Large-scale collective sense-making processes (Sense-making – Part 5)

I’ve long advocated the use of multiple processes in public and stakeholder engagements so that synergies among them can be tapped. Recently I’ve been drawn into explorations of sense-making, in which collective sense-making stands out as particularly important. So I decided to apply my multi-process design thinking to the challenge of collective sense-making. I describe that thinking in detail here. This sense-making vision is intended especially for practitioners, designers and scholars of public engagements. – Tom

In 2003 I wrote a series of posts about “Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs”. Here are a few juicy excerpts from the introduction to that series:

I believe we need to deconstruct public participation practices and come to deeper understandings of how they work and, perhaps most importantly, how they can work together to better address the complexity we face….

Processes and methods are only containers and tools for human caring, foresight, relationship and communication. A convenor’s visionary intention, a facilitator’s quality of attention, a participant’s heartful openness, a community’s culture — such factors will continue to play dominant roles regardless of the processes used.

Still, well chosen processes “make space” for different kinds of human aliveness to flourish. And the kinds of aliveness that flourish or die in public participation can make or break the health of a democracy. So it behooves us to become sensitive and wise about these things….

My own sense of the need for multi-process public participation programs comes from my desire to improve community intelligence — the ability of communities and societies to wisely deal with their complex and changing circumstances. Given that purpose, it has been clear to me from the beginning that individual processes could help or hinder that outcome, but that no single process could ensure it fully in all situations. Over time I came to see that it isn’t a matter of which process is best for a given situation, but rather which processes together, in what order, with what links between them, can help us do the job well. It becomes a question of process synergy, in which the relationships between processes are as important as the processes themselves.


In 2005 I helped convene a 5-day Open Space conference in the southern CA desert with scientists, spiritual people, activists and even a US senator to discuss the social implications of the science-based evolutionary story of the universe.

An Open Space event usually starts with no scheduled speakers or workshops. The schedule is created by those who attend, who all have a special interest in the topic. But this Open Space didn’t start like that.

We’d invited Juanita Brown, cofounder of the remarkable World Cafe process, to help design our week and to attend the gathering. In her design, she’d inserted several hours of World Cafe on the first morning. I’d never seen that approach before.

In most World Cafes, people discuss a shared question in small groups at cafe-like tables. After about 15-30 minutes, they break up and reconvene at other tables with other participants to share what they’d each experienced so far and to continue the conversation. There are often several rounds of this mix-and-move-on process.

The Cafe question Juanita brought to us that morning was something like “What question, if well considered here, would make all the difference in the world?”

This was interesting, because World Cafes are not usually designed to find The One Right Answer to anything. They work best at stirring things up and evoking new insights and new questions.

But what happened that morning 15 years ago was that the question stirred up a torrent of creative thinking and passion in our group of three dozen specialists. By the time the Open Space was convened after lunch (where passionate discussions had continued) our participants were almost leaping out of their seats to convene sessions about questions that mattered to them.

Open Space is driven totally by the passion and responsibility of the participants. Juanita’s initial World Cafe had served to “prime the pump” – or should I say “stoke the fire”! – for the vitality and salience of the subsequent Open Space sessions. It was a brilliant synergistic pairing of two very different processes.


Over the last couple of years I’ve heard many of my colleagues talking about “sense-making” instead of “intelligence”. While these two concepts are intimately related, I realized that this shift to “sense-making” was emerging in response to a world that seemed to make less and less sense with each passing day. And “collective” sense-making seems ever-more vital – AND elusive – as our shared sense of who we are and what’s going on becomes a fading memory. Increasingly, many of us don’t even seem to be living in the same reality.

So I’ve been drawn to explore how the “multi-process program” inquiry might serve our efforts to make collective sense. In particular, I’ve been inspired to look for both (a) state-of-the-art approaches that, while expensive in terms of money and time, can achieve significant shared understandings at scale AND (b) grassroots approaches that can achieve 50-80% of such outcomes with perhaps only 10-20% of the investment.

This has led me – so far – down two paths: (1) imagining a system of interrelated sense-making functions, each of which can be performed by diverse methodologies and (2) a grid of desirable outcomes with processes rated for how well they can produce those outcomes. Both approaches enable us to choose packages – or design ecosystems – of methods to serve the particular sense-making outcomes we desire.

I offer both of these approaches as drafts, as possible ways to pursue this collective sense-making inquiry. Either of them could be developed further or in other ways. Together, I see them offering a tantalizing taste of what we could develop here as an emerging field of collective sense-making.

So my main purpose is less to propose solutions as to open an opportunity space and invite some energy for serious exploration and R&D. Heaven knows, I think we need to start making some collective sense soon!

Some processes are great to engage hundreds of people who are interested in an issue. Some processes specialize in helping a small cross-section of the population get smart enough about an issue to produce informed, insightful recommendations. Some end up with input for authorities, some with self-organized community activity.

Each process has its own set of gifts and limitations. Knowing about them enables us to weave together process combinations whose gifts can complement each other and together generate the kind of outcomes we seek.

introduces us to this approach. I used it to examine how well each of nine processes serve eleven functions or purposes. In addition, I imagined three different multi-process programs that could be undertaken to generate three different kinds of engagement and sense-making.

Since some readers may not be familiar with some of the processes I analyzed, I’ve added a second page to the spreadsheet – “Sheet2″ – that provides a quick description of each process so you can at least get the overall “flavor” of it.

I’m sharing this grid as a draft – a suggested way of going about understanding these processes and their gifts to begin exploring how they might contribute to multi-process public and stakeholder engagements we might undertake to make collective sense of major situations.

We can ask: What kind of sense-making are we looking for? How deep do we want it to go? How broadly do we want it and its results to reach? This grid can help us think about such questions and make some progress in answering them.


This model is a flow chart which centers on functions that can be performed in the process of collective sense-making. The model considers what arrangements and sequences of functions would generate synergy among them – such that the processes used generate more, deeper, broader sense when they are combined in those ways than they can generate by themselves.

I offer here both a simple version and a more detailed version of the model. Both versions center on three functions for large-scale collective sense-making: (1) broad popular or stakeholder engagement in conversation, (2) broad participation in a participatory poll that produces an overview of the landscape of diverse perspectives (ideally highlighting points of agreement) and (3) focused sense-making interactions by a small cross-section of the relevant population, aided by special facilitation and information that are not readily available to the broad public. Ideally, many people would be drawn into (1), then move on to (2), with the results of (2) informing the deliberations in (3). Beyond that, many potential feedback dynamics between those functions could increase the sophistication and potency of the processes and results.

Around those core 1-2-3 functions we find other functions having to do with action, impact review, and wisdom generation, as well as alternative/additional flows of participants and information through the system. In the more detailed model, we also see boxes presenting different processes for each function, as well as modes of engagement and selection of participants at each stage.

The simple version contains both the image and a text-based self-guided tour.

You can watch a nine-minute video of me giving a guided tour of the simple version. My tour is pre-set to begin at 42:20; it ends at 51:05. (Note: In the Zoom call this tour is part of, I went on to discuss the more detailed model, as well, but the Zoom recording didn’t show the right screen share, so the picture doesn’t fit my words. So I’d advise skipping the parts after 51:05.)

The more detailed version also contains both the image and a written guide. It takes a bit more time and attention to understand, so don’t bother with it unless you’re really interested.


In my earlier posts in this sense-making series I’ve emphasized that the state and complexity of today’s world seriously booby-trap INDIVIDUAL sense-making efforts. We can so easily fall into confirmation bias or overwhelm. I suggest that COLLECTIVE sense-making efforts at least increase our chances of getting it (more) right – especially if we ensure diversity and use generative forms of conversation while remaining alert to our cognitive limitations.

Most of the analyses and models in this post are aimed at LARGE-SCALE sense-making efforts – where we want to end up with at least coherent and sensible policies at the community, state and national levels, or for large networks or organizations. But beyond that we may aspire to developing shared understandings and motivation among ALL (or the vast majority of) the citizens or residents in those domains – and/or reaching beyond mere sense-making into actual wisdom. All these aspirations can be pursued through the material given here.

This material can and should be held lightly and transcended through further development by practitioners, theorists and designers who grasp the underlying intention – to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole – and experiment with new approaches for doing that.

Note that this multi-process vision is not likely to serve smaller groups. On the other hand, many of the individual processes woven into these multi-process fabrics – like Dynamic Facilitation and World Cafe – can be quite potent when we’re engaging a few – or a few dozen – participants in a room or a videoconference. The grid may help you find appropriate processes for that – especially as it begins to include more functions and methods.

So use it all as you will. And blessings on this Immense Journey we’re all on together.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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