People are for Caring — Not Algorithms — A Review of the book “Sensemaking” by Christian Madsbjerg

I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand the number of books that I have read that have truly forced me to adjust my thinking. Most of the time I absorb some interesting tidbit and move on with my life. The book Sensemaking by Christian Madsbejrg is one of those few for me. Madsbjerg tears down the prevailing myth that the humanities are less relevant today in our technology-soaked world. In fact, he argues that, the humanities and the social sciences are more important today than ever. Our businesses today are becoming increasingly dominated by data and algorithms while discounting the value of understanding and engaging with the culture of their customers. Madsbjerg shows that todays most successful leaders and companies are more likely to be the ones that value the cultural context they work in and engage deeply with it. This disconnect with the value of the liberal arts and the necessity of the human connection could have profound implications for our businesses and our society unless we move to correct it.

Sensemaking — a method of practical wisdom grounded in the humanities

There is no doubt that the popularity of the liberal arts style of university education has lost some ground. I know that, 20+ years ago, I felt that my double-major in physics and mathematics left little to no time for dilly-dallying in the softer sciences, much less literature or philosophy (I gave myself a pass for a few music classes). In graduate school, I remember feeling exasperated with my housemates discussing how a big rock God could make and then not be able to move it. I mean really — was this practical question? Was God making oversized rocks and looking for input?! But — when I graduated, that all changed. Without the pressure of the science and engineering curricula, I suddenly felt profoundly uneducated. I spent the next decade plus making up for lost ground reading books like “War and Peace” and “Plato’s Republic”. I married an English major. And while I will always treasure the critical thinking skills imparted by my physics and math education, those books from the humanities reading list profoundly affected my adult life and approach to the world.

Madsbjerg has been on a life long mission to show the relevancy of the social sciences and humanities to the business world. You can think of Sensemaking as both a treatise to that effect and an explanation of the philosophical model that guides his thinking. I will readily admit that I had to do some heavy “googling” to get up to par on concepts like Phronesis and Phenomenology and do a refresher on the philosopher Heidegger and others. That said, Madsbjerg sprinkles his book with easy to understand analogies and stories that bring the points home. To give you a taste of his thinking, he makes a five important principles that are key to understanding “Sensemaking”.

Culture — not individuals

These days we are all sorted into buckets and tribes by the thousands of algorithms that define whether we get loans, insurance, or junk mail. This sorting is intended to allow companies to predict our actions and decide whether, and how, to engage us. Madsbjerg argues that understanding why someone does something requires understanding their culture. People make decisions and react to their environment based on a shared set of cultural ideas and unspoken assumptions. As business become more and more globalized, leaders cannot depend on their own cultural experiences to explain the actions and preferences of a worldwide audience. To help us understand this complex landscape, Madsbjerg argues we need the tools of philosophy to guide us.

Thick Data

Algorithmic thinking offers us the illusion of objectivity — Christian Madsbjerg

Very often in data science and analytics, the data scientists are given a data set and told to turn their algorithms on it and see what happens. The data is usually anonymized and stripped of all of the rich context of the humans that produced it. That’s understandable, but it inevitably leads to erroneous conclusions and baked-in bias. Madsbjerg call this context-less data “thin”. He argues that leaders are starved of context and live on “desiccated facts and figures”. Today’s leaders need “thick” data. They need to delve into the good and bad of the human experience or they risk losing the vital connection to their customers and their day-to-day realities.

The Savannah, not the Zoo

Phenomenology — the study of human experiences

Hundreds of well-meaning products have failed on the misunderstanding of how customers will react and what they really need. Madsbjerg uses the analogy of a zoo. Do you really think that you understand lions after watching them in a zoo eating out of a bowl? Do you understand anything about how they hunt on the savannah? Of course not. So, why do some many companies create and design products while holding their customers at arms length? As Madsbjerg puts it, you “must engage with people at eye level”. There is no escaping the hard work of understanding your customers as they really live.

Creativity — not manufacturing

We often make really poor decisions just because it is so uncomfortable to do the hard work of thinking — Christian Madsbjerg

When most of us think of how we arrive at decisions we think in terms of “deductive” — top-down reasoning — and “inductive” — bottoms-up, reasoning. Madsbjerg argues that we are neglecting “abductive” reasoning, which is non-linear problem solving or the art of the educated guess. He argues, by way of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, that abductive reasoning is the only way to come up with new ideas. Peirce rejected the idea that any theory could be “true”, rather than just “near true” — in other words, he posits that ideas can improved on over time.

My personal favorite part of this book is when Madsbjerg discusses the Stages of Mastery. He outlines how one moves from rote memorization as a novice, to a more advanced beginner, then to competence and the ability to focus on the most relevant details, then to rapid, fluid behavior at proficiency, and to ultimate level of expertise where one acts instinctually with little rational thought. As a musician, I really connected with Madsbjerg’s example of a jam session. The newer musicians need structure and known patterns, whereas the experienced musicians can feel the temperature of the room and improvise effortlessly into it. Personally, I have picked up a few new instruments over the years, and I was able to immediately understand his point. I am at different stages of mastery with different instruments which means that I play them differently based on my skill — with the ultimate goal of reaching that almost mystical bliss that comes when a group of musicians really gels together. The great thing is that this applies to everything we do, and Madsbjerg gives some compelling examples from the business world which contradict the common perception in certain sectors that youth trumps experience.

The North Star — not the GPS

[…] our world today is no more complex than it has ever been. […] it feels complex because we are obsessed with organizing it as an assembly of facts — Christian Madsbjerg

It has been the stated objective of both Google and Facebook to organize the world’s information. It is easy to see, through the lens of Sensemaking, that we are really just talking about thin data. Madsbjerg argues that this is just a fool’s quest, like blindly following GPS instructions. We should be prepared to get into the messy reality of real navigation, using the North Star of cultural context and understanding to guide us. He makes the point that we can improve the results of big data by first using the cultural context to guide us to the right data to collect, and then taking the time to piece it all together into a complex and wonderful portrait rather than a disappointing sketch.

Summing it all up — It’s all about caring

So much of the innovation in the last couple of decades have turned complicated humans into cells on spreadsheets and elements of machine learning models. Is it so surprising that there there is a clear outcry for better user experience, customer support, and emotional connection with our favorite brands and passions? In a world increasingly dominated by algorithms, artificial intelligence, and bots, we want to know that we matter — that our uniqueness is really unique. Madsbjerg makes a compelling argument that it is essential that we take the time to get into each others worlds and understand what makes us tick. You can’t rush empathy. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the key differentiator that will separate the winners from the losers in the global marketplace.

So, do you want to make a difference, then you need to care — you need to give a damn about getting it right. It’s worth it.

Algorithms will never give a damn. […] People are for caring. — Christian Madsbjerg