Advocacy and Sensemaking


Although we tend to think of advocacy as a kind of service, like other social services, it isn’t. The reasons why this is true have nothing to do with advocacy being “better” than other services. Rather, advocacy is different from standard services because it has a different relationship to the target of its actions than standard services. Along with this difference in target relationship, an advocacy effort uses a different nonstandard framework to make sense of a target and, for that matter, itself as an organization.

Sensemaking is a concept that developed in the 70’s, and it has gone through a variety of reformulations over the last few decades. For an advocacy organization, all the usual ways of making sense of their advocacy effort and their target certainly apply (identity, retrospection, and so on). But the relationship between an advocacy organization and the target of its change strategy requires a unique effort in sensemaking.

This is because the relationship between an advocacy organization and its change target is evolutionary. For typical social service systems, the relationship between the system and the person receiving services might well focus on changing the person, but the social organization expects to remain the same after the person has received services. Such organizations work very hard to stay the same after the delivery of services. In fact, this relentless focus on staying the same is one of the most criticized dimensions of working in social services.

I have looked for years to find a framework that respected this evolutionary relationship, and that allowed it to be understood in less abstract terms than a “coevolutionary change relationship”. I ran across the Cynefin Framework some time ago, and, although it is targeted at large enterprise and governmental initiatives, the model is a very useful one for understanding change efforts by small advocacy organizations, and informing our change efforts by making sense of targets. I am going to put together a few posts to introduce the model. This post will be an overview focused on the image above.

The first thing to recognize about what the diagram means is that it describes how we understand (make sense of) the target of our advocacy. That’s why the little area in the middle (disorder) is there. We often find ourselves facing an advocacy challenge on behalf of our constituents with no detailed understanding of how or why the particular challenge arose. In fact, initially, it is often unclear what the target of our change effort should be. We must “make sense” of the issue and potential targets to build a change strategy. The four categories that constitute the possible sensemaking, the meaning that the target has for us, with ordered systems on the right and disordered systems on the left. The red words are the actions we must take to build a useful understanding of each specific system type, and they are in the order we must take them.

I’ll give you two short videos, one very funny and the other a short, if challenging, introductory video to review before my next post:

How to organize a Children’s Party (3 minutes)

The Cynefin Framework (8 minutes)

Next time, I’ll talk about the Ordered side of the diagram.

Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts

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