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How to facilitate a sensemaking workshop

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Return to Stage 4 - Sensemaking & action planning
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Sensemaking is a term made popular by organisational theorist Karl Weick. It's a process designed to help a group of people see patterns that where once hidden to them. It is also the process whereby a group of people develop a common understanding in order to move forward to address an issue.

Facilitation level

The level of facilitation skills required to lead this technique is advanced. Prior experience using this technique or being involved as a participant is recommended.


The objectives of the sensemaking workshop are to:

  • Uncover some of the important knowledge and information issues and things that are going well
  • Help participants appreciate the complexity of the challenge ahead
  • Develop a common understanding among the participants on what these issues are


You'll require the following:

  1. Room requirements and layout
    • Any room with sufficient space for several round tables
    • Each table to seat up to 6 participants
    • Extensive areas of blank wall space (at least half of the total wall space of the room) on which you can stick (with Blu-tack) the anecdotes, information map, survey graphs and sheets of butcher's paper for the clustering wall
    • Ensure there is space for people to mill around in front of the wall cluster and view items stuck onto the wall
  2. Workshop requirements
    • "Hexies" (hexagonal shaped post-it note pads) - 15 colored pads (all the one colour) and 3 pads of white
    • Enough 0.6mm marker pens for each participant
    • Graphs of results from internal staff survey and external stakeholder survey enlarged on A3 paper
    • Large poster for the information map
    • Issues/discussion points from information mapping
    • Sheet of butchers paper outlining the workshop outcomes as dot points
    • Stack of butchers paper (approx 1cm. thick)
    • Pens on table
    • Stickytape, blu-tack (lots of – several packets)
    • Set of selected anecdotes. Each anecdote printed on separate A4 page in large print and numbered
    • Set of selected anecdotes, with each anecdote printed on separate A4 page in large print and numbered (for advice on selecting anecdotes for this activity see How to extract anecdotes for sensemaking)
  3. Social activity at end of day
    • Suitable nearby outdoor area
    • Barbeque (optional)
    • Food and drink


A sensemaking workshop is a whole day activity.


  1. Introductions
  2. Opening (30 minutes)
  3. Gallery walk (60 minutes)
  4. Break
  5. Gallery walk (continued)
  6. Lunch (45 minutes)
  7. Clustering (45 min)
  8. Adopt a Cluster and tell its story (45 min)
  9. Break
  10. Closing (15 min)
  11. Social activity


1. Set up for the gallery walk and clustering

Examples of the gallery walk set up can be found at the end of this how-to guide.

  1. Put the results of the three lines of enquiry up on the walls. On different parts of the walls of the room, and making sure you leave some blank wall space for the clustering area, use blu-tack to put up:
    • Anecdotes. Put these up on the wall in two rows at eye level. Each anecdote page needs to be separated by about 10-15cm from the one next to it and the ones above/below it.
    • Internal and external survey results. Making sure that the internal and external survey results are separated from each other so that people don't get them confused, and that each results sheet is separated by a few centimetres from the one next to it.
    • Information map.
    • Key issues/points from the information mapping. Put these next to the information map.
  2. Put out hexies and pens. On the floor directly underneath each of the above wall areas, place a dozen or so pads of one colour (only) of Hexies and a dozen or so 0.6mm pens.
  3. Label the results of the three lines of enquiry. Label each of the above wall areas with the following instruction sheets:
  4. Make the clustering area.
    • Use blu-tack and masking tape to put up large sheets of butchers paper across the blank wall space that you left for the clustering area. Put up two horizontal rows of sheets, with all sheets overlapping each other.
    • If your sensemaking workshop has a small number of participants (up to 20 people) put up eight sheets of butchers paper in two rows of four. If there are a large number of participants (20-50 people) put up 16 sheets of butchers paper in two rows of eight.
    • After that has been done, then put up several copies of the Icon_pdf.gif clustering instruction sheet Info_circle.png above the clustering area.
    • Then on the floor under the clustering wall put several 0.6mm pens and a few pads of Hexies of a different colour to the ones put under the three lines of enquiry (white Hexies are best for the clustering area).

2. Opening

  1. As people walk in the door pair people up and invite them to read and discuss the anecdotes on the wall. Give them 15 minutes.
  2. Get everyone together and have a general discussion about what they read and the nature of the stories.
  3. Why are we here?
    • This is an important discussion to ground the participants. Use the RICE (responsiveness, innovation, competency and efficiency) acronym to explain overall benefits from a knowledge strategy.
    • Use the ‘why are we doing this?’ input from the first workshop.
  4. Outcome from the two days (write on flip chart and display)
    • Develop a set of tangible actions – small things that can make a difference
    • Develop a set of larger initiatives for improving the knowledge and information capability
    • Develop a process for embedding the change over time
    • Insight on how people in the organisation share and use knowledge
    • Change participant perspectives (and hence behaviour)
    • Identify high impact anecdotes
  5. Provide an overview of program – explain the project activities to date
  6. Agenda
  7. Objectives – review the objectives – show priorities from first workshop, and from the anecdote circles
  8. Approach
    • Play the audiovisual Cynefin framework – to explain why we are doing it this way. This AV file will also require sound to be meaningful.
    • Play the Basketball video, which highlights how people are often unaware of what is really going on. When viewing the video, try to count the total number of times that the people wearing white pass the basketball. Do not count the passes made by the people wearing black. See how many people missed the "gorilla in the room" and replay the video to highlight this.
    • Let them know they will find it different, and slower than they might normally expect because we are trying to encourage as many conversations as possible. The action design activities will be done at a faster pace.
    • Less transmission, more discussion
    • Recognise the tremendous group intelligence present and that people will remember things which are not contained in the story. This is just what we want so encourage the participants to write down on the post-its any ideas that spring to mind that's related to the knowledge strategy.

3. Gallery Walk - Immersion in the Anecdotes, Information Map and Survey results

The purpose of this session is to work out what’s really going on by refering to multiple lines of evidence: the information map, results from the surveys of staff and external stakeholders and the anecdotes:

  1. Introduce anecdotes
    • The anecdotes have been collected from you in the retelling of your experiences - this is a sample
    • ‘Rawness’ – focus on what they mean rather than on the bad grammar etc
    • If the anecdote doesn’t ‘speak’ to you, don’t labour it – move on
  2. Read the anecdotes, results from the surveys and look at the information map
  3. On the post-it notes write down, with each thought on a new hexie post-it note:
    • What’s interesting
    • What’s important
    • What’s the moral, or if it is not a story, what does it mean to you?
    • Explain why hexagonal shaped post-it notes are used. The shape allows post it notes to be grouped together as a 'cluster' with participants being able to view the individual comments on each of the post-it notes. You can demonstrate how the hexies can be grouped or placed together.

  4. Work through an example with the workshop participants (have an example prepared and entered into your presentation)or hand out copies of your example to participants for reference
  5. As a group, discuss what is interesting, what is important, and what is the moral or meaning of the story. It is important that participants write some context with their comments on the hexie post-it notes. Context helps others to understand the comment being made e.g. rather than write on the post-it note: "That was a positive experience!" explain with more detail "Wide consultation made for a positive community engagement".
  6. Write neatly, one thought per hexie. Use the 0.6mm black texta pens. Black texta produces a clearer image for producing a photographic record of the workshop
  7. Write anecdote number on the hexie.
  8. Orient the hexis the same way, with writing at the foot of the hexie.
  9. Talk to others about the anecdote
  10. Stick hexies on the anecdote
  11. Each pair to introduce another pair to the top things they discovered
  12. Transfer hexies to the clustering wall
  13. You might introduce the gallery walk in the following way:

    "You will see on the walls around us all the stories which were collected in the anecdote circles. Over the next hour we are going to work in pairs and extract from these stories the themes and issues relating to our information and knowledge strategy. Start by grabbing a partner and read as many stories as you can and talk with your partner about what you see as interesting or important. Have a conversation about it. Then write on the post-it note, one idea per note, what you discovered. Also think about the morale of the story and write that down as well.

    When writing your ideas on the post-it notes write them so someone who hasn't read the story can understand your point. Record the story number on the post-it note and place it next to the story. Each story should end up with a handful of post-its around it."

    During this activity ensure participants move around between the anecdotes, survey results and information map to document the resources with hexies. Regularly change groups and move groups between these three information sources to keep engagement.

4. Clustering

  1. On the whiteboard write the following words randomly spaced: "cow", "chicken" and "grass". Ask the participants: "Of these items which two go together?" i.e. how would you group these items together? What relationship does each item have with the other? Allow discussion. There is no right or wrong answer here. The Cow, chicken and grass concepts can be grouped in a variety of ways - illustrate this on the whiteboard by drawing circles around the categories or relationships suggested by your participants.
  2. Make the point that in the clustering activity that we want to encourage both categorical and relationship clustering.

  3. Ask participants to carefully remove all of the hexies from the anecdotes, information map and key issues/points from the information mapping, and survey results. Ask them to put the hexies up on the clustering area in a completely random manner.
  4. Cluster the post-its. Ask the participants which hexies they think should be grouped together because they have strongly associated meanings. Ask them to avoid super-clusters, eg don't have clusters such as 'culture' or 'communication'.
  5. Label the clusters using a different coloured hexie from that used to record comments. Ask the participants to provide short expression that links together the ideas in each set of hexies. Maybe labels in relation to what should be done.
    • "We want to improve ..."
    • "We want to foster/nurture ..."
  6. Discuss the results. What is missing?
  7. Prioritisation. Use three types of post-it notes - one long, one medium, and one small. Each person writes a cluster label on each post-it note according to how important they think the cluster issues is (most important on large sized post-it note, next important on medium sized post-it note, least important on small sized post it note). Then put the post-it notes up on the wall next to the relevant cluster, with the post-its arranged as bar-charts to highlight priorities.

5. Adopt a Cluster and tell its story

People only really make sense of what's happened when they can tell a story about it. Karl Weick, the organisational theorist who is famous for his work in sensemaking, explains it this way:

"How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" [1]

This step in the sensemaking day is to help the group write a story explaining how the organisation got to where the are today in relation to a specific cluster.

  1. Put an A4 page next to each cluster and ask people to sign up for a cluster. One they really care about.
  2. Each group then creates a story to explain the cluster using a story spine. The purpose of this activity is to help people really make sense of what the clusters mean. I often introduce this activity by telling this story:
  3. "Last week I spent a week with my parents at their home at Jervis Bay. My father was telling me how he had some problems with a tank of petrol recently. He had to drain his little Datsun truck of all its fuel. When I asked where he got the bad gas he said it was one of two places. “One of the service stations was being refuelled by a tanker and was probably churning up all the rubbish in the underground tanks and I happened to fill up when all that muck was floating around,” he said. “I will never fill up again if I see a tanker parked at the service station.”

    When Dad told this story I was immediately struck with how he quickly moved from his story to a heuristic without analysis or considering the options. But of course, this is just how we often make decisions. This next activity is to help us really make sense of what the clusters mean.

    Here is the story spine structure. Write it up on some flip chart paper and pop it in a wall. Each group then uses butchers paper to create their own story using the following headings:

    • Way back when….
    • Everyday….
    • But one day….
    • Because of that…(repeat three times)
    • Until finally…
    • Ever since then…
    • And the moral of the story is…..

    Stories developed using the story spine may be factual or created and are based on the present.

    Ask your participants to read out their stories to share with the other groups at the tables

Ensure you lead the group in applause when each group finishes their stories. It's makes the session fun and the next group is more likely to jump up and tell their story.

6. Find a matching anecdote

  1. Ask each group to find 1 or 2 anecdotes that best matches either the problem or solution in their story. When they have done this ask them to explain why.
  2. Then as a final step ask each group to return their cluster to the clustering wall, and to put their story and matching anecdote near it.

7. Closing

Ask participants ‘How do you feel?’. Ask 'Who would like to go first?' to get someone to start off and then go around the room in a random order making sure that everyone is given an opportunity to contribute.


See closing above.


  1. Weick, Karl E., Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, and David Obstfeld. "Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking." Organization Science 16, no. 4 (2005): 409-21.

Stories (case studies)

Examples of how to set up the room for sensemaking.

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