Perspective — the why of sensemaking

Following on from Our Approach and the broad picture of the Cynefin Framework therein, here we describe why narrative or storytelling is useful in making sense of a complex environment. In a nutshell, it comes down to this:

  • If you want to know what people think, just ask them to tell a story.
  • They will say what they think, at least implicitly, and signify what they mean and feel.
  • What you will get are first-person, here-is-what-we-think declarations and contextualizations.
  • And you have the expertise to understand their message… if you truly want to hear it!

Here is a brief elaboration and explanation of these four simple bullets.

Research: The narrative approach to sensemaking is very simple: If you want to know what people think, just ask them. They may be clients, customers, employees, citizens, or members of some other community. Just ask them a question and then let them tell you a story in response. They are often surprised and gratified that someone wants to hear from them directly.

The substantive difference between this approach and traditional methods such as survey or market research is that the participants can speak directly. They tell narratives or stories in response to carefully-posed, open-ended prompts or questions. Rather than bubbling in a circle on a 1-to-10 scale, participants get to say what they think and signify what they mean. This latter step is done by “tagging” their own stories with visual or verbal indicators. Most projects collect stories and other data, anonymously, on a secure, dedicated Website.

The QED brain trust -- available to all clients at no extra charge
The QED brain trust — available to all clients at no extra charge

Analysis: These signifiers, tags, and other metadata (age, income, etc.) can be used collectively across thousands of story fragments to understand aggregated meaning with the platform and other tools (for example, Tableau). Results can be displayed visually in unique and helpful ways, and they can also be presented numerically with all the diagnostic power of standard non-parametric statistics. When interesting or unexpected findings emerge, individual narratives can be read anonymously to provide context and to illuminate motivation.

In the end, our clients receive a message from their audience that is a first-person, here-is-what-we-think declaration and contextualization, rather than someone else’s compilation of a third-person, this-might-be-what-they-meant inference and representation.

Synthesis and Strategy: If data collection and analysis are governed by a scientific perspective, then the subsequent interpretation and application are dominated by an artistic sensibility. We work closely with clients in both phases, often on-site. In preparation for a project, we may direct clients in writing prompting questions and signifier indicators for their project participants (respondents). But in the next phase, there is a role reversal: clients must take the lead in explaining the meaning of the narratives and metadata and in extrapolating the effects of future actions based on those insights.

Said differently, there is no substitute for the “subject-matter expertise” of our clients. We have extensive experience in recognizing the unexpected, and we can almost always suggest creative ways to deal with change in a dynamic setting. Final decisions, however, must be theirs.

Please go to the description of our Services to understand how we can turn these ideas and steps into a concrete project for you.