5 Fundamentals and Tips on how to approach visual sense-making

What is Visual Sense-Making?

Visual sense-making is the ability to understand the information we are faced with and how we process that information. We do this by synthesizing that data into a story (using visual metaphors, patterns, and abductive reasoning), and then, we make judgment calls based on what we understand. 

The following fundamentals and tips should help with visual sense-making.

Sense-making and making sense are at the heart of the human condition. It is how we operate in the world - how we perceive, play, work, imagine, learn, feel, and think.

To better understand this post - I recommend you watch a previous video entitled:
"How to use visual sense-making to solve complex real-world problems" The video looks at the basics of visual sense-making. (link)

This post focuses on providing tips to achieve the best results from visual sense-making. It is about the attitude and stance to have when dealing with complex problems.

There will be specific videos dealing with visual metaphors and the basics of mapping with SenseCatcher itself.

Visual sense-making is a powerful approach to solve complex problems.

To solve messy real-world problems, we need to understand what we are dealing with. We need to collect data and information and understand it.

That process, at face value, seems to be easy.
Not so fast!
It is a big subject filled with trip wires.
In this post, we do not have the time to address all the issues. I will only highlight the fundamentals and offer some tips on approaching a complex situation.

5 Fundamentals

The five fundamentals:

  1. 1
    The starting principle to remember is that we need to be sensitive to the circular nature of reality. The real world is a gigantic interconnected system. Everything is connected, directly or indirectly, to everything else. The Butterfly Effect is a good metaphor. No, it is not true that the flapping wings of a butterfly will cause a tornado in China. Instead, it illustrates the notion that complex dynamical systems can and do exhibit unpredictable behaviors and outcomes. Approaching a complex problem with a deterministic cause-and-effect interpretation of reality is not possible. Reality is not a clock - it is more like clouds - dynamic and ever-changing. The connections and influences, in reality, will range from obvious and robust links to weak, invisible and indirect forces.
  2. 2
     When collecting data and information, it is best to shift in focus from 'looking for data and information as solid facts ' to consider patterns of behavior over time - where the emphasis is to acknowledge that information and ideas change and morph.
  3. 3
    The starting attitude should broaden our thinking to articulate the problem in useful ways. 
  4. 4
    There are no perfect solutions - as individuals, we will impact the problem (our decisions and conversations will affect the situation itself). Problems are dynamic, complex, and adaptive. The best we can do is to make everything transparent where possible. 
  5. 5
    Ensure all viewpoints are represented and that the solution is accepted by the people who will implement the solution. 

14 Tips

Next, let's look at 14 tips to help with surfacing information:

  1. 1
    Make sure you put on your thick skin (listen carefully and be prepared to ask challenging and dumb questions). 
  2. 2
    You need to hold the process open and not go in for the quick, first logical solution. You must be able to revisit the process at any time.
  3. 3
    You need to tolerate ambiguity. You have to explore open-ended questions, especially in the early stages.
  4. 4
    Avoid getting to a problem definition too early. Probe, probe, and probe some more.
  5. 5
    You need to keep disrupting the status quo. Use curve balls, and do not provide examples.
  6. 6
    You have to push the envelope of divergence well beyond the normal comfort levels of people. The conversation must remain fun, though.
  7. 7
    When asked for clarification – avoid doing it (explore the options) – if you do, it closes the process into a locked point of view – just like if you give an example.
  8. 8
    Uncertainty is important. Be careful not to revert to cause-and-effect thinking. Keeping that ambiguity open is essential. 
  9. 9
    Working with a team to plot your maps is very effective.
  10. 10
    Position yourself as a facilitator rather than the expert - it's best to be clear about this upfront. It encourages open conversations and prevents you from being the font of all knowledge.
  11. 11
    Above all - you need to be curious, compassionate, and courageous. There are multiple interventions to a problem - there is no single correct approach. 
  12. 12
    Use storytelling to describe the problem and help with the sense-making process. It helps with communication and understanding of the system.
  13. 13
    Ask questions like: 'what is it that we do not understand?' and 'what is it that we are not seeing?'
  14. 14
    Finally - Do not forget about biases, mental models, and assumptions.

Over the years, I have found that these points are helpful. I often need to remind myself when dealing with complex situations and when creating visual sense maps.

I hope these points will be of benefit to you too!