Dr Shawn Cunningham of Mesopartner is trained and licensed to use the Sensemaker® research instrument developed by The Cynefin Company. Sensemaker® is part of a suite of instruments used in ethnographical research that allows respondents to share their stories and immediately add meaning to them using self-signification. Self-signification means that the persons sharing stories give meaning to their own stories using prompts developed by the research team. This approach avoids the epistemic injustice of third-party or algorithmic interpretation. In other words, we can make sense of both the narratives shared and the quantitative data without experts interpreting and adding their meaning to the results.

This approach is ideal for development contexts, as it assists organisations in understanding nuanced shifts in the development context. It also lends itself to the ongoing monitoring of change initiatives over time. In the last 10 years we have used Sensemaker to:

  • Assist an international NGO in assessing how informal waste workers used technology in five countries (waste pickers' perspective)
  • Support a TVET project to evaluate how effective green technology training methods have been at different colleges in South Africa (students' perspective)
  • Track how knowledge workers leveraged new information to improve their innovation efforts
  • Conducted a survey of how small and medium-sized entrepreneurs perceived support to improve quality in their production environment (entrepreneurs' perspective)

The Sensemaker® surveys can be completed on a mobile phone app or web browser and use text, images or audio inputs. 

The process to implement a Sensemaker study is as follows:


  1. A Sensemaker® engagement project typically starts with developing a set of signifiers to guide the respondents through self-signification. These signifiers are designed based either on a deep understanding of the research context or from coherent theoretical frameworks.
  2. The next step is to design the survey using the Sensemaker® Suite.
  3. A short pilot process provides feedback on the language and the signifier frameworks.
  4. The survey is launched and promoted by the client. A dashboard interface can be designed to analyse data in real-time.
  5. When sufficient data is collected, the research team and invited stakeholders meet to make sense of the data together. The intention is to reduce the dependency on expert interpretation, so the client must be directly involved in making sense of the data.  
  6. Mesopartner will produce a short report based on the findings and statistical analysis.
  7. Most clients present the results of the study back to the study population. 


Another way to engage with Sensemaker is via a Pulse. A pulse is a Sensemaker scan based on our experience with a specific topic or instrument. Because it is based on a generic signifier framework, it saves our clients money. 

Each Pulse bundle includes:

  • A concept note that explains the framework or theory behind the signifiers
  • A set of signifiers
  • 4 hours of consultation before the scan to make adjustments to make sure the Pulse will work in the clients context
  • A 4 hour facilitation of a results workshop where we help our client to make sense of the results.
  • A standard report that explains the scan, the workshop results and high-level recommendations.

We are currently developing Pulses in the following areas:

  • Knowledge management and flows between development organisations
  • Technological change and disruption
  • The effect of emerging technologies on workplaces
  • Green Economic Development instruments
  • Diagnosing the dynamics of an innovation system
  • Instigating innovation
  • Making decisions under conditions of uncertainty
  • Assessing the health of an entrepreneurial ecosystem

What is SenseMaker® - a new generation data collection and analysis tool. Watch this introduction video.

The learning Power of Listening, Practical guidance for using SenseMaker

Visit the Cynefin co Sensemaker® website

Contact Dr Shawn Cunningham if you want to know more about how Sensemaker and narrative research can be applied in your context.

This report describes a research survey focused on the micro-narratives of producers about their efforts to improve the quality of the essential and vegetable oils they produce. The research is about understanding the underlying influencers, behaviours and attitudes of the essential and vegetable oils industry regarding the quality of their oils. The study focused on the emerging essential and vegetable oils industry in Southern Africa.

The Sensemaker Suite allowed the producers to share their stories and then give meaning to them using a series of prompts. 

The UNIDO Global Quality and Standards Programme South Africa (GQSP-SA) commissioned the research.   

Read the report: Micronarratives of change and progress. Improving the quality of essential and vegetable oils in South Africa. Here you can view the report in a flipbook format.

We have selected some public reports that show how Sensemaker has been applied in development contexts. 

The main difference between an application in development versus a deployment in a corporate is that we have to look at how whole communities, industries or collectives perceive the world. Typically, these different groups’ priorities and perspectives are wildly divergent compared to a corporate where there is usually a shared value system. In a corporate, management can more easily deploy a survey about culture, knowledge flows or insights. In development, it is much harder to identify the survey population, and it is also often much harder to conduct repeat surveys to allow for a comparison.

UNDP reports

The UNDP is a pioneer in using Sensemaker in its project contexts. Here is a list of some of their studies that we find inspiring.

UNDP. 2022. Digital Horizon. Moldova’s youth on the digital future they want to see, in their own words

Short description: The following study centres on young people’s outlook on digital transformation in Moldova and seeks to understand the digital needs and challenges which they encounter, as well as their grassroots vision for a better digital future.

UNDP. 2022. How is Life: Micro-narratives on the impact of the Ukraine Crisis in the Republic of Moldova

Short description: Moldova is hosting the highest numbers of Ukrainian refugees per capita, which has a dramatic impact on Moldova’s budget. UNDP Moldova partnered with The Cynefin Company to explore the experiences of both Ukrainians refugees in Moldova, and the local Moldovan citizens.

We have selected a few examples of what a Sensemaker survey could look like. You are welcome to try any of these surveys below.

Organisational Culture

Here is an example of a Sensemaker Culture scan developed by the Cynefin Co. This demonstrator shows how different signifiers can be used in a survey to strengthen an organisation's culture. 

Reducing Red Tape

This framework demonstrates a Mesopartner experiment to improve how bureaucratic issues are identified as a component of our Reducing Red Tape methodology. Typically, an expert must interview stakeholders to identify red tape issues. Alternatively, issues can be workshopped with stakeholders. In this survey, we support a local municipality in collecting areas for improvement by scanning a QR code. Because the Sensemaker approach lends itself to this, we ask the person sharing the story to tell us how they would advise others to navigate the process. We hope this will be a source of creative ideas for the Red Tape Reduction team.

Click here to try our Red Tape Reduction Sensemaker collector. Our idea is to put up posters with a QR code inviting the consumers and businesses in a bureaucratic process to identify potential red tape issues. 

This kind of survey might provide valuable data if conducted over time, as it might provide valuable information on how users perceive improvement attempts in a given context.


Here is an example of a virtual retrospective for teams and back stoppers looking for an innovative way to collect ongoing lessons and insights in a project or a country. This framework can be customised based on the client’s requirements. The Cynefin Co. developed this demonstrator.