I simple terms, sensemaking or sense-making is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. It enables people to have a better grasp of what is really going on in their environments, as opposed to what they think is going on, or what they wish would be going on. Basically: it’s about making sense of the world in order to act in it.

Sensemaking is the art of structuring those business and life domains that are too complex and unpredictable to act in them with a plan, mere technical knowledge, or a “predict and control” approach.  It involves coming up with a plausible understanding of a shifting world and testing these ideas and assumptions within the system through probing and sensing. Sensemaking enables leaders to have a better grasp of what is going really on in their environments, as opposed to what they think is going on, or what they wish would be going on.

Sensemaking is the best approach to operating with the VUCA phenomena in the complex adaptive world, where – in the language of the Cynefin Framework – mere complicated and technical solutions won’t work.

With the right tools, we can tap into how people in organizations make sense of their leadership, their relationships, and their daily interactions. We can tap into that vast intelligence and get authentic, real-time, contextualized, and relevant data that the organization can use to resolve existing problems and challenges as well as tease out emergent trends and novel ideas.

In our opinion, this approach has an immense potential that goes beyond organizational development. It is applicable to working in a much different way with communities, governance, climate change, refugees, environmental issues, projects, leadership development, and evaluation.

Values – like Mindsets – are emergent outcomes 

Companies have become aware of the fact that core values – integrity, trust, fairness – can function as attractors that drive beneficial behaviors in the workplace. What they are not getting is that core values just can´t be prescribed, top-down, or in any other direction.

While many companies large and small have come to the laudable conclusion to focus their organizational development efforts on values rather than behaviors, most go about this strategy in the wrong way.  When values are defined upfront without letting them emerge through a process and paying attention to which values are currently operative, people tend to game the system and display what HR and HQ want to hear. Dave Snowden puts it this way: “As soon as you write your values down, you´ve lost them”.

Even if you work with more sophisticated approaches that try and distinguish between actual and desired values in the organization, the methods used to survey those values most often distort the results. Questionnaires and 360s are gamed easily and you know where to put your x-es in your sleep. Experts are biased with unconscious hypothesis while surveying and indexing the data.

Apart from inviting staff members at every organizational level to find workarounds and game the organizational system (infamous example: VW emissions), announcing a change initiative and defining the marching order and direction is having yet another detrimental effect that is largely underestimated.  Once a desired future state – or a mindset or value – is defined and plans are made that define and prescribe how to get there, present time weak signals, resistances, or value streams that are not in line with the goal are not detected and neglected. Their information content is lost. It could be anything from a warning, a pearl of wisdom, a diversification, a potential innovation, or a completely different emergent field for the company.

What is a Mindset? 

First of all: it’s not a thing. And no one can shift a Mindset. Mindset in this sense is a slightly misleading term for the sum total of all human interactions in a given environment, including their underlying drivers and value streams. Only here at the source code can any shifting be happening.

In organizational development, the key is to work with what is actually happening; not what should be happening. What are people really telling each other, their friends, peers, and partners about their work?

Dave Snowden suggests a few things that need to be happening.

  • We make it easy for people to tell little stories that are indicating what is really happening in the company. The stories can be about a certain attitude towards change or safety, they can indicate problems, challenges, or trends. The stories tell about the way things are done in the company.
  • A software, SenseMaker, can capture the stories and search for trends and challenges and the actual tendency for the company to engage a certain topic (like change, leadership, safety, collaboration, etc.). Snowden calls this mapping out the current dispositional state of the organization.
  • Then the whole organization, or a department, can be nudged into the direction of the next possible generative steps. A guiding question is: “What can we do tomorrow that gets us more stories like these, and fewer stories like those”

I find this approach extremely relevant and elegant. The first is working with what is and with people as they are now. The basic assumption is that people know their jobs, and they know what is happening, both good and bad. This is mining organizational gold. In its simplicity, this must also be a huge disappointment for most change agents and developmental experts. No big change initiative, no mindset change for employees, no bringing staff members up to a higher level of consciousness for them to do their job better. They can all stay as they are. And yet, we can work story by story and work with the systemic structures. Culture, values, and other inclinations can be exposed through the stories in the process – the actual, lived ones. They are part of the current dispositional state of the system and the emergent one. We can work with what is doable, accessible, sense-making, and generative, in this current moment. This is extremely powerful.


Image: Banksy

2 Comments on “Sensemaking

  1. Pingback: Collective Change Processes: Driving Development, Scaling Change |

  2. Pingback: Driving development vs scaling change | MindShift

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