Sensemaking and the Pain of Agnosticism

Engraved double-hemisphere map of the world by Nicolaes Visscher, 1658. Maps, like other tools to help us understand and navigate the world, have changed considerably over the years.

For me, sensemaking is pain. It is the necessary pain of throwing away preconceptions, of abandoning ways of seeing, of rejecting how I frame the world — and being left with, …well, with nothing. No firm knowledge, no tools, no structures. I call it the pain of agnosticism.

But let me back up a bit.

I’m leading the Research, Sensemaking, and Intelligence group at the Grey Swan Guild — a global network of over 700 thought leaders with a common desire to “make sense of this new world.” In addition, I’ve been co-leading Fujitsu’s Open Innovation Gateway, helping businesses make sense of changing technology and market conditions so we can, collaboratively, chart a path forward. Bottom line? Sensemaking is near and dear to me.

What is sensemaking? And how does it work? In my eyes, sensemaking is the step between information and wisdom. It bridges the gap between the chaotic swirl of the world around us — filled with data, opinion, insights, feelings, change — and the wisdom we need to navigate that world.

The world is much too complex to model completely. Think about how interwoven the world is — how everything effects pretty much everything else. We must simplify in order to wrap our minds around that complexity. We can think of sensemaking as a kind of dimensionality reduction. In the same way as a three-dimensional object can be represented on a two-dimensional sheet of paper, with both clarification and distortion in the process, complex realities can be simplified through sensemaking. We pick the most important dimensions — the most important causes, trends, relationships, perspectives — and drop the rest. The hope is that we will gain insights and not mislead in the process. This is the tension famously described by Alfred Korzybski when he explained that “the map is not the territory.” The map may be useful, but it isn’t the thing it represents. Creating the map is sensemaking. Using it is the path to wisdom.

Three different representations of our planet — each with their own value and their own distortions. Note that in the spherical globe view the circles are all identical. (By Stefan Kühn — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Pictures here, here and here.)

Sensemaking requires seeing the world in a new way. If the existing way was up to the task, then there would be no need for sensemaking — the world would already make sense. And here lies the biggest trap: assuming that the way we currently see the world is adequate. Seeing in a new way will provide valuable insights that would otherwise be invisible.

I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. If you think you know how to make sense of the world, given your current frameworks, then you are at an enormous disadvantage. Embracing a new way of seeing the world does not mean rejecting the existing one. It means recognizing that the existing perspective is a tool. And like all tools, it comes with limits. Any new way of seeing, of making sense, will have its limits too. But those limits will be different — giving us a different set of insights and blind spots.

So if the world is too complex to fathom, and the tools we have used to understand it in the past inevitably carry their distortions with them, limiting our ability to see new situations clearly, how then do we confront problems of infinite complexity with a necessarily empty toolbox? We have arrived at the essential challenge of sensemaking. Welcome to ground zero.

The power of having an additional perspective — especially if it is a novel one — comes in a couple of forms. First, it surfaces original insights. This is especially valuable in business. Inventions and disruptive business models often follow directly from new ways of thinking. (For example, our team at Open Innovation Gateway recognized that “life insurance” is really “death insurance.” This new perspective exposed a market opportunity for something that would help protect quality of life — actual “life insurance.” There followed a whole new suite of services and business models for Japan’s largest life insurance company.) Second, and this is a bit more subtle, having an additional perspective serves as a reminder that all our ways of seeing things are provisional and limited. Everything we think we know, along with the tools we use to know these things, are always at risk of revision. If we can embrace this uncomfortable reality, then we will be armed with the power of an open mind — ready to engage in sensemaking when the world demands it.

The problem of sensemaking goes way back, of course. We can turn for guidance to an anonymous Christian mystic who, in the late 14th century, wrote a spiritual guide: “The Cloud of Unknowing.” He was struggling to fathom the nature of God.

As Wikipedia describes it, “The Cloud of Unknowing” suggests that:

…the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing”, at which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.

We are struggling with questions such as, what is the meaning of the pandemic? How will changes in technology, markets, politics, and demographics impact the world? What is the right path for my endangered business? Certainly more mundane, but still far enough beyond the possibility of complete understanding that those ancient instructions are useful.

Those instructions teach us that we must start by rejecting any attempts to know, to make sense of, what we see around us. We must go into the realm of “unknowing” — passing the state of merely not knowing and embracing not trying to know. That is the starting point. And, I’d argue, the only starting point. The Buddhists express a similar idea when they speak of “beginner’s mind” or “shoshin.” Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki explains that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

If we try to make sense too early, we will inevitably hear the old ways of thinking crying out, offering their help in our time of need. The quiet voices of new perspectives will be lost, buried under the cacophony of the old. Instead, we need to set aside the attempt to make sense. We need to look around us. Collect data, talk to people, go for long walks, and listen for those weak signals. Fellow Grey Swan Guild member, Dr. Sharon McIntyre calls these “glimmers.” And above all, learn to treasure the pain of agnosticism.

Take heart. With quiet contemplation, open-minded looks at the world and open-hearted conversations with others, the pain will abate and new frameworks will emerge. Blurry at first, and full of ambiguity, they will slowly clarify. Fresh frameworks will shed light on what the present is and what the future holds. Slowly, we will bridge the gap between information and wisdom — and get to the other side.

— — — —

About the author:

Dave Marvit is a member of the Board of Directors of the Grey Swan Guild; leader of its Research, Sensemaking, and Intelligence Group; and Co-lead of Fujitsu’s Open Innovation Gateway. Seeing the world in new ways has helped him generate around 60 patents with over 6,000 forward references. When not helping businesses make sense of their changing landscapes or inventing new technologies and business models, Dave can be found playing Go — trying to make sense of its incalculable depth and beauty.

About the Grey Swan Guild:

We are a global network of over 700 writers and thinkers, sensemakers and doers, all dedicated to understanding the changing world around us — and ushering in a better one. If you’d like to know more, please check out the Grey Swan Guild web site. There you can learn about us, read our points of view, or even contribute your own. (We’d love to include your voice.) Get involved, and help us make sense and make a better world.



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