Sensemaking Schemas, Frames, & Mental Models

A better understanding of the dynamics of sensemaking interactions between directors in the board room, between directors and managers, and between managers and staff, is likely to improve your nonprofit’s governance and organisational effectiveness.

Schemas everywhere

Insights regarding ‘schemas’ (sometimes called ‘frames’) from the fields of Psychology and Sociology can help us in this undertaking. We use schemas, both individually and collectively when responding to events, interpreting data, and making decisions about what action, if any, may be required. This theme was also touched on in recent sensemaking posts (see links below).

Sociologists define schemas as sets of cognitive associations, developed and revised through experience, that represent ‘bundles’ of information that facilitate interpretation and action. In sensemaking, schemas are cognitive structures that are used to acquire (or reject), retain, and organise information.

The schema concept has been used in various fields to identify particular information bundles or patterns, and a few examples of these are listed in the header image above.

Since publishing the earlier sensemaking articles, I came across a thought-provoking paper by University of BC academics Charles Berret and Tamara Munzner titled Iceberg Sensemaking: A process model for critical data analysis and visualisation.

Berret and Munzner offer their ‘interpretivist’ definition of a schema, as a mental model containing ordering principles that serve several purposes (see chart).

As described by its abstract, this paper “compares the roles of schemas in past sensemaking models and draws conceptual distinctions based on a historical review of schemas in different philosophical traditions”.

More importantly, it also proposes an interpretivist model, called Iceberg Sensemaking, which the authors note “is built around the central metaphor that data is the visible tip of an underlying schematic iceberg”. The layer above the water line is data. The layer just visible beneath the water line is the explicit schema, while the deepest layer contains the invisible (unconsciously held) tacit schema.

The five ‘Iceberg Sensemaking Principles’ which underpin their ‘process model for critical data analysis’ are outlined in the following summary.

Exploratory and Confirmatory Analysis

Berret and Munzner also mention differences between exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses when distinguishing between the schema used to acquire and process data, and the schema informed by insights gleaned from data analysis. The animated chart below, which is based on diagrams referenced in their paper, explains some of these distinctions:

Objectivist Vs Interpretivist Views

We tend to accept mental models like ‘design thinking’ or the ’empirical method’ as starting with a set of (objective) observations which we then try to make sense of using rational processes. The interpretivist model challenges that view, arguing that the observations we are making are preconditioned by our worldview. That worldview consists of ‘frameworks of understanding’ – called schemas (or ‘frames’). We are explicitly aware of some of these schemas, but our responses to issues and situations are also influenced by deeper sets of assumptions, values, and beliefs, of which we are not consciously aware, called tacit schemas.

These explicit and tacit schemas act in concert so that we will tend to see what we expect to see, and only register it as valid when we consider that it aligns with our view of reality. This is yet another cognitive bias that can be deleterious to effective decision-making, strategic success, and organisational culture.

On a personal level, we also know that our unconscious schemas sometimes trigger reactions that we may later regret, e.g. ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ reactions.

The ‘iceberg’ metaphor is familiar from its use in describing organisational culture. That culture is shaped by the shared sets of schemas we use to function in our work environments. Berret and Munzner employ a similar iceberg metaphor to characterise the use of sensemaking for critical data analysis. This naturally includes our consideration of data in board deliberations, when making governance, strategy, and risk management decisions.

Sidebar: Iceberg limitations

As an aside, it is worth noting that the iceberg metaphor only works up to the point of suggesting distinctions between conscious awareness and the unconscious. (It may also hint at potential shipwreck if we don’t allow for what lies beneath the surface).

Beyond that point, however, the idea that some frozen or fixed state can adequately symbolise the ephemeral interactions and dynamics of our relationships with other people, or with data, analytical processes, and decision-making, is clearly flawed. (See also the chart below). Such limitations have been noted in other applications of the iceberg metaphor of course, for instance, the success, culture, and change icebergs, as discussed by other authors here …

Sockets, Hooks, and Scaffolds

When considering sensemaking as a learning activity, either for individuals or organisations, other metaphors such as ‘sockets’, ‘hooks’, and ‘scaffolds’ come to mind. While they too are metaphors (with attendant limitations), they also qualify as schemas or mental models. They loosely refer to the mental frameworks we use to make sense of the world, events, and circumstances.

These metaphors also suggest some ways for teachers, mentors, and managers to think about how they will help students or colleagues to come to a working understanding of facts, concepts, processes, and systems.

Piaget, Vygotsky, and Constructivism

The theory of constructivism (cognitive, individual, and social) is that human learning is ‘constructed’ or built on existing knowledge. Learners (including nonprofit directors and managers) therefore need to actively engage with new knowledge so that they build their own understanding – extending on what they already know.

There have been many psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists who have contributed to our understanding of the ways we acquire and process new knowledge, but two of the most influential were Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s (1896-1980) work focused on the cognitive growth of individuals and underpins the concept of developmental stages (Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete operational, and Formal operational). According to Piaget, understanding is constructed progressively through awareness, interaction, and attempting to control objects or individuals within the environment.

Piaget argued that knowledge and development do not simply emerge from sensory experience. In his view, children are born with a basic mental structure (genetics and evolution help here), and this is foundational to all later learning and growth. He proposed that schemas (mental models) were like building blocks for his cognitive development model. He defined these schemas as:

“a cohesive repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning”.

(Piaget, J. & Cook, M.T. (1952) The origins of intelligence in children, New York, International University Press.)

Social constructivism was proposed by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), who emphasised the importance of context, culture, and human interactions when seeking to understand what occurs in society, and how we construct knowledge based on that understanding. Key ideas advanced by Vygotsky included the zone of proximal development (defining things a learner can do with assistance) and instructional scaffolding.

Implications for NFP leaders

Whenever we collectively seek to make sense of a situation, proposal, business case, potential risk, or cultural issue, we are constructing shared meaning (sensemaking). While seeking consensus, to the extent that we acquire and validate new knowledge, we are also modifying our existing schemas. Organisational development and learning can also be enhanced by understanding the ways our new hires and volunteers use schemas to acquire, process, and retain new knowledge.

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