Making sense of wicked problems

By Bethany Laursen

Bethany Laursen (biography)

How do we know when we have good answers to research questions, especially about wicked problems?

Simply and profoundly, we seek answers that make good sense. Every formal method, framework, or theory exists, in the end, to help us gain insight into a mystery. When researching wicked problems, choosing methods, frameworks, and theories should not be guided by tradition or disciplinary standards. Instead, our design choices need to consider more fundamental justifications that cut across disciplinary boundaries. A fundamental criterion for good research is that it makes good sense. By making this criterion our “true North” in wicked problems research, we can more easily find and justify integrating disciplinary (or cultural, or professional) perspectives that apply to a particular problem.

So, how do we make good sense in wicked problems scholarship?

Several theories of sense making have been proposed over the years and these mainly sort based on the social scale to which they apply, as shown in the figure below.

Theories of sense making span social scales (Copyright: Peter Jones, OCAD University, Toronto, Canada; modified and reproduced with permission)

But I’m not satisfied with any of these theories for our purposes. Wicked problems occur across scales, and sense making is a kind of human cognition. We need a sense making theory that focuses on the cognitive process common to all scales of operation.

Here’s my working theory of sense making in formal inquiry settings investigating wicked problems:

Sense making is the integration of reasons into an argument for understanding and believing what something means in answer to a question.

This is illustrated in the following figure.

Laursen's draft theory of sense making in formal inquiry settings (Copyright: Bethany Laursen)
Laursen’s draft theory of sense making in formal inquiry settings (Bethany Laursen; Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This way of thinking about sense making becomes most valuable for formal inquiry when we unpack the theory in each phrase.

  • the integration of reasons”: Reasons are propositions, feelings, habits, or other cognitive content that are used to justify inferences consisting of further cognitive content. This justification process is a kind of integration, and it’s ubiquitous in all domains of human cognition; we are constantly trying to put concepts together. Integration is important to all sense making but there are particular kinds of integration key to particular modes of formal inquiry, such as integration across disciplines which is important in interdisciplinary research.
  • into an argument”: When reasons are linked together by justification relationships that result in a final inference, conclusion, or claim, we call the whole thing an argument. Arguments may appear as as verbal exchanges, but they can also manifest as point-by-point outlines, allegories and other forms of narrative, actions, and multi-media creations.
  • for understanding and believing”: The product of an argument is a claim, and claims initiate a call-and-response relationship with the listener. The claim ‘calls’ to the audience what it’s about and requests a two-fold response: do you understand me? Do you believe me? Understanding, here, is not only semantic interpretation but also affective activation: thinking and feeling. Only after we understand the claim can we decide whether or not to believe it. Belief, here, indicates a personal commitment to incorporate that claim into one’s view of the problem space. That is, the claim now becomes part of a legitimate way to view the problem.
  • what something means in answer to a question”: Once we’ve accepted this claim as part of the problem framing, it connects to other parts of the frame. These connections make these parts of the frame more relevant and therefore more available and more rich with implications for use in further arguments. This cascading richness undergirds how meaningful we find new claims. The particular connections activated help us discern the content of this meaning. In very rich problem spaces such as wicked problems, even a single finding can have layers upon layers of implications that make it a very meaningful answer to a wicked question—an answer that makes a lot of sense.

Whether or not an answer makes good sense depends upon the accuracy and legitimacy of the overall problem framing, the logic of the inferences made, the truth of the evidence used to support those inferences, and the authenticity of our understanding of, and belief in, these inferences.

There are several ways this theory of sense making can help us tackle wicked problems.

  1. We need to be asking ourselves and our stakeholders critical sense making questions that solicit good reasoning. The table below presents example questions.
  2. We can be smarter about choosing tools that enhance sense making, depending on which part of the sense making process we need help with.
  3. We can embrace an appropriate role for emotions, body-knowledge, and volition.
  4. We can feel more confident, knowing we’re not aiming for certainty but for good sense.
  5. Being able to explain how and why we aim for good sense and not certainty helps our stakeholders trust our work more.


How do you rely upon sense making in your research process? Does it look or feel like this, or like something else? What examples can you share?

To find out more:
See my public philosophy/art+science blog. Become an ongoing partner in this theory development!

Biography: Bethany Laursen is an independent consultant with Laursen Evaluation & Design, LLC, and also a graduate student at Michigan State University. After working as an interdisciplinary scholar and educator for 10 years, she now studies theories of interdisciplinarity itself. She is member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the second meeting in October 2016 of the Participatory Modeling pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

22 thoughts on “Making sense of wicked problems”

  1. I like the emphasis on building and examining an argument, which is consistent with an earlier post on i2insights (

    However, I’m a little uncomfortable with the statement: “We can feel more confident, knowing we’re not aiming for certainty but for good sense.”
    How would you feel about a rewording: “We can feel more comfortable with uncertainty, knowing that the best we can do is to make good sense.”?
    Does it capture your meaning?

    As you point out, good sense depends on legitimacy of the entire chain of argument, which inevitably has some element of subjectivity, even if built on evidence that can be verified between subjects. That subjectivity means that confidence in a statement can be misplaced, and good sense might turn into bad sense. The crux of the issue is then rather that we accept certainty as an unachievable ideal, and simply try to make solid arguments – that make good sense?

    • I agree. Uncertainty may be part of the sense we make. Living with it from the outset and accepting it is better than role playing processes or modes of thought that pretend it can be expunged with sufficient effort.

      The same principle applies to complexity. You know someone hasn’t really grasped complexity when they ask about how to work it out of a system or eliminate it.

    • Joseph, that is very insightful. An invitation to think about the difference between being confident and being comfortable. Hmm… I like your idea of encouraging us to feel comfortable with uncertainty. I agree that is a good goal of any sense making effort. I see your point that we might always be mistaken, so perhaps confidence is misplaced. Hmm…

      I think in addition to feeling comfortable we can also feel confident through our sense making. Confidence, as I take it, is having good reasons to believe or take action in something. Confidence doesn’t require certainty; it’s still possible to place confidence in something that turns out to be a bad bet. Still, it is good, right, and appropriate to place confidence in a decision we make with the best information we have at the time. We just have to be willing to be wrong.

      Philosopher Esther Meek expands on philosopher Michael Polanyi’s epistemology by emphasizing that in the act of coming to know, not only is it possible for us to place confidence in knowing and known–we MUST place this confidence. It’s a pre-condition of knowing (or sense making). We must always take a personal, willful leap to place our confidence in the work of knowing and in the known on its own terms. It’s a risky but responsible pledge (Meek 2014, p.26).

      She writes, “Polanyi argues that the actual demeanor of scientists in pursuit of discovery is never, as is commonly upheld by the objectivist ideal, dispassionate or uninvested….[Rather,] scientists to do their work well, must accredit intellectual passions and responsible personal commitment, the fiduciary faith-like roots of all knowing [as well as] the scientist’s own tradition-cultivated, expert skill and artistry in identifying good problems and pursuing them to discovery.” (Meek 2011, p.23)

      Meek, E. L. (2011). Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

      Meek, E. L. (2014). A Little Manual for Knowing. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

      • Thanks for the nice explanation.
        I would be happy with an interpretation that says “We should feel confident about our decision knowing that it makes good sense – even though we cannot be certain.”
        I think that ends up being the more positive framing of the idea of being comfortable with uncertainty. Both carry the notion that we are convinced something is the right decision now, even though we might later learn it would have been better to act differently. I still don’t think we should be more confident that we are right when aiming for good sense, but I accept that some people may lack confidence to act because they are aiming for certainty.

        The need to be confident also reminds me of a distinction between inductive reasoning vs inductive behaviour. If the reasoning is not integrated into the argument and what we “know”, then confidence is not yet needed. But to actually know something requires an act of will carrying a sense of personal commitment (at least at that moment).

        Neyman, J. (1957), “Inductive Behavior” as a Basic Concept of Philosophy of Science, Rev. l’Institut Int. Stat. / Rev. Int. Stat. Inst., 25(1/3), 7–22, doi:10.2307/1401671.

  2. Bethany, congratulations for such a thoughtful, deep and at the same time practical article. You are really contributing to moving away from the broad discussion about why we need to embrace complexity to identifying very specific way to do so, with concrete questions and a systemic approach, that integrates arguments with meaning, individuals with organizations, and so on.

    I strongly recommend you the book “Wicked and Wise” by Alan Watkins and Ken Wilber. Their framework might add an interesting layer to your exploration on sense making and how we can together do it better.

  3. Many thanks for this. Focusing on the nature of arguments made rather than ‘findings’ makes good sense 🙂

    One point: You wrote “Whether or not an answer makes good sense depends upon the accuracy and legitimacy of the overall problem framing, the logic of the inferences made, the truth of the evidence used to support those inferences, and the authenticity of our understanding of, and belief in, these inferences.”

    And of course, you are correct, but a ‘sense making’ perspective would strongly emphasize that all of the above depend on two inter-related phenomenon–one is, of course, the cognitive/reasoning capacities of individuals; the other is the norms, values, ways of proceeding, organizational routines, etc. that individuals drawn on individually and collectively in a given practice.

    You might consider further developing your perspective by drawing on literature in informal logic and the making of arguments in everyday circumstances coupled with insights from socio-cognitive theory.

    • Yes, that is exactly where I’m going next, Tom! Thank you for confirming I’m not crazy 🙂 One author I really like on this front is Habermas. Have you leaned on him much?

  4. Very thought provoking. Thanks.
    A couple of comments from a non social scientist.

    Perhaps we use different definitions, but for me believing and understanding has always been mutually exclusive. If I understand something, why do I need to believe in it? And how can I not believe in it if I understand it? Just like in climate change. If you don’t understand the science behind it, then you can choose to believe in it or not. But if you understand why and how it’s happening, how can you possibly not believe in it? But then, what is sense? Isn’t understanding or believing enough? Why do you need both?

    Perhaps you can argue that we can never understand everything and that we will always have to believe in some parts of the argument. But that only proves that you either believe or understand. You don’t need both at the same time.

    It almost seems that when you talk about ‘believing’, you mean ‘liking’. When I understand something and I like it, then it makes sense to me. If I don’t like it I have to find a way to dismiss it, so I decide that it makes no sense. So making sense is putting your knowledge in the context of your values, biases and other beliefs.

    • Alexey, thanks! Yes, the relationship between “believing” and “understanding” is underdeveloped in my theory. A lot has been written about each construct and I haven’t yet done a full lit review of each. But what I know about them I tend to distinguish this way:

      Understanding = thoughts that comprehend the conceptual structure of the claim. Believing = personal commitment (of one’s will, not one’s thoughts) to incorporate that structure into one’s own conceptual structure of the larger problem space.

      On this view, it’s possible to understand something but not believe it, and to believe something without understanding it. But when we both believe and understand a claim, that is when it makes sense to us.

      It may be true that we can’t believe something without liking it. That raises the question of how one’s emotions are related to one’s will. In terms of my figure above: how do the “thinking” and “feeling” aspects of understanding interact with believing?

  5. Is not sense making a matter of societal norms? What makes sense on a farm may seem ridiculous to urban dwellers and vice versa. Contextual consideration must be accounted for. If one collides with a cow on the road in Missouri, the owner of the cow is liable for damages. However, if the same accident occurs in a free range area of Wyoming that might not be the case.

    Then there is the matter of presentation and perception. Consider the screen play Twelve Angry Men in which one man methodically dismantled the prosecution ‘s case and spared a young man from prison or worse. Some were genuinely convinced and some capitulated just so they could go home.

    • Absolutely, Dennis. What you’re noting here shows up in the theory at the very end. Context tells us what something means, because context tells us what is the question and therefore points at what a meaningful answer might look like. And context includes our internal context–our perception–as well as the external context–the presentation. And of course, this depends on who is in the audience/conversation.

  6. Quick first thoughts…maybe…

    – its helpful to recognise that wicked problems don’t actually exist so much as arise from our habit of dividing an interdependent reality into artificial divisions.
    – “making sense” is the coherence that arises when the artificial divisions are broken down/removed
    – at the root of the artificial divisions are our cognitive habits, at individual and group level, of engaging in subject-object dualistic perception.
    – a marker of approaching coherence is a sense of decreased suffering/frustration/confusion among stakeholders

    • I agree with this. I have been known to point out that complexity does not create risk but the way we choose to address it does.

    • Juicy bullet points, Craig. I agree wicked problems are socially constructed–from at least two perspectives. One is that we cause them, in large part, by artificially dividing a unified reality (e.g., pollution is often an ‘externality’ in business). The other way we socially construct wicked problems is that we call them problems only because we don’t like the outcomes; what counts as a ‘problem’ depends on our values.

      So interesting that it is a cognitive habit to think in terms of subject-object. If the world is actually coherent, why do we tend to think otherwise? Perhaps we are taught to do this in the West; some other cultures do not think in terms of subject-object. Still, maybe it is helpful to take this “divide-and-conquer” approach in thinking. So long as we always strive to re-cohere what we have dismantled. Which we do strive for, because as you note, it makes us feel better. What do you think? Is “analysis” always problematic?

      • Hi Bethany,

        I think in the original philosophical schools they trained as you suggest – performing exercises to see everything on two levels – things/objects in their multiplicity AND without divisions – leading them closer to reality (at least less distorted by their own cognition). But it took the commitment of lifelong training to roll back what appears to be a basic human trait of subject-object confusion. So the problem is not with dividing the world in our mind (analysis) it is forgetting that we have done this and assuming it is reality – “out there”.

  7. This is not a considered critique but a couple of points that came to mind as I read.

    Do you see this in an Analyst-Subject context? There is mention of stakeholders but not as participants in the sense making. My understanding of Snowden’s ideas is that sense making is most effective when the people who constitute the system are participants in the process and any attempt to lock down a definition of a system will be overtaken by the emergence of complex behaviour.

    You are silent, I think, on the passage of time and how a system will evolve so that what makes sense today might not tomorrow. As stakeholders are engaged in exploring their system they will develop insights that lead them to change the system in a cycle of evolving insights and influences.

    Placing making sense ahead of precise description or specification fits reasonably well with the idea of replacing fixed targets and long term plans with an understanding of a system’s evolving disposition and a focus on setting direction towards improvements.

    • Nice thoughts, Steven. In reply, as described here, my theory is silent on who is doing the sense making and when. Maybe that makes it easier to look for in other contexts, or maybe other contexts fundamentally change the sense making process. I’m inclined to believe the former, given my experience and research. But I totally agree that sense can disappear and evolve over time, and that sense making may be more useful when stakeholders are engaged in it, especially in wicked problems.


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