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Using Sense-Making for Project Management

written by: Chris Greco • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 2/9/2016

Sense-making is a psychology theory that was initiated in the 1970s concerning reasons why we take certain actions on tasks; why we think outside the conventional “structures" that exist in our daily lives. We will explore this theory and apply it to project management.

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    Sense-Making for Project Management Sense-Making Methodology (or SMM) was reportedly first proposed by Dr. Brenda Dervin in 1971 as a method to communicate more effectively, but soon grew beyond the information systems adoption into other disciplines. The sense-making philosophy has a foundation in the assumption that people move in and out of structures, making sense of those structures or "breaking free" to create other structures.

    According to Dr. Dervin's theory, people tend to move from the past to the future through the present, making assumptions as they travel to the future. We will discuss sense-making as it applies to the project manager and how the project manager can use this philosophy to benefit themselves and their project processes.

    Since sense-making is a very complex and expansive philosophy that has been hashed and re-hashed for over 40 years, we will stick with the very simplistic approach described above.

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    Project Management

    Project management relies on a process consisting of classic and more flexible methods including "agile" approaches, combining the distinct functions of the project manager coupled with the ability to respond to changing requirements or conditions rapidly. The five generic processes (also called process groups) to project management include initiate, plan, execute, monitor/control and closure.

    Although many project managers will dispute that these are processes or steps, the use of these in the project management routine is both pervasive and conventional. In these various capacities, project management provides a rich growing environment for creativity and ingenuity. The highlight of project management is the ability to use creative solutions to difficult challenges. This coincides with the concept of sense-making from the theoretical perspective.

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    Examples of "Thinking Out of the Park"

    There are several examples that show how sense-making has an effect on project managers and how they perceive the project and the world. I refer to this as more than thinking "out of the box." I have taken that thinking adage to a whole new horizon by calling it "thinking out of the park" (to take a baseball analogy). There are several examples of using sense-making to “outwit" the conventional structures that exist in order to create a solution for a challenging project.

    The first example has to do with the Apollo moon missions. These were extremely challenging to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), since the space vehicle was so large it was impossible to find a building to do construction and maintenance on the spacecraft.

    The result was the construction of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), one of the largest buildings by volume in the world (over 5 acres of floor space inside the building alone!). The building was certainly a challenge, but one mechanical engineer at NASA was placed in charge of designing what would be one of the major components of the building – the doors.

    The doors had some very strict parameters including withstanding winds of 125 miles per hour and the ability to open and close in winds of over 60 miles per hour. The idea of the opening and closing could not be a swinging door because of the terraced nature of the building. The weight of the doors would pull themselves off the hinges, as well. In order to make the doors work, they upward fold on themselves as they raise and unfold as they lower. In fact, if you look at them, they resemble a venetian blind.

    My uncle was one of the main engineers on the project. There is a story (not able to verify it I am afraid since both my mother and my uncle have passed away) that there was an epiphany of sorts revealing the design while someone was opening the blinds one day. Whether or not this is fact, it is fun to think that something as unique as these doors could have been conceived from a simple daily activity.

    The second example was tracking animals by using NASA software for tracking stars. The project managers found that whale sharks had spots on their bodies that were as unique as fingerprints. The project was to track these sharks. Doing this manually was both tedious and error-prone, so they contacted NASA and found that by using the same basic software that NASA uses to track stars (with some adaptation of the algorithms), they could track the spots on whale sharks.

    The project manager found that this adaptation could also be used by configuring the algorithm to detect differences in whisker markings on animals such as polar bears. By thinking out of the park, the project manager was able to fit the requirements into a structure outside the conventional thinking of an orthodox project manager.

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    Sense-Making and Creativity for Future

    In the future, many project managers will need to be more creative in their thinking, preferably using already manufactured or finished products to adapt them to uses outside the conventional structure. You can see it today with individuals using the available video game technology to help reduce nausea in cancer patients or the ability of project managers to take something as simple as black plastic balls to prevent evaporation at reservoirs during periods of drought.

    In these and other examples, the idea of sense-making is used to adapt and improve on existing structures. What about those ideas those make it simple in everyday projects?

    A man found his toilet was leaking at the juncture of the tank and the bowl. It was a Sunday, so no hardware stores were open (this was a few decades ago). Frustrated, he tried to figure out how to fix it by taking apart the tank. He found that there were rubber spacers that had completely dry rotted. Again, he knew the problem but the solution was in a store that was closed for the day.

    Then the son came in, looked at the rubber stoppers and said that he had some rubber patching used for his bicycle tires. The father went down to the garage and saw that the rubber patching might work, installed it as best he could and the problem was solved – so well in fact that he never had to go to the hardware store to pick up the part. What this says is that the son had in his mind something outside the conventional structure of the problem to solve the problem. He “made sense" of the problem given his a priori knowledge of alternative solutions.

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    Sense-making is something that can be adapted to any situation, but it especially applies to project management in that it is thinking outside the conventional solution sets that help to solve problems. This does not mean original thinking, but adaptive thinking in that knowledge is taken into consideration to help solve problems that are especially vexing or challenging. If you employ Sense-Making in everyday life, the probability that you will not only solve the existing problem, but provide more information and knowledge to others to help them solve their problems. Give it a go.