How to make the complex simple – 10 more sensemaking strategies

I got a lot of positive feedback on my post “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do” in which I shared 10 of my favorite strategies to deal with situations in which we scratch our head and say “hey, that makes no sense at all, what’s going on, what does that mean?”. So, I decided to share 10 more strategies.

I come across a lot of people who are “OneSols”. They believe that there is only One Solution to a problem (they are the “Listen pal, its my way or the highway!” people). I am a “MultiSol” person and try to come up with Multiple Solutions to a problem. It works – “many ways lead to Rome” as the saying goes. Not only are there many solutions to a problem but also many strategies that can be used to figure it out – make sense of it. They may work in different contexts and not all for the same problem but they work. I tested them. Here they are

  • Read future technology blogs

I tried to figure out what my job might look like in 10 years…scary…automation will take over and algorithms will replace a lot of humans…my worst nightmare is to be replaced by a machine! The blogs helped to make sense of how to prepare and develop skills that no machine can replace. Currently, machines cannot put things into context, see the big picture, be creative, come up with ideas and turn them into reality…

  • Watch others solve a problem

If you cannot do it yourself for any reason, why not delegate and observe others how they make sense of it. Learning by watching others is great…usually it shows me things I would have never thought of.

  • Write down everything you know

Once I had to develop content for a university course. I had 20 folders with possible teaching material on my desk. Where do you start, what do you pick, what is relevant? I just started to write down bullet points of what was there, like a table of contents. That’s how structure emerges from chaos.

  • List all questions you have – make it specific

When trying to improve a process I pretend I am from Mars and don’t know anything about the process. I write down all questions I have which helps me to find a good starting point, separate the relevant from irrelevant questions….

  • Visualize

IMG_1110I am a visual person. I need to make drawings. It helps me to think and understand quicker. I once created a 4 x 1.5m process map and used it in a process improvement workshop (that’s me in the picture below). I never before heard so many people say “ah, that’s why; now
I understand why this does not work; uh, I did not know we do that”.


  • What’s the first step, what’s the next step?

I sometimes suffer from analysis paralysis. The way to stop it is to ask “ok, what’s the first step to improve / stop / start…”. And then I ask “ok, what’s the next step”. This turns data into action. The questions also work nicely to put a stop to endless discussions in meetings about how bad the situation is J

  • Ask timing, volume, barriers, focus, support questions

Noise, noise, noise…how can I cut through it? “This process is so bad…bla, bla, bla” In this case I ask “ok, what specific problems are there, how often does it happen, when does it happen…” These questions put an instant stop to noise because people cannot deliver facts.

  • Haensel and Gretel approach

Breadcrumbs, it’s a trail…one step leads to another leads to another leads to another….sometimes it takes a really long time to make sense. You have to accept that you cannot figure it out right away. Examples for these problems are product development, mastering a skill or finding purpose.

  • Decompose and compose

I like engineers, they are curious. Put a box, machine, product in front of them and they can’t resist but take it apart and put it together again (breaking and repairing it is a vital step)…when I am confronted with a big problem I don’t understand, then I break it down into smaller parts, see how parts relate to each other and put the big picture together.

  • Come up with as many plausible explanations as possible

I had to improve a process which I knew was not working well. I knew what the problems were and had the statistics to prove it. However, no one knew the root causes. So I opened up the possibility space and forced myself to come up with as many possible explanations as I could. Some made sense, some didn’t. With my colleagues I decided which ones to explore further, i.e. it helped us to define priorities.


Thanks for reading my post, I’d love to connect to you and hear your feedback – what was useful, what wasn’t, topics you would like me to write about…..

Reach out and connect:

Twitter – @dr_jrb

Please let me know if I can help you with anything. Have a great day!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s