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SenseMaker® is an online crowd-sourcing research tool for collecting and self-interpreted micro-narratives and for discovering actionable insights beyond surveys and focus groups. It offers a science-based approach to guide collective impact and leverage the strengths of being human in uncertain times.


“SenseMaker® is a form of distributed ethnography, as it transfers the onus of interpretation of narratives from the researcher to participants. Through this self-signification, SenseMaker® removes ethnographic coding and expert re-interpretation, as participants assign meaning to their own micro-narratives, which enables large scale explorations, reduces researcher bias, and allows for more objective analysis.”

— Van der Merwe et al, Making Sense of Complexity: Using SenseMaker® as a Research Tool[1], Systems. 2019; 7(2):25.

SenseMaker® in a proprietary tool and ecosystem of associated participatory methods connected with Naturalised Sense-making. Both the tool and the methods draw on theory and praxis from within Anthro-complexity.

The aim with any SenseMaker® approach is to democratise the research and engagement process by placing the respondent at the intersections of statistics and storytelling. Respondents are asked to be the owner of their own micro-narratives. The tool can be used as a platform for real-time distributed network response to key issues or in defining collective insight with a view to taking action.


“SenseMaker® originated in the field of knowledge management and was specifically developed to explore emergent narrative patterns in the complex domain of Cynefin, although its use is not confined to this domain.”

— Van der Merwe et al, Making Sense of Complexity: Using SenseMaker® as a Research Tool[2], Systems. 2019; 7(2):25.

By 2000, John Marlan Poindexter was articulating the problem that Sensemaker® would eventually be developed to address. By 2004, the intelligence agency in Singapore was taking this challenge to Dave Snowden and encouraged development of a system for scanning for weak signals in complex environments.[3]

By December 2012, Tony Quinlan and Dave Snowden were using Sensemaker® with the United Nations Development Programme in Bratislava[4]

How it Works

“SenseMaker® entails probing to solicit micro-narratives from the system context, then looking for emergent patterns from the narratives, and responding with pattern management to explore what Juarrero refers to as the “adjacent possible”

— Van der Merwe et al, Making Sense of Complexity: Using SenseMaker® as a Research Tool[5], Systems. 2019; 7(2):25.

SenseMaker® replaces immersive interviews with micro-narratives sourced from people’s lived experiences. This may be through facilitators from the community or through the use of a collection tool on webpage or smartphone application. The research questions are built into the tool as signifiers which allow micro-narratives to be plotted in space. A

Participating in the Wiki project is an opportunity to

Have fun
Triangle without any margin.svg
Learn useful stuff
Connect with interesting people

As each micro-narrative is collected, a triad (as above) is offered to allow signification. As the respondent selects where the micro-narrative should sit, the tool generates numerical coordinates in ways which link qualitative and quantitative data and allow the display and analysis of mathematical patterns in map form.

Different types of SenseMaker frameworks

SenseMaker® is a flexible tool that can be used for a variety of different purposes and ways of collecting data, which can be used in a variety of contexts. A SenseMaker® framework is our software designed for a specific project. SenseMaker® provides the following three core capabilities: SenseMaker, MassSense, and journal keeping.

SenseMaker: The classic SenseMaker® framework asks an open, exploratory question; for example: “what is the biggest challenge facing your neighbourhood?” This maps opinions, attitudes, perceptions and motivations usually amongst a specific community or group. It can be a one-off engagement or data could be collected at several different points in time.

MassSense: MassSense can be used to test a scenario or new message with a large population. It allows for mass situational assessment and micro-scenario feedback in which material (infographics, text, video, etc.) are presented for interpretation through stories. MassSense is also a one-time engagement although several can be used in cadence to introduce new ideas evolving over time. The design of a MassSense framework could be informed by data collected on a smaller proportion of the population (with a classic SenseMaker®).

Journal keeping: Here a specific set of citizens or community keeps a regular journal relating to a specific topic. This real time assessment enables citizens and communities to be continually adaptive and create an ongoing dialogue. The data that comes back allows decision-makers at all levels to monitor the direction and magnitude of movement over time.


Engaging citizens by inviting them to share their stories is immensely powerful. However, we can go further together by deepening the collaboration between citizens and decision-makers. In deliberative democracy processes, such as citizens' assemblies or citizens' juries, citizens learn about the issue from experts and those with direct experience, before discussing it with their peers before making a decision. This means members of the public can make informed decisions that serve the interests of their community. Deliberative processes can give decision-makers legitimacy to act on controversial issues and provide a basis for cross-party support.

Deliberative democracy processes such as citizens' assemblies and citizens' juries are important because they allow citizens to learn about a topic in depth, hear from experts and those directly affected by the issue, before making a decision. An informed public is a key aspect of democracy. Citizen engagement has led to many successful decisions and projects around the globe, e.g., Ireland, Poland, and Australia. “The citizens' assembly showed that if you structure the debate around information, discussion, questions and answers, and allow citizens to really thrash things out with expert advice, very often people will shift their positions.” Sadhbh O Neill, an expert adviser to the citizens' assembly on Climate Change, Ireland (Stefanini, 2019).


Whatever SenseMaker® data collection method you choose, you can further engage the community by sharing the stories in workshops and other deliberative processes.

Workshops can involve inviting either those who participated in the SenseMaker® or others within the community to a workshop in which they explore the stories collected and options to address the issues in their community. In workshops, participants consider ‘how can we create more stories like that and fewer like those?’. This enables communities to synthesise their own stories, and to generate solutions and to lead interventions which are a lot more likely to be successful.

Workshops can also serve to bring together members of the community that do not usually work together. For example, intergenerational workshops that bring young and old together to read the stories from each other, friends, neighbours, community leaders, to identify what matters most to them, and how they can make a positive change.

Workshop case studies include Valley Stories and Community Resilience in Cape Town.

Deliberative Processes

Not only can SenseMaker® be used to facilitate and stimulate discussion in many deliberative contexts, such as community workshops or conferences, it can also be used to serve a variety of different purposes. The hashtags indicate at what stage in the deliberation process SenseMaker® could be used.

Mapping the system: Controversial topics are tricky and so is knowing when to take actions such as holding a referendum or citizens' assembly. SenseMaker® can be used to better understand citizens’ beliefs, needs and feelings on a specific issue so decision-makers can determine whether it is the right time to engage in a costly deliberative process. #BEFORE

Priority setting: SenseMaker® can be used to set priority topics that a citizens' assembly/jury would deliberate on. This ensures the deliberative process is focused on what really matters to the community/population. #BEFORE

Witness testimony on mass: Witness testimonies from citizens who are directly impacted by the issue at hand are a key part of citizens' assemblies and juries. SenseMaker® could be used to allow the whole population to testify! In addition to some those who share their testimony face to face with the assembly, a selection of the stories captured with SenseMaker® could be discussed during the process. The full dataset could be available to everyone taking part in the process. #BEFORE #DURING

Data collection & synthesising: During a deliberative process, many different arguments, proposals and questions are raised. SenseMaker® can help synthesise the thoughts and ideas of the assembly itself in real time. This could help members understand where they are at collectively and how best to move forward. It could also be used to understand how the assembly members are finding the experience of taking part which would help the organisers address issues quickly and prevent attrition. This data would also be of great interest to academics studying deliberative processes. #DURING

Real time feedback from the wider community: SenseMaker® could provide real time feedback from the broader community on the citizens' assembly/jury’s decisions/recommendations. The assembly could then decide to adjust their decisions/recommendations based on the broader community’s input. Using SenseMaker® during the assembly/jury can make the assembly process more interactive and engaging for viewers, whilst allowing members of the assembly to sense-check and consult more widely. This requires planning the assembly process, facilities and technical set up prior to the event in order to work seamlessly. #DURING #AFTER


How can SenseMaker® be used to ensure a representative sample of citizens’ voices across both demographics and ideological beliefs? In deliberative processes such as citizens' assemblies or citizens' juries, SenseMaker® can be used to select people with a diverse range of ideological positions on the issue to be discussed.

In these deliberative processes assembly members are selected by lot, similarly to how members of a jury are selected for a legal trial, without the defence being able to dismiss members. Selecting members by lot for this purpose is known as sortition. Processes such as citizens' assemblies must include a representative proportion of the population because they must be made up of the same composition in terms of key demographic characteristics as the population who will be affected by its outcomes.

SenseMaker® can be used as a ‘sorition’ tool, that is, it can be used to select people by lot for a process such as a citizens’ assembly. It can also be used to ensure the sample is representative in terms of demographic variables such as age, gender, location. And it’s super easy to ensure equitable representation on a diverse range of beliefs, attitudes and experiences relevant to the issue at hand.

And since we don't rely on sending out letters like traditional sortition methods, The Cynefin Centre can conduct a sortition process in a fraction of the time whilst still creating a body of representative, randomly selected citizens ready to learn, discuss and make decisions. Case study: Measuring the Mountain

Cases Studies

SenseMaker® has been used in business, government, development and in research sectors around the world.

Cases have been grouped into:[6]

  1. Monitoring, evaluation, and measuring impact;
  2. Mapping of ideation cultures, mind-sets, and attitudes;
  3. Detecting trends;

Case studies can be found on a range of independent websites including:

Please check the Cases page on this Wiki for updates.

Ethical Considerations

Ethical considerations around epistemic justice might drive researchers towards narrative based approaches to sense-making which are rooted in self-interpretation, but the tool and methods have been developed for the purpose of interventions in Anthro-complexity. For this reason, even suggesting deployment of the tool and methods opens the door to unintended consequences, especially if expectations are raised or where the design reflects a desire to manipulate those providing responses.

Designing any deployment opens into ethical questions around access to micro-narratives, and around where and to what extent anonymity can be guaranteed. Any encouragement of the production of superficial, de-contextualised snippets in which depth and meaning are lost. For the purpose of analysing patterns, such snippets may be wholly adequate, but where the aim is disintermediated access to lived experience, authorial voices could be dampened rather than amplified.

The formal mapping of distributions raises additional issues, especially where those interpreting the patterns might be tempted to treat anything which emerges as more than indicative of a bigger picture. A more welcome "issue" might be raised expectations once respondents have become aware of what options exist to ensure traditionally-marginalised voices are heard: a development which could serve as a constraint for interventions at a later date.

On this Wiki is home to User_guides_for_SenseMaker® and to Community_Forums_for_SenseMaker®.

For Further Information