Project Management

Sensemaking: Turning What We Know Into What Must Be

From the The Project Shrink Blog
Bas de Baar is a Dutch visual facilitator, creating visual tools for dialogue. He is dedicated to improve the dialogue we use to make sense of change. As The Project Shrink, this is the riddle he tries to solve: “If you are a Project Manager that operates for a short period of time in a foreign organization, with a global team you don’t know, in a domain you would not know, using virtual communication, high uncertainty, limited authority and part of what you do out in the open on the Internet, how do you make it all work?”

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When Columbus set out to discover America, he didn’t have a map that had America on it. That was the whole point of discovering it. Centuries ago people were sailing the world with incomplete maps.

Some knew that the earth was a sphere. A globe. A ball. A round thing. Some maps were created representing the world as a sphere, without having all the information available.

This is important for people working together in uncertain and ambiguous situations.

The coin dropped when I read this story by Cynthia Kurtz where she talks about reading the book “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World” (affiliate link) with her son:

“What amazes me about these early globes is that people built a coherent representation of the world as a sphere even though they were missing part of it. They sewed together the edges of what they knew to be so as to make it into the shape they knew it had to take. This is a perfect analogue to sensemaking: we take what we know and form it into something that represents what must be.”

Aha. Sensemaking.

According to Wikipedia sensemaking is “… a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding out of different individuals’ perspectives and varied interests.”

Although, the way Cythia Kurtz wrote it, sticks longer in my brain: “we take what we know and form it into something that represents what must be.”

Someone recently told me that the topic of sensemaking is a hot item. Especially due to the books by Karl Weick (affiliate link), who covers this topic at the organizational level. It is his work that is “… providing insight into factors that surface as organizations address either uncertain or ambiguous situations.

Properties of Sensemaking.

Weick describes seven properties of sensemaking. And when I read them, I recognized every topic I have been discussing on this blog. So. Sorry for confusing you all these years. But know you know. I am talking about sensemaking. How we turn what we know into a representation of what must be to handle uncertain or ambiguous situations.

Here are Weick’s seven properties:

  1. Identity and identification is central – who people think they are in their context shapes what they enact and how they interpret events (…).
  2. Retrospection provides the opportunity for sensemaking: the point of retrospection in time affects what people notice (…), thus attention and interruptions to that attention are highly relevant to the process (…).
  3. People enact the environments they face in dialogues and narratives (…). As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think, organize their experiences and control and predict events (…).
  4. Sensemaking is a social activity in that plausible stories are preserved, retained or shared (…).
  5. Sensemaking is ongoing, so individuals simultaneously shape and react to the environments they face. As they project themselves onto this environment and observe the consequences they learn about their identities and the accuracy of their accounts of the world (…).
  6. People extract cues from the context to help them decide on what information is relevant and what explanations are acceptable (…) Extracted cues provide points of reference for linking ideas to broader networks of meaning and are ‘simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring.”
  7. People favour plausibility over accuracy in accounts of events and contexts (…)

(source Wikipedia. Removed references for brevity.)

This links directly to the role of identity in projects, the importance of narratives, the use of social cues and the need for context.

That makes perfectly good sense. To me.

Yes. Couldn’t resist.

That was a wordplay on “sensemaking“.


Bas de Baar is a Dutch cartoonist. Documenting a world in transition. He loves to make inspirational cartoonstravel guides and other story-telling structures for the collaborators of our brave new world. 

Posted on: November 27, 2013 03:50 AM | Permalink

Comments (1)

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Of course Columbus did not "set out to discover America", he set out to discover an alternate route to the Indies (India, China, and the rest of Asia) as the "Silk route" had become unsafe and the sea route round Africa was very dangerous and dominated by the Portuguese.

When he discovered a major land mass he thought he'd succeeded, even though his navigation should have told him he hadn't gone nearly far enough! That is why he mistakenly named the natives he found "Indians".

He is actually a great example of how NOT to deal with uncertainty - he tried to impose what he believed onto what he discovered, and while we can be grateful for what later became of his discoveries and for his bravery in undertaking such voyages into the unknown, he really was the "Jack Sparrow" of explorers - i.,e. the worst explorer you've ever heard of, but you have heard of him!

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