Sensemaking and Visualization

Common definitions of visualization usually read something similar to, “to form a mental image,” thus, we often think of think of visualization as being a simple solo technique, such as picturing a dog eating a bone or a person doing the right thing.

However, in an organization context, visualization is much more complex in that while it involves an image of the working environment, it is also a complex process that is very social in nature.

The Sensemaking Framework

Visualization is often used interchangeably with sensemaking — being aware and recognizing the environment we live in and then acting within a framework of understanding to achieve desired goals.

Thus, visualization or sensemaking is not just a shared (social) image with intent, it also implies action. This sensemaking framework is composed of seven basic steps as shown below (Leedom, McElroy, Shadrick, Lickteig, Pokorny, Haynes, Bell, 2007):

Sensemaking Model

The Visualization Process

Visualization Framework (opens larger image in a new window)

The sensemaking process begins with a cue from the environment that something is wrong, such as an increase in customer complaints, an unexpected drop in production, or a team charged with improving a process that discovers a glitch in the system:

1. Triggering cues (information that acts as a signal) from the environment are perceived by one or more people in a Community of Practice.

2. Triggering cues create a situational anomaly — the facts do not fit into their framework of familiar mental models (see note below). Detection of these anomalies violate the expectancies of the members of the Community of Practice and creates a need for change (improvement).

Note: A mental model (sometimes called a mental map) is a structure or framework that is built from experience and becomes part of an individual’s store of tacit knowledge. It is comprised of feature slots that can be instantiated by information describing a current situation (such as triggering cues). Its functional purpose allows a person to assess the situation, take a course of action, follow causal pathways, and recognize constraints in order to achieve a set of goals for actively confronting the situation.

Fragmentary mental models are often linked together to form a just-in-time mental model of the situation. Examples of a mental model include a chess player reacting to a move on the chessboard, a doctor diagnosing a medical condition, or a leader solving a performance problem. We don't keep a particular mental model in our brain at our times, but rather it is reconstructed when needed (Pinker, 1997).

3. Specific data from the environment triggers the mental activation of familiar mental models. The members of the Community of Practice analyze and discuss the anomalies until they discover a purposeful structure or pattern for interpreting the new information. This transforms the problem space into various solutions. This process of pattern-matching starts the process of constructing new or revised mental models. Since patterns differ among the members, they collaborate by telling stories, creating metaphors, etc. to build common understanding.

4. Activation of a specific mental model is typically triggered by matching salient facts to one or two key features that uniquely anchor a new model that can be agreed upon by the Community of Practice. Tacit knowledge or intuition is often used to build mental models and the degree of tacit knowledge will vary among the members, thus they use a negotiation process to ensure all needs are met (or at least prioritize them according to available resources).

5. An action plan is used to instill the new mental model into the environment in order to transform it to the desired state (during the visualization process intent must always be associated with action, otherwise it is just wishful dreaming). The action plan includes the final development of any needed content, material, or products. Once all the pieces are put together, the action plan is implemented.

6. New information from the transformation process is perceived by the Community of Practice, which in turn, processes it to determine if the patterns match their desired mental model.

7. If the new information does not match the Community of Practice's newly constructed mental model (situational anomalies are again perceived and they may or may not differ from the original ones), then the visualization process begins anew; thus the project is not a one-shot affair but an agile and iterative process.

Probing, Shaping, and Modeling

While the visualization process does use passive information that derives from experience and expertise, it also involves the proactive use of:


Probing develops greater understanding by experimentally testing the operational environment, such as asking questions, Cognitive Task Analysis, or immersing oneself into the troubled environment to discover new information. These probing actions help to illuminate key structures and linkages within the environment.


Shaping is taking an incentive action to discover new information in order to determine if it aids in transforming the troubled environment to meet the new mental model. Prototyping may be used as a shaping tool — an iterative process of implementing successive small-scale tests in order to permit continual design refinements. There are normally two types of prototypes:

Probing actions serve to illuminate additional elements and linkages within the visualization space that can then be subsequently exploited for operational advantage.


Modeling is similar to shaping in that it aids in transforming the troubled environment to meet the new mental model, but rather than using prototypes, it uses people (models) to test and transform the environment.

Modeling is a frequently used method to aid in the learning process. Albert Bandura (1977) discovered that it can be a more effective and efficient way of learning than trial and error and that there were five main processes of modeling:

In addition, there are two broad categories of modeling, behavioral and cognitive (Jonassen, 1999). Behavioral modeling demonstrates psychomotor skill and involves skillful use of the demonstrated act.

Cognitive modeling is more complex in that it models a decision-making process by talking aloud about the considerations taken into account and then explaining the rationale for the final result. Thus, the learner in is not engaged in direct imitation, but rather the use of similar strategies in a related context.

In both cases learners observe the target action (behavioral modeling) or reasoning (cognitive modeling) as presented by an expert or a more experienced peer, thus it is part of social learning.

Visualization is Dynamic, Not Static

The visualization or sensemaking framework in not linear, but rather a dynamic process that may flow in any direction, for example:

The Dynamics of Visualization

Dynamics of the visualization process

Dynamics of the Visualization Framework (opens larger image in a new window)

A Community of Practice holds a vested interests when faced with a troubling situation, thus they need a dynamic model that aids them in fulfilling their mission within complex environments. The military has a term called center of gravity, which is defined as the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or the will to act. It is seen as the source of strength of the organization.

The ability to act upon and transform in an under-performing environment with the use of visualization or sensemaking is an essential attribute in an rapidly moving and complex environment in that it helps to ensure the center of gravity stays balanced.

Next Steps

Next chapter: Strategy and Tactics

Also see Visions and Visioning Learning Activity

Main Leadership Menu

A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jonassen, D.H. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. Reigeluth (ed), pp215-239. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Leedom, D.K., McElroy, W., Shadrick, S.B., Lickteig, C., Pokorny, R.A., Haynes, J.A., Bell, J. (2007). Cognitive Task Analysis of the Battalion Level Visualization Process. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Technical Report 1213.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

U.S. Army (1987). Leadership and Command at Senior Levels. FM 22-103.