Navigating Complexity Through Collective Sensemaking

A core strategy for navigating wickedly complex problems is to try to make collective sense of the system. Like the blind men and the elephant, we all have a narrow and incomplete view of the system in which we’re operating. If we could somehow see and fit each other’s pictures together, new and powerful insights and actions could emerge.

That’s the theory, at least. But how do you do this in practice? What does the process feel like? And how do you reconcile this approach with my earlier assertion that collective intelligence is not about enabling individuals to grasp the whole system?

At last week’s Garfield Foundation Collaborative Networks initiative kickoff, Joe Hsueh walked us through his answer by drawing this graph. (Joe himself explains the graph in the above two-minute video.)

Navigating Complexity Model

We as individuals try our hardest to navigate complexity until we hit our mental capacity. Generally, that experience is so exhausting and dissatisfying, we find ourselves dropping back into simplistic, siloed thinking.

The goal of a collective sensemaking process is to help individuals endure greater complexity than we normally can handle. At some point, we still have to simplify the system in order to process it as individuals, but the hope is that, by raising the overall bar, you end up at a higher place than you were before.

With system mapping (which is the tool that Joe so skillfully employs), the map itself is of limited utility to individuals who have not participated in its creation, because they have not gone through that process of mental endurance. This is a critical point. The real value of system mapping isn’t the final artifact. It’s the process of developing shared understanding by collectively creating that map.

An Aside on Facilitation

You can’t design or facilitate these kinds of processes effectively unless you yourself have a strong framework around complexity and systems thinking. Good designers create the space for participants to live in this complexity.

Living in complexity is inherently disorienting, and people have different appetites for it. Part of the facilitator’s job is to help the group maintain their faith in the face of intense discomfort. One way you can do that is by walking the group through your framework.

Unfortunately, I often see facilitators make the mistake of spending too much time explaining frameworks up-front rather than giving the participants the space and time to experience the framework. It’s a tricky balance, and finding that balance is a sign of mastery.

At last week’s meeting, Joe offered the framework at exactly the right time. You could see the relief on the participants’ faces as he explained that the joint struggle and frustration that everybody was experiencing was all part of the process.

It reminded me of a similar moment with one of my mentors, Jeff Conklin, during the Delta Dialogues in 2012. The participants were getting frustrated by how much the conversation was jumping around (which was by design), and I felt like we were starting to lose them.

Jeff stepped in, and drew and explained a graph that described the different ways that people learn. It was beautiful to watch people’s faces light up with understanding. Jeff’s impromptu (and brief) lesson in theory not only helped orient our participants, it gave them language to describe what they were going through.

About 

Eugene helps groups learn how to come alive and collaborate more skillfully together. He spent ten years consulting with companies across different sectors, from Fortune 500 companies to grassroots movements. He’s now focusing his efforts on helping others develop the same skills that he uses to help groups.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for these articles. Finding facilitators and systems mappers like Joe who can help a community understand complex problems and converge on solutions and on-going actions that solve problems is one of the challenges any city will have. The “process of developing shared understanding” is one involving “deeper learning” and I don’t think we’ve figured out how to get thousands of busy adults to devote regular time to this process (reading the research, reading the blogs, looking a how some people solve a problem in some places, that could be a solution in other places, etc.). I’m in Chicago and have aggregated an library of information that could be used by leaders in business, politics, media, philanthropy, etc. to build stronger systems of support to help inner city youth move through jobs and careers. The map of my information library is at http://tinyurl.com/TMI-libraryFull

    I constantly run into people who say “this is too much information” and “who will take the time to dig into this information?”. I hope you’ll share the maps any any other learning from the Garfield Foundation Collaborative Networks initiative and that we will connect in some on-line communities.

    • Eugene Eric Kim says

      Daniel, pleasure to meet you, and thank you for sharing a bit about your work! Our intention with the Garfield Foundation project is to share what we learn. My colleague, Ruth Rominger, has been engaged in the monumental task of pulling together people’s collective wisdom from past and current Garfield projects into a field guide aimed at practitioners. We hope to see it available by the end of the year. I’ll also continue to share what I learn here, and I hope I’ll be able to persuade colleagues to contribute here as well.

      The problem you cite about getting people engaged in “deeper learning” is challenging. If we want to shift that, it’s our prerogative to curate content and to find compelling ways to make it engaging. Your mindmap is good example of that, and I think there are many other possibilities.

  2. says

    Great video clip, Eugene! I also particularly appreciated your point here: “the map itself is of limited utility to individuals who have not participated in its creation, because they have not gone through that process of mental endurance. This is a critical point. The real value of system mapping isn’t the final artifact. It’s the process of developing shared understanding by collectively creating that map.”

    As for the need to eventually simplify the complexity, it reminds me of that famous quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

    In response to Daniel’s concern… I don’t know how you can get “thousands of busy adults” to engage in something deeply, but the Office of Future-Related Issues in Austria is having good success with the Wisdom Council model, where you get a much smaller max-mix group of a dozen or so people to engage with an issue in depth (they use Dynamic Facilitation), and then have that group report out to the larger whole (they use World Cafe for this). It seems that the alignment that is created in the small group, creates a great deal of resonance in the larger group. http://tinyurl.com/AustriaWC

    Eugene, as you may know, I see the Dynamic Facilitation work as bearing strong resemblances to Jeff’s Dialogue Mapping work, even though we don’t use Compendium and use simple lists instead of nodes and arrows. Still, it’s quite a powerful “barefoot doctor’s” approach for working effectively with complexity, http://tinyurl.com/ODPracDF . It is very simple to learn (though not necessarily “easy”) and I see it as a basic element of “collaborative literacy”….

  3. says

    “Facilitators make the mistake of spending too much time explaining frameworks up-front rather than giving the participants the space and time to experience the framework. It’s a tricky balance, and finding that balance is a sign of mastery.”

    We would utterly support this point. Obvious though it appears it is such a key and insightful point and that emergent consciousness in working with a team is something that even the most accomplished facilitator can get wrong. Thanks for the post!

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