Confusion Has Its Cost

Only a handful of times have I been to the edge—life threatening, soul searching, that-almost-killed-me events. The kind, to put it mildly, I never wish to experience again. What I remember about these brief, endless moments on the river is two things: first, the burning of water blasting through my sinus cavity and behind my eyeballs; and second, the confusion. 

The other half of my life is considerably more sedate. I’m an academic, which means I read a lot, teach some, think about ideas and go to conferences. While sometimes I still walk away saying, “That almost killed me,” for the most part it is a safer place. Within this reading, teaching, ideas and conference circuit, there are a couple of gurus. One of them, a round, grey-haired sociologist, specializes in confusion. 

Sensemaking, actually. The opposite of confusion. Sensemaking is “the process by which people give meaning to experience” he writes in his seminal work on risk management and error prevention. Karl Weick is fascinated with how individuals make sense of a situation. His specialty is how people deal with crisis. 

Back to the edge. 

It was a medium drop on the Upper Yough with a way-left boof line. Lock the lip, boof…why am I not coming up? Where am I? How long did it take me to figure out I was getting surfed between the curtain and the rock wall? Minutes? A second? Hard to tell. My confusion was dark, loud and all consuming. 

The field of risk management and accident investigation commonly retraces the decision-making process preceding and during a critical event. In this case, the decisions preceding my slip (being 16 inches off line) were sound. What should occur next—the decisions in the moment of crisis—either minimizes or escapes the situation. This is where Weick and sensemaking comes in, or doesn’t. 

Confusion precludes decision-making. Weick explains that how one makes sense of a situation directly affects what gets decided. If sensemaking does not catch up with a situation that is desperate and life threatening, then other critical decisions are not made. 

“The less adequate the sensemaking process directed at a crisis, the more likely it is that the crisis will get out of control,” he concludes. 

The thing with theory is that it doesn’t help with the water blasting my eyeballs and the rock wall where I want to put my paddle. In this case I didn’t make sense of where I was until I had already minimized the problem to something I could deal with. I needed air. As I focused on solving my basic air problem, I eventually figured out what was going on. 

Weick can explain this, too. “There is a delicate trade-off between dangerous action which produces understanding, and safe inaction which produces confusion…people don’t know what the appropriate action is until they take some action and see what happens.” In effect, trial and error helps define what is going on, and brings sense to the confusion. Waiting to see what happens only makes things worse. 

Sensemaking grows with experience. A wider range of experience allows wider breadth of sensemaking. That doesn’t mean I’m going to volunteer to get pinned just to get a sense of it. I’d rather take my chances on the conference circuit. 

This article originally appeared in Rapid, Spring 2013. Download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App orAndroid App or read it here.

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Jeff Jackson has been teaching kayaking since boats were long and eddy turns were nervous. And yes, he used to be cool. Rapid contributor since way back in 1999. Guiding on rivers has taken him from the Yukon to China, and his Alchemy column explores the values and lessons life on the water brings. When not teaching outdoor education at Algonquin College, he spends his time guiding, fly fishing, building mountain bike trails and conducting risk management research.

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