March 29, 2017 Making Sense in a Complex World
These are extraordinary times. The planet is warming. The global economy is in flux. Industries are shifting and businesses are consolidating. Cities are growing crowded. Infrastructure is stretched to capacity. And so on. Individually, these issues are daunting, but as interconnected systems, their complexity is staggering.
Addressing large-scale challenges or “wicked problems” and making a difference in the world is on many people’s minds these days. Numerous businesses, organizations, and government agencies are hard at work on different pieces of the picture. Despite the great collective urgency to find solutions (or, at best, ways to offset negative effects), there isn’t widespread agreement or clarity on exactly how to achieve progress. Data, technology, people, and material resources count among the many necessary ingredients to effect change, backed by significant financial investments. However, these only serve as enablers of change — the means by which actions are carried out. Before jumping to how to fix problems, there needs to be a solid grasp of what the problem is and why it matters: What is the scope of the situation? What are the component parts and their interconnections? What is most and least important to concentrate on? Why even tackle this problem?
The driver of change and key to meaningful action, no matter how elaborate or simple the problem, is understanding.
Growing recognition of the need for understanding has taken many forms, from now-ubiquitous infographics and data visualizations to informative animations and explainer videos on every imaginable topic. These information displays are quite useful for providing overviews and entry points for further investigation, and they’re usually optimized for ease of communication, but they typically come into play after most of the figuring out has been done, when well-defined information or data sources already exist.
What do you do when you’re not sure what to do?
Making sense of confusing situations isn’t a gift bestowed upon select individuals. It’s serious work. It involves a combination of skills borrowed from creative problem solving, ethnography, information design, and visual thinking, among other fields, that can be readily learned but take time, practice, and patience to master. Sensemaking requires structure and rigor in defining a problem, gathering and analyzing information, and synthesizing findings in a well-organized format that communicates effectively. Equally important are the human skills: facilitating productive and inclusive discussions, engaging people respectfully in ethnographic research to obtain valuable insights, and sustaining momentum and optimism throughout the “figuring out” journey. Regardless of whether the final output is a visualization, a strategic plan, a story, or an event, it’s the process of shaping order out of chaos that produces clearer thinking and, ultimately, better decisions about how to act.
Enabling understanding amid ambiguity is a lot like navigating an unfamiliar landscape whose features are obscured. A focused approach, supported by robust tools and methods, is like a compass that helps one get oriented. Research drawing upon a variety of people and data sources is like surveying the landscape from a range of vantage points. Sketch visualizations and visual explanations of available facts serve as maps of the territory, its topography, boundaries, and key features. Only with a clear lay of the land is it possible to formulate a vision, or destination, and chart the course ahead.