radical Briefing 0032: From Sensing to Sense-Making

Quick tips for building a (much) smarter scanning practice

We’ve written here before about the value of learning to spot weak signals and sort them for emerging trends that might disrupt established markets or define new ones. These are both rich sensing practices that can help you develop your capacity to read the present for important information about possible futures (and the opportunities and risks those futures might reveal), but even well developed sensing practices can feel a bit scattershot and arbitrary in the absence of a larger process for sustained sense-making.

To maximize the value and sustainability of your sensing and scanning work, it helps to embed that practice within a well-designed and calibrated system. Given a clear mandate and significant resources for your futuring, you can — of course — outsource the work or pay someone to build the system and help you kickstart the practice, but if you’re embarking on an open-ended, ongoing exploration of the expanding possible (likely on a constrained budget), you might find it necessary to opt for the DIY version.

With that fanfare, here’s our quick and dirty guide to standing up a system that will take you from sensing to sense-making (and get better/smarter with time):

Don’t launch your exploration of possible futures as a solo venture.

Find the others. Seriously. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t see what you don’t see. Find partners who are excited (or get your partners excited) to engage in some collaborative futuring. The picture that emerges from tapping the collective intelligence will be much richer, and you’ll locate your blindspots and flawed assumptions much more quickly if you have help in identifying them.

Scope your futuring work smartly.

The future is a big, weird place, and the flow of possible future signals and trend data can be commensurately overwhelming. In the interest of sustaining your practice, supporting the sense-making that delivers the real value on the sensing work, and just generally avoiding a drift into galaxy brain weirdness, push for clarity on the temporal and domain scope of your scanning. How long a view do you want to take? Bringing your board a forecast for the technological singularity in 2045 isn’t going to usefully inform your 2021 strategy work. And while we’re strong advocates of contextual awareness and interdisciplinary thinking, if you’re primarily concerned with the future of mobility in your region in the next decade, you probably don’t need to be logging signals coming out of longevity research. 

Keep a common spreadsheet.

Depending on the nature of your project and the culture of your futuring team and surrounding organization, you might favor collecting your signals and trends in a bookmarks folder, or a Pinterest board, or as a set of color-coded note cards. But if you don’t have a strong reason for taking another route, do yourself a favor and adopt a collaborative spreadsheet early on. You get simplicity, scalability, easy search/sort curation, and future flexibility (even versioning!) all in one package.

We like a simple spreadsheet for compiling the trends/signals (on distinct TRENDS and SIGNALS tabs — where related signals might graduate to supporting a trend) inventory broken down across the following fields: 

These are fields we’ve found consistently useful (Time Horizons — usually with a 1, 2, 3 for sorting — defined by the team in advance and STEEP domains described here). You might also choose to add fields such as Impact, Certainty, Key Implications, or Questions.

Visit your futures frequently.

Like all ideas, these come to vivid life through play, interaction, and (re-)combination. Put your trends and signals into conversation to create a view of interrelated possibilities that also exist on a spectrum of likelihood and impact. This is where you begin to move from sensing to more systematic sense-making and where you can start to weave something that feels more like an emergent world than an isolated wild idea or hunch.

There are all sorts of ways to put possibilities into conversation. A quick and engaging one involves simply sorting trends on a plane with dimensions gauging Impact and Certainty. You can easily do this IRL on a whiteboard with Post-Its or a digital Mural board with digital stickies.

Sorting and evaluating your trends to envision a range of possible futures is a necessary step toward strategy-supporting scenario and prototyping work that you can find treated in appropriate depth elsewhere. For now, we’ll wrap by highlighting an essential step that’s often overlooked.

Don’t forget to revisit futures past (with a critical eye).

One of the greatest benefits of taking a more systematic and rigorous approach to your sensing and scanning work is that you can design it up to improve with time and practice. The key to this (as with all learning) is building in time for reflection. With casual forecasting and prediction, we have a very human tendency to remember our successes and forget everything else — a sort of survivorship bias. If you make the right call on the implications of a given signal or trend, you’re continually seeing evidence of it (and even subconsciously seeking evidence/confirmation) bearing out and persisting into the future. But the wayward forecasts… well, those tend to fade — perhaps mercifully — from memory.

That’s where the spreadsheet and inventory show their value again. You have the opportunity to tune your sense-making and evolve your sensing practice by reviewing your past work and reflecting on the patterns and biases you discover in hindsight. Did you have critical/consistent blindspots? Did you favor trends and signals that seemed to support particular narratives or a worldview? Were you overly optimistic or pessimistic in your readings? This isn’t about being right all the time or even keeping score; it’s about developing an understanding of how and your team see the world and envision the future and learning what that point of view might prevent you from seeing or even imagining.

The best forecasters aren’t only looking forward. You shouldn’t be either.

radically yours,

Jeffrey and the be radical team

P.S. Interested in exploring how this applies to your organization and your products & services? Find out how be radical can help you. Simply hit reply to this email, tell us a bit about yourself and the opportunity/challenge you face, and we will be in touch.