The Art of Sensemaking

At the MIT Sloan School of Management, they teach the 4CAP model of leadership capabilities. They are:

  • Relating – building trusted relationships across people and networks
  • Visioning – clearly articulating a compelling picture of the future
  • Inventing – creating the processes and/or structures required to enable the vision
  • Sensemaking – the process by which we give meaning to collective experiences and attempt to bring clarity to the world around us

For many, leaders the first three elements of the model are, to an extent, self-explanatory; they are common practices in many organisations. As humans, we naturally build networks and try to create trusted relationships. We are also good at analysing where we are and where we want to be and creating the tactics and strategies to reach our goals.

It could be argued that they are business as usual skills, and as we approach the end of a financial year, are being used by businesses across the country to map out the year ahead, establishing targets, budgets, revenue predictions, growth models, and more.

But sensemaking is different, and in times of uncertainty, rapid change and disruption, it is a critical skill for leaders and vital to organisations as they transform, pivot, or reinvent themselves to meet the needs of a changing world.

What is Sensemaking?

Sensemaking, a term introduced by Karl Weick, refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding—a map—of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning, the map depending on how credible it is.[1]

Sensemaking is just that, attempting to make sense of the world around us, understand the unknown, and find a way to translate the information and gather it into a format we can explicitly comprehend and derive action. It is usually needed by organisations when our understanding of the world becomes confused or clouded; a rapid change event has taken what we thought we knew and understood and changed the world in which we operate.

For businesses in the COVID disrupted environment, sensemaking is more critical than ever as what we knew 18 months ago is not what we know today. Our world, environment, markets, customers, and ongoing reality have been transformed, and we desperately need to make sense of what we have been through and where we are going. 

But we can take confidence from our ability to make sense of the unknown. As a species, humanity is good at analysing information and making sense of it. Arguably our desire to make sense is what has driven us to explore, invent, adapt, change, thrive, and survive.

But for organisations, typically those who operate in a command-and-control structure, sensemaking does not come naturally, and a revised mindset is required. To be successful, command and control must change to management by collaboration and teamwork.

In the sphere of business, John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, believes that “from a business model and leadership perspective, we’re seeing a massive shift from management by command-and-control to management by collaboration and teamwork. You could almost say this shift is as revolutionary as the assembly line”[2]

When we add into the mix the fact that sensemaking is most required when under threat, we can see the challenge it poses for businesses as taking the time to understand the changing world is not something that comes naturally to all when we are under pressure.

For example, if sales revenues are down, a command-and-control environment would immediately put out a call to sell more, to hit the phones and get the numbers, upsell your existing base or run a promotion to drive sales. This approach fails to understand why sales are down and why orders are falling; and an assumption is made to move to a fix, without understanding the underlying reasons behind the decline.

At BEyond Excellence we have worked with leaders and teams within organisations to help them create a culture of sensemaking, to embed the skills and techniques required to take the complex and create sense and action. In the current disrupted global environment, for you and your business to succeed, understanding change and benefitting from knowledge is essential.   Connect with us today and start making sense.


[1] SENSEMAKING Framing and Acting in the Unknown – Deborah Ancona MIT-Sloan School of Management

[2] Fryer & Stewart, 2008, p. 76

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