Sensemaking — Creating a New Skill Set & Lexicon for Making Sense of the World

“One of the bottom lines is that we don’t know how long social distancing measures and lockdowns can be maintained without major consequences to the economy, society, and mental health. Unpredictable evolutions may ensue, including financial crisis, unrest, civil strife, war, and a meltdown of the social fabric.

One can only hope that, much like in 1918, life will continue. Conversely, with lockdowns of months, if not years, life largely stops, short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions, not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake.

If we decide to jump off the cliff, we need some data (and sensemaking) to inform us about the rationale of such an action and the chances of landing somewhere safe.” John P.A. Ioannidis, Stanford professor of epidemiology and population health

As the COVID-19 pandemic heads for the quarter-turn (or half-turn if you are bullish), we have seen how tough it is to take a long view, a smart view, a true view, a global view and a nuanced view, in the middle of our generation’s biggest worldwide crisis.

Our feeling at the Grey Swan Guild is there has never been a more important time to have people that can scan wide, peer around, scope deeper and cast ahead. We say this particularly as we have lowered our collective guard to what massive shifts are happening in the world, and especially as wave two coronavirus cases now spike up.

Unlike psychology (which peers inside your head), sociology (which explores outside your head) and anthropology (which examines your body & soul), sensemaking is a bigger synthesizing umbrella linking many disciplines that help you consider your full world and how you interact with the people and institutions in it. And we’ll repeat, there has never been a more important time for sensemakers.

A Smart Sensemaking Tribe About to Be Discovered

We’ve looked at a number of different camps of pattern recognizers and solution finders online. Although “sensemaking” is a passionately embraced art & science among its adherents, it still is a niche endeavour versus its companion peers.

Here’s a count on the number of people who have self-identified as the following in their LinkedIn profiles as evidence of sensemaking’s nascent place:

  • Data Scientist — 396,000
  • Solution Architect — 318,000
  • Problem Solver—222,000
  • Innovator — 220,000
  • Storyteller — 108,000
  • Statistician — 105,000
  • Strategic Planner — 83,000
  • Market Researcher — 62,000
  • Research Analyst — 54,000
  • Digital Strategist — 52,000
  • Sociologist — 22,000
  • Anthropologist —22,000
  • UX Researcher —18,000
  • Futurist—16,000
  • Neuroscientist — 9,500
  • Design Thinker — 9,200
  • User Researcher — 8,400
  • Strategic Foresight — 6,700
  • Sensemaker —6,000

Sensemaking has a ways to go to become a mainstream phenomenon. In some respects though, that doesn’t make sensemaking less useful, it actually may make it more valuable.

The Twelve Skills of Next-Level Sensemakers

LinkedIn stats be damned, we really are all sensemakers.

By virtue of getting through our daily lives and making the 35,000 conscious decisions we make every day, we need it as a fundamental life skill. However, with our Grey Swan Guild’s Global League of Sensemakers, we are seeking out a special tribe of people who take this ability to the next level and spend time outside of their normal work lives enhancing these versatile skills sets (and everybody can improve them through practice too). These people show a discernible ability to:

  • Display advanced reasoning and creative thinking, generating ideas beyond the norm that function as springboards of action
  • Adaptable and resourceful, find, experiment with and synthesize a wide range of inputs to discover hidden meanings, nuances and implications
  • Strongly motivated to understand the current, past and future world, and uncover the patterns that exist in it
  • Have a well developed vocabulary and ability to apply linguistics, metaphor, oral, written and visual communications mastery
  • Learn concepts quickly, and build/develop these concepts into practical applications that favourably impact
  • Operate with a strong sense of justice and morality, asking the existential questions about why we live the way we do
  • Display heightened leadership skills by persuasion and influence, collaboration, taking initiative, and being alternatively flexible and resilient to other views
  • Comprehend and use humor relevantly and seamlessly
  • Recognize their own moods, emotions, drives and signals, and the effect of them on the environment they operate in and others
  • Apply critical thinking — able to suspend judgment, delay action to allow time for openness to ambiguity and let further thought, data and challenge seep in
  • Exhibit an intrinsic curiosity and desire for learning and development, that goes beyond achieving external rewards
  • Observe and understand the emotional make-up of others and are able to interpret those collective dispositions, behaviours, traits and cues

There is I.Q. for intelligence and E.Q. for emotion, perhaps its time for S.Q. for sensemaking savvy.

The 12 Skills of Sensemaking

The Value of Sensemaking Has Never Been Higher

The value we ascribe to the above skills is changing and growing in importance. Others have noticed it too. In a recent study on The Future of Work , my company Futureproofing : Next determined that the two most sought after and valued future leadership skills will be : adaptable intelligence and experimentation. Essentially, the skills of sensemaking.

In a world where: everything in our lives, economies, ecologies, businesses, governments, laws, technology and culture has changed; where what happens next is extraordinarily murky; and the stakes involved in understanding those signals are so important, the pandemic decade of the 2020s will see the meteoric rise of sensemaking.

A New Sensemaking Dictionary

In the early days, one of our guild members quite rightly challenged, “what problem are we answering as an institution?” Similarly, with our invention of new sensemaking terms, we wanted to provide not only new terms that describe sensemaking better but also the context to why the world needs a more descriptive lexicon on the art and science of sensemaking.

Here goes … our first twelve terms and why we thought they were required:

SENSEMAKING — the umbrella term for what we are practicing in our League, and more specifically, an interdisciplinary way to understand manageable, unmanageable and unimaginable events, issues and challenges

The problem we are answering: In times of extreme change (as we are in now), it takes a wide lens of curiosity, observation, collective input and scrutiny to make better decisions and discover more complex meanings and interactions. Most of our institutions and jobs are currently so atomized, specialized and closed, rendering them much less capable of delivering accurate judgement.

SENSEBREAKING — concerted efforts to find meaning and break the codes of life by integrating new events, situations, information and perspectives with current knowledge and experiences, on a public and/or personal level.

The problem we are answering: The world is more polarized now than it has been in the last two centuries. With such starkly different views of the world between: science and faith, liberal and conservative values, developed and developing world, rich and poor, generational differences, religious beliefs and racial tension, applying non-politicized critical thinking skills to determine and validate true meaning in life events has taken on greater importance.

SENSERAKING — assimilating, accommodating and identifying new patterns and schema in observations, data and information that enhances our predictability and repeatability of those same frameworks in the future.

The problem we are answering: In a world spinning out of control , it is comforting to rely on mental shortcuts to give us confidence and competence about what confronts us in the future. Given the enormous amount of accessible data and inputs available to us, we can detect patterns more easily, we just need globally-aware people to ask the right questions and interpret our world’s dashboards.

SENSEWAKING — developing new-to-the-world insights and foresights that provide coherence to likely & alternative future scenarios and manage one’s own, social, organizational and societal expectations predictably.

The problem we are answering: Versus a generation ago, across a basket of factors, the rate of change is 4–8x faster than what it one was (Source: Futureproofing :Next) . In a fast accelerating world, it extremely valuable to bring the future forward with rigor and plausible knowable outcomes.

SENSESHAKING — changing policies and paradigms based on the discovery of new models, modalities or perceptions.

The problem we are answering: If we have learned anything from startup and entrepreneurial culture is that talk is cheap. Being able to apply sensemaking to changing culture, workplaces, marketplaces and public spheres, and being able to pivot established paradigms resiliently to overcome the inevitable ridicule from the establishment, is a mark of progress for any society.

SENSETAKING — applying insights, meaning and discovery to real-life situations and actually impacting the trajectory of societal institutions.

The problem we are answering: The digital transformation global market is a $1 trillion+ market alone. And that’s only one type of transformation covered. Unlike historical sensemaking, the sensemaking of the 2020s is no longer an academic exercise but needs to be put into operation in order to hack, ideate and prototype new directions for real life.

SENSEQUAKING — a sprint of collaborative sensemaking activity that recognizes urgency, a human-centred research, wider opportunity exploration and interactive reflection into the approach.

The problem we are answering: Too often, innovating public and private interests rush to judgment without investing in total system implications, wider ecosystem potential and triple+ bottom-line considerations.

SENSESTAKING — providing a semblance of the future based on discovery; encouraging leaders to consider events that may only be remote possibilities, and stretch their thinking; and helping governments, academia and business in understanding possibilities and uncertainties ahead.

The problem we are answering: We have just experienced a global pandemic that has crushed our economies, traditional systems and ways of life. Although unlikely, COVID-19 was certainly knowable ahead of time and definitely able to be responded to more quickly. From a financial market perspective, we often don’t know the reasons but a daily stock market drop of over 3.5% happens every seven months. So what other black and grey swan events will loom in the future? And what questions should we be asking now to cope with them?

SENSEUNMAKING — finding important anomalies and distinctiveness in learnings and using speculation, experimentation and free play to smartly steer away from convention and accepted norms.

The problem we are answering: Time and time again, we see the elite performing leaders, performers, athletes, businesses and movements, zigged one way while their peer set zagged another more conventional road. Finding the important idiosyncrasies. peripheral signals and emerging forces before others do is a success factor for the commodified age.

SENSEREMAKING — provide a better retrospective understanding of the past

The problem we are answering: Remember the adage “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it”. With the doubling of human knowledge every 12 months, it’s easy to overwrite lessons. One shining example in this recent pandemic is comparing approaches, data and results of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak vs. our 2020 equivalent. The past has value and perspective if you seek to use it.

The Global League of Sensemakers’ five broad categories of our sensemaking mission

SENSECAKING — storytelling and socializing discoveries to ensure they resonate, get noticed, talked about and adopted by their intended audience

The problem we are answering: In many environments, the goal is not to show people how smart you are but to get people to understand what you are talking about. Giving up some of your sensemaking dogma and perfection, for the sake of being understood and endorsed widely, is crucially important in a connected age. Doing that in a narrative, visual and memetic form cuts through the noise.

SENSEFLAKING — going deeper and more expansively on one element of sensemaking study; uncovering further depth of insight in second and third order effects and systemic interactions with a key subject of interest.

The problem we are answering: Fake news is the biggest online concern of users worldwide. In a world of clickbait, propaganda, deep fakes and baseless hearsay, it’s important we have people among us who are willing to go below the surface on various topics and explore the real and hidden truths and intersections of how we live, work and play.

Member Poll Results — What our Global League of Sensemakers Are Skilled at Doing

The Guild is in the throes of expanding and creating a sub-tribe of people who like to go deeper and explore significance and meaning. We started our Guild by inviting authors, journalists, communicators and strategists. Now in this next phase, we need the planners, foresighters, futurists, data heads, analysts and thinkers who comprise our sensemaking groups. Hiopefully you’ll consider joining our Global League of Sensemakers, now over 200 sensemakers from over 50 different countries. Learn what we do and participate actively (

Author Profile: Sean Moffitt, Managing Director, Futureproofing : Next and Co-Founder, Grey Swan Guild — Sean lives and breathes bringing the future forward and seizing & sensing on signals and opportunities before they happen. From a mid-March blog post attempting to process the pandemic from 50 different angles, he has seen the open guild grow to 50 countries and the recent launch of The Global League of Sensemakers — a collective of expert thinkers, analysts and synthesizers with the mission to unravel the world’s biggest challenges. His new book “Futureproofing : Next — The Future Beyond Innovation” comes out this month.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Grey Swan Guild

Making Sense of the World’s Biggest Challenges & Next Grey Swans — curating and creating knowledge through observation, informed futurism, and analysis🦢