October 26, 2020 Carole Levy

Making-Sense of Sensemaking

There is a competency that is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness though it is often under-noticed or under-appreciated. It is our capability for sensemaking.

Sensemaking is one of those words and concepts that I love exploring because it sheds a new light on our experience of reality and ignites change. Sensemaking is both obvious and intuitive, sophisticated and confronting. I think it is a concept worth presenting, even in a brushstroke.

Sensemaking is what it sounds like: “the making of sense” (Karl Weickwho coined the term), in particular when our context has rapidly or suddenly changed and left us disoriented. Sensemaking refers to “how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it” (Deborah Ancona, whose comprehensive article Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown is my main reference here.) 

“Structuring the unknown” speaks about the paradoxical and rewarding promise of sensemaking: creating order in uncertainty and/or confusion, in collecting data, reaching outside of our usual areas of expertise, having conversations with others (especially those we don’t know), bringing back information, connecting dots, testing, experimenting, cross-correcting, and moving on. In sensemaking, we create and follow our own map – not a perfect one, but a plausible one. 

Practically, we can apply sensemaking almost all of the time. Think about living in a global pandemic, confronting big societal issues, managing a reorganization, changing a culture, repositioning a strategy, losing a job, laying-off a team member, receiving a bad performance review, or worst, a bad health diagnosis!… In short, think about facing an issue for which we don’t have an answer!

These types of issues are called adaptive challenges (Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky): they don’t have clear solutions, or clear definitions, or clear authority, and they require a deep change in our values, beliefs, relationships and work habits… In short, a complete alteration of our mind-set.

Yes, it is hard to change our mindset. 

A fundamental paradox with sensemaking is that we need it the most when we are the least capable of exercising it! In a moment of crisis or deep change, when we tend to experience learning anxiety and resist new information. A moment in which we tend to automatically cling to our habitual mental models, doing our usual tactical things that give us a sense of control and comfort (even though our experience is miserable.) 

Sensemaking requires us to accept setbacks and messiness. That’s another challenge, especially if there isn’t a clear agreement or recognition that we are in a sensemaking process. Groping along can be misinterpreted as incompetency.

So, deep breath! If the capability of sensemaking is challenging our human protective tendencies at their core, it also has the potential to reveal the best of the human mind. It’s not magical, even if it’s not a given.

Research* shows that we can all develop our muscle of sensemaking in consciously engaging in the following four steps/skills. 

  1. Be open-minded: be able to recognize and let go of existing fixed mental models to understand a changing landscape. 
  2. Learn from others: go outside our personal mind set to see problems with new eyes and learn from other’s experience. 
  3. Create meaning in uncertainty: see the surrounding system and its relationships, and consolidate several bits of information into a new map of current reality…
  4. Experiment: use experiments to understand what works and what doesn’t; iterating to find the best way forward…

I’d love to hear if the concept of sensemaking is familiar to you, and if you have stories about how you applied sensemaking in your life, intuitively or deliberatelyHere are also some questions to pursue the reflection: 

  1. What are the 2 to 3 main adaptive challenges you can identify in your life today?
  2. What would you do differently – outside of your usual way – to address one of your challenges? What data would you collect? Who could you reach out to? What could you test? How would you structure the unknown?

Note about Sensemaking in the x360 Feedback

*The four characteristics are coming from a 360 Feedback survey that we’ve been using at The Trust Factory for a few years. The x360 survey is a tool based on decades of research on leadership effectiveness and leadership practice (MIT Sloan School of Management and INSEAD). Sensemaking is one of the five leadership capabilities that have been identified as necessary to be a successful leader in an ever-changing and challenging world. The survey covers 97 questions that not only help participants to assess their strengths and weaknesses for each capability, but also help them understand what each capability is about. The philosophy behind the survey is to embrace the interconnectivity and inter-dependency of the world in being externally focused, in practicing distributed leadership, and in accepting that we are all imperfect-non-heroic leaders and we need others… Sounds compelling and familiar? Contact us if you want to learn more about how the x360 survey can benefit your team!

Comments (4)

  1. Robin

    Carole, this is very interesting! I did not know about the X360 survey but I’ve spent a good bit of time over the last two years studying Theory U, which is a fascinating change management process (more like a way of being, actually) developed by Otto Scharmer. I see a lot of overlap between X360 and Theory U–not terribly surprising, since Otto Scharmer is a long-time professor at MIT’s Sloan School. Sensemaking is definitely a skill that our current times call for!

    • Carole Levy

      Hi Robin, the book “Leading from the emerging future” is in front of me, in the pile of books I haven’t read yet! So, now I have to put it on the top my pile and explore. I’d love to hear more about your interest in the last two years! There is definitely a way of thinking coming from MIT (E. Schein, Peter Senge) that I’m attracted to. Let’s catch up!

  2. And if we take a step back we can see that we are all time on a “sensemaking” journey. We structure our experience to know the story it tells us. We use it to transform the stories we tell orselves. What you are highlighting is very useful Carole, it’s the possibility to transform our habitual sensemaking into a purposeful sensemaking.

    • Carole Levy

      Thank you Françoise for taking the time to add your thought to the reflection. You’re also highlighting how we do sensemaking all the time (habitual sense making) and that there is value and comfort to be intentional – purposeful- in practicing sensemaking.

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