Sensemaking

Sensing Your Way to Better Choices

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Passing the vibe check with flying colours | Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

I recently finished a course on leadership coaching, and the experience had a huge impact on my approach to serving and leading others. In particular, the focus on being "in tune" with a coach, other people, or an organisation, as a predictor of improved outcomes, stuck with me. For this post, let's refer to it as "alignment".

Alignment is quite broad, and usefully so. It can apply to a friend group, relationship, new job, area of study, or organisation you're part of. Any space that you participate in, really. It's also an emergent property of life, as our modern pace of change ensures nothing stays the same for long.

You may already have a good intuitive sense for what this is, as pop culture might describe it as "living your best life" or "vibing". These phrases are useful, as they depict something that people want, accompanied by an image or video that suggests what it means for that person. In other words, it visually captures a sense of a qualitatively "good" space.

True to form for me, I wondered was it possible to model alignment, and visualise whether a given space suits a person or not. To do that, I needed a way of measuring it. The book "How to Measure Anything" suggests (obviously) that everything can be measured, so I just needed to find dimensions that would allow me to reduce a big fuzzy complex space into answerable questions.

I settled on three categories:

Fit 🤗
Friction 🧊
Fatigue 🧠 / 💪🏻

Fit 🤗 is how connected, welcome, or at home you feel in a space. Good fit would be finding a space where your values are mirrored, the vibe is great, and you could stay for a long time. Bad fit is a hostile or indifferent space, where you don't feel comfortable.

Friction 🧊 is a measure of how difficult it is to achieve what you want in that space. Good friction could be pushing against resistance in a way that promotes positive growth. Bad friction could be discovering that it's impossible to make any progress at all.

Fatigue 🧠 / 💪🏻 is how positively or negatively drained you are by participating in a space. Good fatigue, like exercise, might be feeling tired after participating, but happy that you did. Bad fatigue might be exhaustion due to overwork, or prolonged intense stress.

The categories are loose, but useful, because (I feel) they capture a sense of a complex situation or space. They're also quite interconnected, with each one exerting an influence on the others, contributing to a "gut feeling" about a space.

Three dimensions for measuring a complex space: fit, friction, and fatigue.
A big fuzzy complex space can be viewed through these three dimensions.

I tried to make it easy to assign qualitative values to the three categories, so I went with a simple "Good" and "Bad" with a 10 point scale. Very good being 10/10, and very bad being 10/10, in their respective columns. This allows for subjective weighting, where a person could say 5/10 good and 5/10 bad, if they wanted to suggest an "iffy" feeling.

Balancing it out perfectly isn't important, but helps clarify the outcome.

A table showing good or bad measurements of fit, friction, and fatigue.
"It's Excel's world, we just live in it."

To visualise it, I used an idea from "The Decision Maker's Playbook" (book notes coming soon), and chose a spider chart, or radar chart. The general idea is that further away from the center of the chart is better, or worse, depending on the colour.

So, what does it look like in practice? Well, here’s an example of being really aligned with a space. This is me, at a job I like, fitting in really well, sensing good career friction, and good learning fatigue, with the usual day-to-day business difficulties.

A visual example of being really well aligned with a space.
A pretty sweet situation.

Here's the other side of that scale. This is me at an organisation I did not like, as its values were extremely different, I found it difficult to make progress on anything, and was exhausted by just coming to work.

A visual example of being really poorly aligned with a space.
Bad vibes all round.

These are extremes to show obvious polarities, but I think the examples are useful.

Here's something more in the middle. This one is "hanging out with friends that aren't mine". A mixed result, with high negative fatigue for me, as I'm pretty introverted. These are decent indicators that this space isn’t really my jam.

A visual example of being somewhat poorly aligned with a space.
Looking for the nearest quiet spot to mentally recharge.

What I like most about these images is that I can share a visual representation of my feelings, and a qualitative assessment of the same, in a single image. This simple exercise allows me to communicate a complex experience and display my "sense" of these spaces. It is a form of "sensemaking" in action.

The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs. [1]

Making "retrospective sense of what occurs" is what we're doing here, as you can't do this in real time. You need to include it as part of a reflection exercise, or retrospective. The outcome of that exercise is a heuristic, or a guide, to help you decide whether you're "vibing" with your friend group, your relationship, your job, or even your hobby.

Helpfully, it can also represent "drift" or changes in your feelings over time. If you capture your thoughts/feelings now, and repeat the exercise at intervals, you can track a space's improvement (or disimprovement) rather than letting it creep up on you. You can avoid becoming a boiled frog, for example.

My call to action for you is to consider the spaces that you're in right now. Do you think, or feel, that they suit you? If you're not sure, consider giving this exercise a shot. I've made it available as a template for those with a Google account (go to "File" and "Make a copy") and would be fascinated to know how you get on.

Importantly, if you do this exercise, and you get a mixed result, consider why you aren't moving towards something that suits you better. If you genuinely have no other options open to you, at least you have a more accurate sense of your situation. As Julia Galef says in The Scout Mindset, you've "updated your map" of reality.

If you can do something about it though, what's stopping you?


[1]Weick, Karl E. “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 4, 1993, p. 635, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2393339.

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