Sensemaking – modes and disciplines

How do we make sense of a context? How can we make sense in a disciplined way, without the discipline itself getting in the way?

This is a follow-up to the previous post ‘Sensemaking and the swamp-metaphor‘, to provide a bit more detail about how this can work in real-world practice.

[A reminder, though, that as in the previous post, please don’t take this as purporting to be ‘the way to do sensemaking’ or whatever: this is just a way to do this, one tool amongst many that should be there in the sensemaking toolkit. The main point here is to (re)introduce the idea of ‘metamethods’, systematic methods for devising methods to do whatever-it-is that we need to do. This also provides some practical illustrations on how to switch between different tools within that sensemaking toolkit.]

Four modes and seven sins

As a quick recap, we started with a metaphor of reality as a swamp, and hence of our sensemaking as taking place within that swamp:

Not a featureless swamp – every point of view, every experience, every possible coincidence of events is included. There are also endless opportunities to wallow in the mires of confusion, and to disappear beneath the surface without trace… It sometimes seems that the safest move would be not to move at all, to stay still. But even that isn’t certain: the surface seems to quake with the tide of events, so that even the safest-seeming point of view will seem doubtful after a while. Nothing stays the same for long: indeed, the only real constant is change itself.

To give us some kind of guide, we overlay a simple two-axis matrix: internal/subjective versus external/objective, and ‘truth’ versus ‘value’. This isn’t a map of the swamp itself, but a kind of ‘metamap’, a map of ways of making sense within the swamp:

This gives us four quadrants, or modes, in which we both collect information and interpret it: inner value, inner truth, outer truth, outer value. Each of these quadrants is only a way of working on the world, a mode to describe reality as we experience it through using that way of interpreting the world. Reality is, if you like, the sum of everything that could be experienced through these four very different ways of working on the world.

To use somewhat more descriptive labels for these ‘ways of working on the world’, the four modes are:

  • Artist inner value, personal or subjective value, whatever seems to have meaning within the moment
  • Believer (aka Mystic or Priest) – inner truth, personal or subjective certainties
  • Scientist – outer truth, objective certainties, in a nominally ‘value-neutral’ sense
  • Technologist (aka Magician) – outer value, that which is of practical use, usually within a shared context

Note that these can apply recursively – see the ‘Sensemaking and the swamp-metaphor’ post for examples of recursion in the Believer mode.

To summarise the relationships between the modes in visual form:

And mapped to the SCAN frame, in terms of Simple versus Not-simple (either side of the Inverse-Einstein Test) and in terms of time-available-before-action (infinity to Now):

A side-implication of that mapping with SCAN is that the Scientist and Technologist will usually need time-for-analysis and time-for-experiment respectively, and hence are generally not available at the moment of action.

To make sense in and of a context, we use the mindsets of each of these modes, and switch between the modes as appropriate, in a disciplined way.

Note that each mode has its own distinct style of discipline, often incompatible with those of the other modes – and keeping track of which mode and discipline we’re in at each moment, and how and when to switch appropriately between them, is one of the key challenges in sensemaking. The most-common ways to get it wrong – the seven sins of dubious discipline – are:

  • The Hype Hubris – getting caught up in ‘a triumph of marketing over technical-expertise’, in which style takes priority over substance.
  • The Golden-Age Game – another ‘glamour-trap’ formed by a bizarre blend of pseudo-science and pseudo-religion, combining all the disadvantages of both modes with the sense of neither.
  • The Newage Nuisance – often-wilful ‘ignore-ance’ of any form of discipline, characteristic of much ‘New Age’-style philosophy and practice.
  • The Meaning Mistake – allowing ideas and interpretations to become ‘half-baked’, ‘overcooked’, or both.
  • The Possession Problem – fear of uncertainty leading to misguided notions about possessing ‘the truth’.
  • The Reality Risk – failing to recognise that in certain types of sensemaking, there’s no distinction between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’.
  • Lost in the Learning Labyrinth – becoming misled by any of the various traps and ‘gotchas’ in the skills-learning labyrinth.

Anyway, on to the practice itself.

Emphasis and tactics within each mode

The following provides a quick summary about where and why you would use each of the four modes; how you can tell which mode you’re implicitly using at each moment; some examples of the ‘rules’ that apply within that mode, and the kind of mistakes that tend to occur; and suggestions for how and why to bridge across to another mode.

Remember that almost all sensemaking will demand that we move around in ‘context-space’, making sense in different ways according to the needs of the moment. Although most of us will tend to settle back to one preferred mode, we need to be competent in all of them – and be able to let go and move on elsewhere in whatever way that the sensemaking requires.

The ‘Artist’ mode

This mode is available during real-time action and throughout all of the decision-timescale.

Role is to notice, to pay attention, to elicit new ideas, new information, new experiences.

Manages that which is inherently unique, one-off, with no apparent connection to anything else.

Responds to the context through a sense of inner value, whatever feels right in the moment.

Has a typical action-loop of  ‘do or not-do’ > sense > reflect/review (where ‘not-do’ is a kind of often-brief meditative stillness).

Use this mode when…

  • you need to know what you’re sensing or feeling
  • you’re working on something for the first time
  • you want to start afresh, in any sense
  • when the context is ‘one-off’ or inherently uncertain

You’re in this mode when…

  • there’s a response from the context – especially if the context responds in an unexpected way
  • a ‘side-feeling’ comes through
  • there’s an urge to portray what’s going on, a desire to create as a way to commit to something memory
  • there’s a general sense of childlike wonder, of exuberance, energy, excitement, enthusiasm, ‘in-the-moment-ness’

Rules include…

  • “anything goes” – there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the feeling or response is what it is
  • the response exists only in the moment – if you wait around, or try to hold onto it, it’ll be gone
  • the response needs some form of expression if it is to be ‘realised’, made real
  • the response is personal – it does not necessarily mean anything to anyone else, or ‘mean’ anything at all – it just is

Warning-signs of dubious discipline include…

  • “this means…”, “this proves…” [blurring Artist with Scientist or Believer]
  • “this has no purpose…”, “this feeling gets in the way…” [blurring Artist with Technologist or Believer]
  • “I should not feel this…”, “I ought to feel…”, “this is not what I want to feel…” [blurring Artist with Believer, or just overdose of ego]
  • “the feeling I had here last time was…” [blurring Artist with Scientist]

To bridge to Believer, focus on…

  • what are my thoughts or beliefs before, whilst and after I feel this?
  • to what does this feeling belong?
  • what does this feeling tell me about my relationship with the context? does it feel ‘right to be here’, or warning of ‘wrong to be here’ or suchlike?

To bridge to Scientist, focus on…

  • where is this happening?
  • when is this happening?
  • what is the context when this happens?
  • has this feeling happened before at this place, this time, this context?
  • what else is happening when I sense this?

To bridge to Technologist, focus on…

  • how can I use this?
  • how can I express this?
  • in what forms can I put a ‘handle’ on this, to commit it to memory, or to share it with others? – text, taste, sound, do a drawing, take a photograph, whatever

The ‘Believer’ mode

This mode is available during real-time action and throughout all of the decision-timescale.

Role is to focus, and to maintain that focus, usually via and in line with predetermined belief.

Manages that which is inherently known – delving ever deeper into the meaning of a known ‘universal truth’.

Responds to the context through a sense of inner truth, acting on a clear certainty of right and wrong.

Has a typical action-loop of sense > categorise > act/reflect.

Use this mode when…

  • you define what it is you’re looking for, and how the context should respond when you’ve found it
  • you’re keeping focus on the task whilst you’re working
  • you establish relationship with the context before, when starting, during and whilst closing the work-session

You’re in this mode when…

  • there is a sense of certainty, combined with a kind of quiet calm
  • there is a sense of ‘connectedness’ with place and with the context in general
  • there is a subtle sense of heightened perception – background sounds may seem clearer, for example
  • there’s a sense of being somewhat ‘outside of self’, of feeling like an outside observer watching what’s going on
  • characteristic yet personal signals occur – a tingling in the hands, for example, or ‘gut feel’
  • there is an emphasis on the symbolic – such as expressed in ritualised actions, in checklists, and in talismans and other symbolic artefacts

Rules include…

  • there is only one truth
  • there is a definite boundary between true and not-true, right and wrong
  • consistent focus on the one truth will provide all the answers (“we connect through that truth to higher knowledge”)
  • faith is the force that holds everything together – don’t doubt!

Warning-signs of dubious discipline include…

  • “is this the right way to…?” [it’s essential to avoid all self-doubt here, other than as a bridge to other modes]
  • “this is true for me, therefore it is true for all…” [blurring Believer (subjective) with Scientist (objective)]
  • “any who hold different beliefs are of lesser [or greater] worth…” [overdose of ego, also blurring Believer with Technologist – using ‘truth’ for value-judgements]
  • “I am the one who causes change…”, “my knowledge causes the context to change itself…” [blurring Believer self-certainty with Technologist action, often combined with overdose of ego – many variations on the general theme of ‘God made in the image of man’, such as the assumption that the context is solely an extension of self]

To bridge to Artist, focus on…

  • what subtle changes do I notice from moment to moment in my feeling of connectedness with place and context?

To bridge to Scientist, focus on…

  • in what ways is this same truth is shared by others?

To bridge to Technologist, focus on…

  • what practical use has this belief?
  • is this belief appropriate for the purpose?

The ‘Scientist’ mode

This mode is usually not available during real-time action.

Role is to verify the truth of things in relation to others.

Manages that which is inherently certain, or ‘knowable’ – a world in which everything is interlinked through complicated con­nect­ions of cause and effect.

Responds to the context through a sense of outer truth, measuring, monitoring, and assessing the factors that make up the chains of interrelationship.

Has a typical action-loop of  enquire > sense > analyse/assess. (Note that the ‘action’ of the Scientist is usually abstract/conceptual rather than concrete/tangible – the latter is more the role of the Technologist.).

Use this mode when…

  • you need to identify the location, and changes in location, within the context
  • you need to verify what is fact, and what is not
  • you need to compare results from previous sessions, or record results to cross-reference in other sessions
  • you need to describe results in ways that can be interpreted in a factual sense by others, and cross-referenced to those of others
  • you are creating some kind of theoretical scheme to describe what you’ve discovered

You’re in this mode when…

  • there’s a focus on measurement and fact
  • there’s a focus on location – on where something is happening
  • there’s a focus on verification and assessment against known criteria
  • you’re analysing what’s happening or has happened

Rules include…

  • only facts are real – opinion is permitted only where vetted and verified by peer-review
  • everything must be anchored to everything else
  • everything must ultimately be anchored in shared standards
  • proof depends on repeatability – especially repeatability by others
  • things are true only if verified in formal logic
  • experiments should change only one parameter at a time
  • all variable parameters must be identified and declared

Warning-signs of dubious discipline include…

  • emotional attachment to any supposed ‘fact’ [blurring Scientist with one or more other modes, usually the Believer]
  • “must be…”, “obviously…”, “of course…” [failure to bridge across to Artist or Technologist for cross-checks against ‘logic-holes’]
  • “the exception proves the rule…” [blurring Scientist (strict logic) with Technologist (practicality, ‘rules of thumb’)]
  • “the only possible truth…” [blurring Scientist (analysis) with Believer (only one Truth, without question)]

To bridge to Artist, focus on…

  • what ideas and experiences would provide me with the new data I need?
  • how can I break out of ‘stuckness’?

To bridge to Believer, focus on…

  • what is true in an objective sense? what would change a theory to ‘scientific law’?
  • what is constant here? what are the incontrovertible standards?
  • what absolute boundaries exist between ‘true’ and ‘not-true’ – how do I remove doubts about any possible ‘shades of grey’?

To bridge to Technologist, focus on…

  • what is ‘applied science’? – what is the practical use of these theories or analyses?
  • how may I check against dubious discipline? – particularly against going ‘half-baked’ or ‘overcooked’ in the Meaning Mistake?

The ‘Technologist’ mode

This mode is usually not available during real-time action.

Role is to use, and to question use and usefulness.

Manages that which is inherently ambiguous – always somewhat uncertain, requiring endless adaptation, and with cause and effect often identifiable only in retrospect.

Responds to the context through a sense of outer value, experimenting to find whatever feels appropriate for its needs.

Has a typical action-loop of experiment > sense > evaluate.

Use this mode when…

  • you apply outcomes from other modes to practical use
  • you need to adapt practice to the specific context
  • you need to review value, or to question what you’re doing in practice – particularly around quality and effectiveness, overall or in a given context
  • you need to assess and evaluate any kind of trade-off or risk

You’re in this mode when…

  • the focus is on experimentation, testing the unknown
  • the focus is on practical, useful results
  • the focus is on any kind of trade-off or assessment of risk or opportunity – on possibility, probability and necessity (modal-logic) rather than on supposed certainties (‘true/false’-logic)
  • you’re dealing with patterns or clusters of some kind of one-off or special-case

Rules include…

  • there is no ‘truth’ – only usefulness, or not-usefulness
  • beliefs, feelings, objects, facts, everything is a tool to a purpose
  • ‘as above, so below’ – everything contains everything else, reality is fractal, self-similar, recursive – analogy and metaphor are as useful as logic or ‘proof’
  • the LEARN acronym for effectiveness: is it eLegant, Efficient, Appropriate, Reliable, iNtegrated?
  • ethics and integrity take priority over ‘truth’ – I am personally responsible for the consequences of what I do and not-do

Warning-signs of dubious discipline include…

  • the way to do it is…” [blurring Technologist with Believer or Scientist]
  • “it’ll be the same as last time…” [blurring Technologist with Scientist]
  • “the end justifies the means…” [allowing Believer ‘truth’ to override value-assessment]
  • “get the job out of the door any way we can – they won’t notice the difference…” [weak handling of values trade-offs, also failure to bridge across to Scientist and Artist to assist in improving quality]
  • “I’m no good at…”, “I’m the best at…” [allowing ego to override the Technologist’s responsibility to test and question everything]

To bridge to Artist, focus on…

  • what new ideas or new information do I need?
  • how can we make this more interesting, more engaging, more fun?

To bridge to Believer, focus on…

  • what inner discipline do I need here?
  • in using beliefs as tools, how do I hold fast to a belief?
  • what is the ‘Higher Truth’ here? – what ethics and morals apply here? what is ‘the Law’ in this context?

To bridge to Scientist, focus on…

  • how should I analyse these results?
  • how do these results compare with previous times or similar contexts, or with results from others?
  • what kind of measurements or formal standards should I use?

I’ve adapted this set of descriptions from my book The Disciplines of Dowsing: the quest for quality (Tetradian Books, 2008; ISBN 978-1-906681-08-1), co-authored with archaeographer Liz Poraj-Wilczynska. See the Tetradian Books website for more details on the book, which also includes much-expanded descriptions of each of the four modes and the ‘seven sins’. The book is available from online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or from your local friendly independent-bookseller.

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