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Saturday, September 15, 2001

Crisis and Sensemaking

September 2001

After a sudden and appalling event, one of the most important tasks is sensemaking. There is always pressure to impose particular interpretations of the events, which usually involve stressing certain aspects of the events and omitting others -- indeed, drawing the boundaries of the event to include some "facts" and omit others. Simple polarization appears to help us cope -- but ultimately reduces our ability to engage adequately with the world.

Against the background of the appalling events in Manhattan and Washington, there is a predictable narrowing of vision and sense-making.  Someone posted a message to the Complex-M list (supposedly a forum for complexity thinking) in starkly political language. He spoke of "terrible resolve", "coalescing of people", "focus sharply defined", and "we can unite in that objective".  At the same time, there have been some real surprises - for those whose receptiveness to surprise has not already been overwhelmed.





Simple Complex
Instant categories and divisions
  • Good and Evil
  • Christian and Moslem
  • Free and Democratic
  • World Trade and Global Capitalism
  • Friend and Foe
Realignment of Friend and Foe
Grasping at simple explanations Reflection of repeated patterns
Grasping at simple solutions Reflection of interconnected outcomes


Most people have difficulty tolerating complexity at the best of times.  In times of great crisis, even this level of tolerance is reduced. There is a vital role for wise counsel, and we have a duty to foster this if we can.

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