Sense-making v meaning-making

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Meaning-making is the meaning that we attribute to the things we have made sense of: it is the conclusion we have drawn about what the point of something is, or what the next step should be.

In the simple example above, David could draw the following conclusions:

  • A chair is for sitting on.... in fact, I might sit down right now.
  • A chair is sometimes for standing on, like when I want to change a light bulb.
  • A chair is simply an odd shaped construction, and I can do whatever I want to do with it.

In the complex example above, Jemima could draw multiple conclusions, including the following:

  • My colleagues are idiots. Especially Deirdre. I'm sure she's doing this on purpose.
  • I assume people are well meaning, and we just haven't provided enough education in the process.
  • This organisation doesn't hold people accountable for compliance with the process... but this is just an annoyance, not a deal breaker. All organisations are the same, so what's the use in getting worked up about it?
  • The mere fact that I have to deal with so banal an issue means that my work is meaningless, and I might as well have an existential crisis right now. I'm not being paid enough to deal with this crap. I knew I should have been an artist instead.

The more we understand how we are programmed to make meaning of the things that crop up in our lives, the greater our opportunity to change our meaning-making scripts to produce more useful outcomes.

Sense-making means our ability to see something, to name it, and to understand the context around it.

A simple example: David walks into a typical dining room. When asked what the funny wooden object is, he says: "That's what we commonly call a chair. A chair is usually used for human beings to sit on."

A complex example: Jemima is working in an organisation as a procurement officer. The process is that:

  1. Person A realises that they need to buy a widget; 
  2. Person A's boss is the person in the organisation who owns the budget that the widget would be paid from, so Person A get's the boss's approval to buying the widget;
  3. Person A show's Jemima that the spend is approved, and tells her which Supplier they want to supply the widget; 
  4. Jemima raises the purchase order in the payment system. This document tells the Supplier to provide the widget, and is also a computer system pre-requisite to payment being able to be made;
  5. the Supplier provides the widget to Person A; 
  6. the Supplier sends in the invoice to Person A;
  7. Person A receipts the invoice in the system; 
  8. Accounts pays the invoice.

Rather than Person A coming to Jemima with the appropriate instructions and evidence that spend has been approved, they keep coming to her with invoices from Suppliers. That is, they've instructed a Supplier to provide the widget outside of the process, but, because the invoice can't be paid without a purchase order being raised, they're ducking back in to the process at the last minute. This ducking back in at the last minute usually comes with them putting a lot of pressure on Jemima to raise the purchase order as soon as possible, because suddenly they're in danger of not paying the Supplier in time. 

In a complex system like an organisation, it can be quite difficult to accurately make sense of what is happening. To do so, one must first comprehend how the system is meant to work (that is, the context), before one can sensibly articulate how it is not working.

Jemima understands how the system is meant to work, so she can say what the problem is: we have a process which has put the steps into a particular order, and it isn't being followed. 

Jemima could potentially take it a step further if she understood even more context, like, what about the organisation makes it possible for people to subvert the process and get away with it?

An extreme example: How do we make sense of something like the global financial crisis? 

The more we comprehend context, the more accurate our sense-making will be. Comprehension, however, will necessarily be harder the more complicated a concept/thing is. For example, it is much easier to comprehend the role of a chair in a dining room, than it is to comprehend the point of raising a purchase order prior to instructing a supplier to undertake work, than it is to comprehend how something like the global financial crisis could occur.

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Anna Stanford