The Hardest Part of Any Innovation Process Is Sensemaking. And Sensemaking Is Closely Linked to Insights

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The hardest part of any innovation process is where data and insights come together and try to make sense of them. Sensemaking is about using visual mappings and narrative techniques to mine the non-quantitative data. This excerpt is taken from a piece in the current issue of M/I/S/C magazine on Insights and Sensemaking co-written by me and Richard Thomas.

Customer insights can be inspiring but insights are only useful when they prompt action and self-reflection. Ideally, the best insights inspire even more insights and them more insights, but vast amounts of insights or the lack of context gives way to a different difficulty – the loss of both inherited and intended meaning leaves insights appearing senseless. For this reason sensemaking and insights are closely related. These pictures are from our M/I/S/C Insight Issue launch party. This is a thick issue and flying off the shelves fast.

Sensemaking helps to illustrate unthought-of rules-of-order and insights are the direct experience of these perceived rules. Often they are under pressure and cue toward the yet-to-be but insights, by nature, are descriptive and reflective – retrospective of lived experiences. Insights are the past. They have been separated from life. To exist as unpredictable patterns they may or may not fully characterize the ‘real world’ or persist as perceived. The list of problems and challenges organizations face in managing and applying relevant consumer insights continues to grow. Here are a few:

Insight Speed & Complexity: Organizations believe they are working from a complex abundance of insights at an increasing rate – that they are diverse, independent and conflicting – but at times their insights are not insights at all. The pressure to categorize, prioritize and validate dominates the conversation as opposed to getting at the heart of the matter. How does ‘what is going on,’ effect what you desire to be?

Old Insights: Organizations often work from the same cues, and the same insights from the same reports. Managers facing time restraints carry over insights from project to project and create a self-reinforcing false reality and homogenous actionable intelligence at the organizational level, and a lameness that is visible from the shelf.

Biased Insights: Often projects, products and categories come equipped with bias toward the past and dominant insights that reinforce the known and the safe. They are often out of context, separated from their original time, expired but treated anew.

Insight Translation and Application: Drawing value from out of scope, irrelevant or intangible ‘inactionable’ insights is resource heavy. If they do not fit with the current mental model of the market or consumer, they are cast aside.

Navigating Misinformation: Mistaking repetition and self-similarity as truth or validation. Aging insights have resulted in a loss of their meaning – and relevancy over time.

Insight Disbelief and Disregard: The insights and processes are becoming contradictory, trust and belief is bleeding out. The inaccuracy of the processes in the real world occupies our emotional intelligence when it should be ‘feeling opportunity’ – sensing valuable cues for action. People want insights to be singular in their validity but as a reflection of the real world, insights could and should complicate and contradict each other to accurately describe reality and texture.

These problems are symptomatic of more than the solutions they seek. The imperative to describe and validate the past, present and future has engaged tension between hesitations and over eagerness about change, insecurity and confusion associated with ambiguity. These problems stem from an over objectification of ‘the insight’ where we wish to be accurate. Insights have become ‘processed’ from perspectives of existing evaluation techniques to control, predict and guide the outcomes of their application in order to ‘de-risk’.

Overly fetishized instrumentation, metrics and measures have become the source of confidence in decision-making. It is hard to put the “sense” back into our every day managerial settings increase the signal-to-noise ration.

Sensemaking is where our sense of complexity and massive conflicting information is being sorted through and relationships are mapped out and the emerging themes and weak signals are identified and clarified. I have been training senior managers and executives of applied sensemaking in strategy, marketing, product development, operations and technology planning. It is the most important skill managers need to master today.

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