The danger of our drive to make sense

our drive to make senseIn our natural desire to predict the future and make good decisions, we must always stay mindful of the danger of our drive to make sense.

Nick Chater and George Loewenstein propose that evolution has produced a ‘drive for sense-making’. They argue that sense-making…

  • …is a fundamental human motivation.
  • …is a drive to simplify our representation of the world.
  • …is traded off against other ‘utilitarian’ motivations.
  • …helps to explain information avoidance and confirmation bias.

The under-appreciated drive for sense-making, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization

Clearly, sense-making is a vital human activity. At a fundamental level, our brains are continuously, and largely automatically, making sense of our sense organ data. At higher levels of thought, we routinely attempt to make sense of situations that confront us. If we didn’t, the world would be a confusing and more dangerous place.

Our sense-making prowess allows us to build models of the present and make decisions about potential future behavior. Thus, sense-making is a key ingredient of our ability to plan and make group decisions.

The danger of our drive to make sense

There’s a flip side to our incredible ability to make sense of our perceptions and experiences. Dave Snowden, speaking about tactics used by the foresight community, says:

“The real dangers are retrospective coherence and premature convergence
—Dave Snowden, Of tittering, twittering & twitterpating

Retrospective coherence

Dave Snowden coined the term retrospective coherence, aka Monday morning quarterbacking, when talking about the behavior of complex systems. (See Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s classic article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making to learn more about complex systems, a domain of the Cynefin framework.) Retrospective coherence means that, in a complex environment, it seems easy in hindsight to explain why things happened. Unfortunately, applying our sense-making abilities to complex systems doesn’t work, since cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect.

For those with short memories, the danger of retrospective coherence is that it inspires a false confidence in their ability to make correct predictions. To avoid such inflation of our predictive expertise we need to scrupulously compare our predictions with actual outcomes, and admit our limitations.

Premature convergence

Premature convergence is our predilection to prematurely decide we have found the answer to a problem and stop exploring other possibilities.

Facilitators are familiar with this human tendency, and minimize it by spending adequate time in what Sam Kaner calls the Divergent and Groan Zones.

our drive to make sense
Diagram from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al

Determining what is “adequate” time is one of the arts of facilitation.

During divergence, a facilitator supports the uncovering of relevant questions, information, perspectives, and ideas.

At some point, there’s a switch to the Groan Zone. Here, the participants discuss what’s been uncovered, develop a shared framework of understanding, and create inclusive potential solutions. At least, that’s how Kaner describes the process, though the Groan Zone has always seemed to me to have a lot in common with what Virginia Satir’s change model calls chaos.

People have proposed many ways to move from groan zone to convergence, and some of them are flawed. There’s no single “right” way to move to convergence. But you’re likely guaranteed to come up with a poor conclusion if you don’t spend enough time diverging and groaning beforehand.

Stop making sense?

Despite the pitfalls outlined above, we are sense-making animals and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Stay realistic about your limitations to predict future outcomes, and take your time moving through divergent & Groan Zone process, and you’ll avoid the dangers of our drive to make sense.


How eventprofs are feeling during COVID-19

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19How are eventprofs feeling during COVID-19? Over the past few weeks in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I’ve listened to hundreds of people share their feelings at online meetings I’ve led and joined. Though everyone’s response has been unique, three distinct sets of emotions stand out. Here they are, from the perspective of the many meeting professionals I’ve heard.


eventprofs feeling during COVID-19I estimate that about 85% of the event professionals I listened to shared feelings of fear, compared to about 65% of the general population. The most common description I heard was anxiety/anxious. But strong expressions like “scared”, “terrified”, and “very worried” were more common than I expected (~5-10%).

This is hardly surprising. Every event professional who spoke had lost essentially all their short-term work and event-related income. In some cases, they were attempting under extreme time and resource pressures to move meetings online. The meeting industry has been struggling for years to understand and develop online meeting models that provide traditional face-to-face meetings’ desired outcomes and are both technically and financially feasible. To have to pivot to such modalities overnight — assuming they are even feasible for the specific meetings in question — is having a huge impact on every aspect of the meeting industry.

When your present circumstances and potential future dramatically change, feeling fear is a normal and healthy response. And fear of anticipated upsetting change leads to the next set of emotions…


eventprofs feeling during COVID-19About half of event professionals, and slightly less of everyone I heard, shared feeling unsettled. “Unsettled” is a mixture of fear and sadness we may feel when we experience the world as less predictable and our sense of control or comfort with our circumstances reduced.

Feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos, as illuminated by Virginia Satir‘s change model.

Above is a diagram of Satir’s model of change. An old status quo (the event industry before COVID-19) is disrupted by a foreign element (the COVID-19 pandemic). Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event (in this case, for example, perhaps the development of a vaccine) allows a period transition away from chaos towards a new status quo (hopefully, a post-pandemic world).


eventprofs feeling during COVID-19I was surprised that about half of the general populace mentioned feeling some form of hopefulness about their current situation. Event professionals were far less likely to share feeling this way. This discrepancy is probably because some of the non-event industry people were retirees, and others have escaped significant professional impact.

It makes sense to me that meeting professionals aren’t feeling especially hopeful right now. If/when the chaos and destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we don’t know how much delay there will be before face-to-face events are scheduled and run. And we also don’t know how our industry will change for good, and what our new roles in it will be.

My experience

These days, I feel all the above emotions (though not all at the same time 😀). Clients have cancelled all my short-term design and facilitation work. I love to facilitate connection, and feel sad at not having face-to-face interactions with clients and meeting participants. I am anxious about the health of my family and myself, and unsettled about an unknown future for my personal and professional life.

Yet I am also hopeful.

I have reached out to connect in real-time online. Although I have created and facilitated hundred of online meetings over the last ten years (from the days when video chat was a buggy and bandwidth-limited experience) I am continuing to learn more about facilitating connection around relevant content online. And I’m thinking about how online meetings can be significantly improved, using technology to create better implementations of the many in-person participation techniques I’ve developed and championed for decades.

What’s your experience of how eventprofs are feeling during COVID-19?

Please share your own experience and what you’ve heard from others in the comments below!