Making Sense of the Unimaginable

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Source: Laura Chouette, Unsplash

How do you live with the unimaginable? I vividly remember watching the national news in the early weeks of 2020 as broadcasters reported the spread of COVID-19 from the outbreak in Wuhan to the relatively swift confirmation of cases in Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

I recall thinking smugly, “We’ll be fine here. They’ll take care of it.” (They in this instance being the experts, doctors, scientists, global leaders et al). This thinking I’ll readily admit comes from the white, middle-class, 60-something perspective of relative Canadian privilege, with an embarrassing dose of magical thinking, and a not insignificant bent toward faith in democratic government. I expected a week or two of personal inconvenience while they figured things out.

In mid-March, I was disabused of my lazy optimism as the Government of Canada introduced serious isolation measures to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of what had become, in a few short weeks, a global pandemic. My family and I watched in disbelief as country after country listed their infection rates and death counts, including our beloved Canada. Despite our privileged, advanced first-world status — we were not exempt. Despite understanding on an intellectual level that a global pandemic was possible (in fact, even probable), I did not imagine that we would be coping with an event like this in my lifetime. Not here in North America at least. Ah, the power of privileged denial. Thus ended the modern Canadian equivalent of a Belle Epoque, at least for me.

During the isolation period, I connected with the then nascent Grey Swan Guild, at the time a loose collective devoted to trying to make sense of the disruptions wrought by COVID-19, and hoping to play a role in ushering in a new post-pandemic reality. Little did we know that we would in fact be continuing to live through the pandemic, participating in shaping an ongoing global reality. (At the time of this writing we are entering month eight of pandemic protocols.)

The world is in a liminal space; the past is gone and the future is uncertain. It might be said that it is always so — the future continually being dreamed up as we move toward it. But in these particular circumstances: the near complete shutdown of global economies, the ongoing risk of infection in the absence of vaccines or treatments, and (for many)the complete reinvention of work, communication and personal connection — we have been forced to reimagine nearly every avenue of daily life.

One of the key purposes of the Grey Swan Guild is to attempt to make sense of this event or other Grey Swan events that may occur. The naming of our Guild was purposeful — a Grey Swan being a potentially significant event, unlikely to happen but possible, also one that should be anticipated because of its impact on civilization. Like a pandemic. It seems that even though we knew it was possible, we failed to prepare for the possibility.

So, how do we make sense of this? The Guild is a collaborative global collective that is applying a powerful trio of research, sensemaking and intelligence (RSI) to this crisis. Admittedly, I’m not an expert on research methodologies. However, one of the founding members of the Guild, Dr. Sharon McIntyre, introduced a few existing models that we might use as a framework for Guild Sensemaking (yes, this is Sensemaking with a capital S). McIntyre is a researcher, educator, and consultant who advocated that we consider exploring the Cynefin framework (1999, 2007), developed by David Snowdon, founder of Cognitive Edge, for our Guild Sensemaking approach.

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Image: Cynefin domains

According to Snowdon, “We consider Cynefin a sense-making framework which means that its value is not so much in logical arguments or empirical verifications as in its effect on the sense-making or decision-making capabilities of those who use it.”

In other words, as individuals or groups, we can learn to make sense by applying the model. Snowdon goes on to say, “We have found it gives decision-makers powerful new constructs that they can use to make sense of a wide range of unspecified problems. It also helps people to break out of old ways of thinking and to consider intractable problems in new ways. The framework is particularly useful in collective sense-making in that it is designed to allow shared understandings to emerge from the multiple discourses of the decision-making group.” This kind of framework is vital to support a new way of problem-solving that is rooted in a strong belief in the inherent value of collective, collaborative discourses.

The domains illustrated in the Snowden model move us from the complex to chaos to the knowable and finally to the known. Another member of our RSI team, Dave Marvit, a former neuroscientist and co-leader of innovation efforts at Fujitsu’s Open Innovation Gateway overlaid this model with a perspective developed in his work with the insurance industry. He challenged his clients to think more broadly about fear.

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Image: Dave Marvit — Thinking More Broadly About Fear

This is the resultant model. It aligns with the Snowden framework and includes a profound acknowledgement that the unimaginable must be one of our thinking domains going forward.

So how do we live with the unimaginable? For me, a process or framework for making sense of complexity offers personal agency. I do not need to rely on an external them to provide solutions. We are the sensemakers, and the new future will be imagined collectively.

Our RSI work at the Guild is focused on using both primary and secondary research to elicit diverse global perspectives on the complexity and chaos introduced by the pandemic and then applying S/sensemaking tools and frameworks that can move us toward intelligence bringing us to the knowable domain. In this way we travel from the unpredictable world toward the predictable. The future remains unknown, but it may not be unknowable.

Dr. McIntyre and Dave Marvit are joined on the RSI core team of the Grey Swan Guild by thinkers from around the globe including Grey Swan Guild co-founder Sean Moffitt of Toronto, Kim Lindqvist from Stockholm and Sylvia Gallusser of Silicon Valley. Says Moffitt, “In times of extreme change, it’s helpful to have talented individuals who can see past the immediate veil of disruption, unknowability and unimaginability, to make better sense of things. It’s even better and more textured when groups of these people come together in common purpose. This is what we are creating."

The team recently expanded to include representation from Toronto, Singapore, New York, London, Geneva, Mexico City, Melbourne, Seattle, Lisbon, Dallas and Brazil and over 35 countries. There are more than 100 other thought-leaders around the world who support and inform our research, sensemaking and intelligence efforts.

Together, we’re a Global League of Sensemakers and if you are trying to make sense of this, too, join us!

“In times of extreme change, it’s helpful to have talented individuals who can see past the immediate veil of disruption, unknowability and unimaginability, to make better sense of things. It’s even better and more textured when groups of these people come together in common purpose…” — Sean Moffitt

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Vicki McLeod is a writer, coach and award-winning entrepreneur. She is the author of four nonfiction books that explore being fully human in a technical world, and for nearly three decades she has coached leaders in organizations, governments and small businesses to create conversations that matter. Her recent book You and the Internet of Things, A practical guide to understanding and integrating the IoT into your daily life (Self-Counsel Press 2020), is currently listed as a BC Top Seller in BC Bookworld (Fall 2020). Her short story, Georgie, was longlisted for the 2020 CBC nonfiction prize. She is a founding member of the Grey Swan Guild and a member of the RSI core team. You can find her at www.vickimcleod.com or on beautiful Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada, in pajamas making something.

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