Making Sense – The Winding Road To Understanding Something


Monday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

At work here is that powerful WYSIATI (“what you see is all there is”) rule. You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. – Daniel Kahneman

When I look back over the last two decades it seems to me that what I thought of as obvious and true has changed over the years.

But that’s not something that happened naturally – it’s only happened because I’ve worked at it, tried to learn more and, in the process, seen different perspectives and approaches.

The biggest shift in my thinking has been going from seeing the world from my point of view to realizing that when it comes to the important things there are often multiple points of view and one of your jobs is to try and make semse of these other points of view and come to a critical understanding of your own.

So, how do you go about doing that?

Collect a mountain of material

In any project you will collect a heap of material – research, interview notes, jottings, transcripts.

This is the raw material you have to work with – the stuff that you need to work and knead and worry until you have something that you’re ready to use.

The amount of material you need depends on the project and what you’re trying to do.

In many situations the important thing is to figure out what your strategy is – what’s the right direction for you to move in next.

In other situations you might have a more complex problem, such as working out how to engage a number of stakeholders in a transformation project.

Now that you have your material, all these differently shaped pieces, what do you do next?

Build a model of the situation

It’s very hard to see clearly when you’re deep into the detail.

Every conversation, every strand, every note you’ve taken takes time to read and re-read and it’s impossible for you to keep everything you’ve got in your head.

That’s where modeling methods can come to the rescue.

A model is a tool that helps you work at a higher level of abstraction than the material itself and you can have models that work at different layers.

One approach that you’ve probably come across is the use of index cards.

In this paper John W. Maxwell and Haig Armen argue that an index card is indexical, iconic and textual.

What does that mean?

The indexical property relates to the fact that you can use an index card to point to a larger body of material such a book or resource.

For example, if you have a stack of business plans produced by the company you’re working with then you could use an index card to note that collection exists.

You write stuff on the card that tells you what you need to know – like where something is or a quick summary of a larger set of material – and that’s the textual part of it.

The middle point – about the cards being iconic – has to do with the fact that each card is a thing in itself – a thing that you can move around in space.

So you can move the cards around, sort them, rearrange them, restructure them in a way that you can’t do with the original material that the cards represent.

In this sense, a set of index cards that capture and summarize your material act as a three-dimensional physical model of what you have – a model that can help you make sense of the mountain of material that you have collected.

So, how do you get started.

Map your material to your model

You can begin at either end, with the model or with the material.

Writers like John McPhee have written about this process, the way the amount of material he had blocked him from writing and how he had to take a step back and create a structure first using index cards which then allowed the work to flow.

On the other hand, starting with a model may help you decide what you know and what you need to learn more about.

You might start with a set of cards setting out your plan and then work through each one, going and finding material when you realize you’re missing something.

This idea of having stuff and a model of that stuff and working with the two resonates with a number of approaches to problematic situations.

At one extreme you have the idea of a digital twin, a complete model of a situation that you can use to test and develop strategy.

At the other extreme, in a number of situations you have models as being transient, sense-making objects.

You don’t need the full power of an index card model, which can pull together material that needs a full book to understand.

Instead, you can use holons, simple models with five to nine elements that describe what is going on.

The decisions you make about the kind of model you build really depend on how big and complex your situation is and the level of abstraction you’re working at.

And then you go through all your material and map it to the model, using codes or references or links or connections or whatever you choose to show how they relate to each other.

When you have a model of your material you can start to move the pieces around, fit them together until something emerges that has an overall structure and makes sense.

You may need to add new bits, remove bits, fiddle with the model and the material, but that’s something you can now do.

And you constantly ask yourself – does this make sense?

Let’s look at what you do if it doesn’t in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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