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visual that show three phases in this order: Sensemaking, strategy, and then vision
Rebecca Ryan, APF

There’s a capability that all of us should be using right now to stay out of the “chaos” zone and in the “calm confidence” zone.

It’s called sensemaking.

Imagine you’re lost. Your phone is dead and your GPS is broken. When you’re lost, you get frantic. But panicking won’t help.

Instead, lift your eyes to the horizon. Which direction is east?

There, you’ve started your map.

That’s sensemaking: a process for making a map in the midst of a mess so you can make better choices. It comes before strategy, as you can see:

visual that show three phases in this order: Sensemaking, strategy, and then vision

Who’s making sense of things right now?

These maps provide a narrative of what’s happening and what’s expected to happen, so that people can take intelligent action.

Why are these maps so helpful?

Even if the maps aren’t 100% accurate, they give people a sense of what’s coming. That’s critical because uncertainty can be crippling. Maps also help inform better strategy, which gives people a purpose for their efforts.

How do I start?

  • Listen to people on the front lines. Ask, What are you seeing and hearing? What are you wondering about?
  • Mind the data. It’s tempting to scroll endlessly through your news feed, but that’s not map-making. Data helps you make a good map. My friend Ann leads an association; her team tracks every inbound call they get from members, and what those members are asking about. That’s valuable data. What about you? What data would be useful to you and how can you find it?
  • Talk with others whose perspectives you trust. What are they sensing? What maps are they creating? Last week, I asked 7 people whom I consider subject matter experts in local government to meet every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 30 minutes to share the signals they’re picking up and to make sense of things together. What about you? Who are your trusted advisors, and will they help you with sensemaking?
  • Develop a “map” of what’s happening. This could be a metaphor, a series of graphs, or a story. It should convey what matters, what to watch, and how to make sense of what’s going on. The “map” I’m using right now was inspired by a Delphi panel done in South Africa. Leaders charted three critical community impacts: public health, the economy, and social impacts. The “map” I’m using is like a cockpit, with dials in each of those categories.
  • Slow down. If we rush to do something, we can make things worse. So slow down, develop your map, test it with others, and then make decisions about what to keep doing, what to change, and what to stop doing.

You can do this. We can do this.


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Rebecca Ryan, APF
Rebecca Ryan, APF

Rebecca Ryan captains the ship. Trained as a futurist and an economist, Rebecca helps clients see what's coming - as a keynote speaker, a Futures Lab facilitator, an author of books, blogs and articles, a client advisor, and the founder of Futurist Camp. Check out her blog or watch her Q&A on how NGC helps organizations prepare for the future using Strategic Foresight. Contact Lisa Loniello for more information.

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