The world is more complicated than it used to be. Over the last century, the world’s population has more than quadrupled. Things have come into being that humans have never seen before, from spaceflight to computers, from atomic bombs to social media. The complexity of everyday life has exploded. It’s no wonder that nothing makes sense anymore–until it does.
That sensemaking leap, above all else, depends on finding reliable information to navigate the many unknowns of today’s complex and dynamic world.
Seth Taube credits Karl Weick, the Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, for his most important insights in this field. Weick defines sensemaking as “The activity that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity of the world into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action.”
It’s All in the Mind
Finance industry leader Seth Taube looks at the art and science of sensemaking from a unique perspective. Though trained in business and economics at Harvard and the world-renowned Wharton School and having launched billion-dollar enterprises, his advanced studies also included neuroscience and anthropology. He understands how the human brain processes new and novel information to make million-dollar decisions as well as everyday choices.
Sensemaking, Seth explains, allows people to take ambiguous, confusing, and even bizarre issues and map out their patterns onto paths they can follow. For the human brain, however, to convert those ambiguous, confusing, and bizarre matters into clear, straightforward, and customary concepts requires reliable and accurate information.
From Unknown to Known
According to Deborah Ancona at the MIT-Sloan School of Management, sensemaking refers to observing the unknown and restructuring it in a way that works. That restructuring is a stepwise process that starts with developing a plausible understanding, testing it in practice, collecting new data, and refining it until one’s actions create the desired outcomes. Sensemaking converts the unknown into the known; it draws a new map across a shifting world.
Information Sourcing Skills
“Misinformation,” Seth Taube warns, “is the bane of effective sensemaking.” Three sources have drawn his attention for further investigation: propaganda, misinformation, and fake news. Their definitions and intent often overlap. They are forms of information sharing that cause harm, especially when they apply to specific moral or political causes.
Information, Seth explains from an economist’s perspective, can be likened to money; it is either real or it is counterfeit. “Sensemaking with counterfeit information leads to non-sensemaking and a failure to navigate safely through the world’s new complexities.” He separates this counterfeit coin into three clearly different categories requiring three different solutions:
- Misinformation – False, misunderstood “facts” shared in ignorance with no intention to cause harm to anyone.
- Disinformation – Invented or inaccurate information, intentionally misinterpreted or misrepresented, and shared in a way to cause harm.
- Mal-information – Accurate information shared in a way that intentionally causes harm.
The advent of new, sophisticated, nearly instantaneous communication technology and social media–including text, images, videos, and online links–has made these ancient forms of human malice into new and pervasive challenges to sensemaking.
Sensemaking, however, is possible. “In the information marketplace,” Seth warns, “it’s still a matter of caveat emptor; buyer beware! Sensemaking requires due diligence.” He advises:
- Check your sources to see if they have credible authority to share the matter at hand. Even innocent misinformation can lead to tragic consequences.
- Don’t accept information without checking its accuracy. Look for ulterior motives that might be served by sharing disinformation.
- Examine the harm that could result from sharing mal-information. Participation makes one complicit.
“Sensemaking among the complexities of the modern world,” Seth advises readers, “requires constant vigilance. Give special attention to the places your new road maps take you. Be ready to draw and redraw them every day.”
A Vulnerable New Target
Seth has taken a special interest in today’s youth. The overwhelming presence and use of new communication technology have exposed a new vulnerability. “Young people are particularly susceptible to propaganda, misinformation, and fake news,” Seth warns parents and educators alike that young people have too little life experience to evaluate information or its sources reliably. At home and in school, young people need to be given critical information-handling skills for healthy sensemaking.
Seth’s Final Thoughts
Over Seth Taube’s 25 years as a successful worldwide investor and entrepreneur, he has seen technology make the world ever smaller yet ever more complex. The unpredictability of political and social conditions and economic and environmental shifts brings a higher-than-ever priority to individual, social, corporate, and organizational sensemaking.
“Guard your information sources and stay vigilant; information is power,” Seth says. “Don’t settle for anything less than the real thing. Sensemaking of this new, fast-paced, ever more complex world will need a more reliable information system than ever before. And you are the key to that system.”