Making sense where there is none

Published 2:09 pm Friday, October 13, 2017

I live on Park Drive.

I grew up at 535 Third St. A, Moline, and 1119 Walnut St., Springfield, Illinois. I have lived at many different addresses since then, all identified by a street and number. In our society, numbers and location signify proof of existence. Tracking the 2014 Ebola virus in West Africa meant identifying and locating those who had the virus and those exposed to the virus so the movement of the virus could be monitored and stopped. Simple, intuitive. Finding those numbers and streets in neighborhoods where the infected or the carriers had stayed or were staying and then track all the folks who came in contact with them was critical.

But what if, for the most part, there were no numbers, streets or mailboxes to help track an infected person?

What if, in rural Liberia, residence was based on kinship, family support and opportunity for work, and not based around an address?

What if you asked someone where they lived or were from and a location didn’t come back, but a family name, a river, a meeting place, a burial ground or places on a map that featured little resemblance to ordered streets and property lines?

What if your mental models (discussed in last column) were based on anchoring an address as a critical beginning point of reference or based on the assumption that residence of adult children in our society is usually different than their parents’ address? These questions pointed out a world that made little or no sense to the virus trackers.

Important to bending or rewiring our mental models is sensemaking — simply, giving meaning to experience where models and past associations are not adequate to provide relevant and in-the-moment understanding. In other words, the labels of address, location and neatly ordered maps did not work for the trackers for the task at hand. In effect, they were outstripping the reach of their models and were in a sort of cognitive “twilight zone.” In facing the uncertainty of how to confront challenges, there is often a complexity of behaviors different from the familiar. When models fail, what does a tracker do or better yet, where does she go?

Building resilience depends on the ability to think and act, or sensemake in the “moment,” whether the moment is a tick of a clock or weeks or months. One of my favorite descriptions of sensemaking offers an ambiguous and uncomfortable place of reasoning. It is a place, according to Weick, filled with “vague questions, muddy answers and negotiated agreements about what is right or correct when the only thing one can do at the moment is reduce confusion.” In a way, our models and way of thinking everyday are impediments to our sensemaking. But our way out of a crisis is thinking differently and accepting full well our ongoing experience as a guide as we search for solutions going forward.

There are skills that can help promote sensemaking. For the trackers, first, they had to admit, as Dorothy ruefully pointed out, they “were not in Kansas anymore.” The trackers had to manage frustration of being in a system of reckoning that bore little resemblance to the familiar. Their understanding of residence worked in Omaha, not in a village in rural Liberia. Next, by asking those muddy questions and engaging in critical observation, the trackers had to overcome a steep learning curve. Cultural and social speed bumps come fast and furious when nothing is as it used to be. So not letting the bumps throw them off course was essential. The trackers had to accept the ambiguity that hangs like a cloud over attempts to achieve understanding. The trackers had to accept the risks inherent in putting themselves in places and spaces critical to learning more when failure or uncertainty is likely, and danger may not be far behind. And finally, the trackers didn’t have the luxury of measured and objective reasoning; their assigning sense to experience was in the moment and every trace meant a life saved, or taken.

The adversity, or challenges now facing Washington neighborhoods and communities can present upended worlds to those involved in finding solutions. Think of responding to future events like flooding. Not just the flooding, but how to better prepare plans and develop infrastructure that does not discriminate asymmetrically across the diversity of class, race and location, etc. Sensemaking will be important to navigate through and make familiar the unfamiliarity of others’ experience to build an effective response so that we can make all of Washington resilient to upcoming flooding, or other potential adversity.

Robert Greene Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the non-profit Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities located in Washington.