Using ‘sensemaking’ to calibrate our response to COVID-19

February 22, 2021

In February 2020, I was in New York for work and the buzz around the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was growing and picking pace. A week after I returned to Fiji, the borders closed. Almost a year later, the borders remain closed. The UN’s Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Fiji gave a full picture of the impacts induced by COVID-19. How the pandemic unraveled demonstrated the power of chaos to instigate change. Wisdom from the Cynefin framework suggests that chaos can be a powerful trigger for positive change if constructively used. At the same time, poor decisions taken in a moment of crisis can lead to long term consequences from which societies can take years to recover.

As Pacific island countries labored through this crisis, the UN Development Programme worked on finding new ways to respond so that we could serve our member countries and governments with the most timely and contextualized interventions.

We started to use sensemaking as a way to navigate the ever-evolving complex question of “what is happening?”

What is this sensemaking anyway?

Sensemaking is often described as a process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. It is literally the act of making sense of our environment, achieved by organizing sense data until the environment “becomes sensible” or is understood well enough to enable reasonable decisions.

Over the last six months, the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji led and participated in three sensemaking sessions. Each sensemaking session used different frames and lens to understand the situation at hand. It allowed us to build an operational understanding of what was happening and make strategic decisions that would lead to more positive emergent interventions rather than negative long-term externalities.

Sensemaking to tackle data and decision fatigue

As development practitioners working in climate crisis situations, we have a rich experience of designing responsive projects that speak to country needs. However, in a rapidly shifting environment, with data coming through multiple assessment reports and watching emerging signals in our environment, most of us experienced data and decision fatigue. It became increasingly hard to make sense of seemingly competing needs and demands in the short term while planning for an uncertain future. Through the systems lens (icebergleverage pointssystems mapping), we were able to apply a new frame to our thinking and consolidate multiple data points. These include the evidence and analysis from the assessments (cold data) undertaken by the UN and other agencies. But also includes vital data that emerges out of own experience as development professionals – the interrelational information, the connections between elements, the contextualized specifics, the amorphous data points which are hard to measure – often known as warm data. This helps draw a fuller picture of the issues at hand and see new patterns which were previously not visible. Through these processes, we were able step back, reflect, and zoom into priority focus areas in an integrated way and in alignment with long-term sustainability goals.  

Collaboration as a playful process of discovery

For the work of the United Nations, collaboration is not just an aspirational ideal or outcome. It is critical so that we can leverage our collective might on complex problems. However, this is easier said than done. As we designed the sensemaking sessions, we knew it would take more than just bringing together 15+ UN agencies. We needed to create a space that helped them imagine future possibilities and explore strategic alignments. Through structured facilitation, we ensured the process was playful and took individuals away from their daily constructs allowing for emergence. They worked together to build programming entry points and helped each other see different perspectives. These interactions lay the ground for future collaborative work which was evident in our anonymous check-out surveys.

“It’s hard to survive in the jungle if you were trained in a zoo”*

As leaders and individuals, we all have our worldviews. COVID-19 forced us to see the limitations of our training and learn new ways to survive and be relevant. The opportunity to see the world through new lens is critical to determine how we act in them. Through repeated opportunities to sensemake, we are investing in our own capacities. It is this capacity to deal and act in complexity that will make our work increasingly contextualized, timely and forward looking.  Through the sensemaking process, groups found new hypothesis around digital education, food security, green recovery, and vaccine deployment among others. The hope is to actualize these into projects which could potentially scale and benefit the Pacific as a whole.

For us, sensemaking has become a continued journey to step back, reflect and realign our priorities based on new data and situations. It validates UNDP’s role as an integrator and the SDG integration approach to tackle complex challenges. As we in the Pacific plan for the years to come, this mindset is critical so that we go beyond sectors and solutions to systems transformation.

A big thanks to the support and openness of UN Agencies and my colleagues Moortaza Jiwanji and Johannes Schunter from UNDP for making this possible.

*Sonja Blignaut said this and I can’t find a better way to convey the same sentiment.