Brutalist Bookends

Scott Kubie is a designer who writes. This is his blog.

Making sense of things is effortful, which is why so few teams slow down to do it. So people are always asking me:

How do I sell this sensemaking technique/approach/tool to leadership?

The question takes a lot of forms. How do I get permission to interview stakeholders about the goals for their content? How do I prove the ROI of creating a map of all the sites and channels we maintain? What are the specific benefits of documenting the vision for our product?

To those questions and more, here’s the real answer that I want to give, but don’t, because it would make me sound like a snarky asshole:

You have to become the kind of designer who wouldn’t ask that question. (Or else you need to work somewhere you wouldn’t have to ask that question.)

If an activity will increase understanding — either your own, or that of the people you’re working with — you don’t need to sell it, you just need to do it.

If a process is so rigid that every sensemaking activity, every mark you make with a marker, every minute in front of a whiteboard, must be accounted for in a burndown chart, something has gone seriously wrong.

In most organizational cultures, no one has to ask permission to pull you into a one-hour meeting or bend your ear over the cubicle wall if they are stuck or confused or “just want to touch base” or “make sure we’ll all in sync”. Conversation alone can be a sensemaking activity, yes, but it’s a grossly inefficient one. Yet as soon as something more formal/visual (and therefore more efficient) starts taking place, many practitioners feel like they need to get a permission slip.

This can stem from leadership failings within an organization, but I also find that it’s often an artificial restriction practitioners place on themselves. The most successful designers (and writers, and developers, and product owners) that I know are focused on sensemaking from the get-go, and are constantly seeking greater clarity and alignment with the people they’re working with in ways formal and informal alike.

Consider asking forgiveness rather than permission the next time you’re feeling stuck on a project and want to try something new. Plan workshops. Draw pictures. Make maps. Write things down. Schedule interviews. Ask questions. Start making sense.