater awareness for ecological sustainability – using packaging waste as an example.

Motivated by the individual purpose of the participants, the decision was made to gather various stakeholders on this topic in a communication space. This was to become more than just a space for communication and offer the opportunity for meaningful encounters between people. The idea was to open up the possibility for dialog and discussion in a virtual exchange – and at the same time to create a creative moment from which all participants in the event could recognize a potential for their own effective action.

What matters (Principles)

Sensemaking sessions are simply structured, yet require discipline. Finding meaning from information in an exchange requires refraining from the approach that passing on information is already sufficient communication. This is the pattern that many management letters, press releases and social media posts continue to follow: a few experts prepare factually correct information that others essentially just consume. The interpretation of the information is left to the readers.

While this can be an efficient way of disseminating information for simple cause-and-effect relationships, it leads directly to nirvana for complex topics and issues: Employees feel lost. Customers lose trust. Climate activists go to the barricades – simply because there is no exchange between people, in which observations are shared and cold facts are illuminated from different perspectives.

Sensemaking sessions require letting go of the privilege of information dissemination – and instead immersing yourself in a vibrant sense-making experience involving multiple stakeholders.

Step by step

  1. Choose a complex topic for the sensemaking session, such as “environmental sustainability.”
  2. Invite a group of about 20-40 stakeholders to this topic – physically on-site at your location or as part of a virtual call with camera function.
  3. Prepare either tables or breakout rooms with 4-6 participants:inside.
  4. Introduce the topic to the plenary and use a question to initiate the discussion. Sample suitable questions can be found below in the templates. Example: “What is essential in environmental sustainability?”
  5. Afterwards, three rounds of discussions with changing participants take place at the tables or in the breakout rooms (optional: assign staff members familiar with the method to the groups as facilitators):
    1. Round 1: 20 minutes of sharing stories and observations about each context.
    2. Round 2: 15 minutes in different line-up / on new contexts
    3. Round 3: 10 minutes discussion
  6. Free, open-ended sharing of observations from the tables and breakout rooms.
 

Important aids

Framework

Duration 90 minutes with stringent preparation and moderation in online format
Formatvirtually or in person in a suitable room
Participants approx20-40 diverse stakeholders on a business-relevant topic

Further information?