“Sensemaking starts with chaos.” -Weick, Sutfcliffe, and Obstfeld via Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking

Which is exactly where we are at, in the very midst of chaos. If not, it certainly feels like it. Inundated with a steadily increasing number of adaptive challenges, dilemmas, polarities, and unknowns to be faced.

However, be that as it may, today’s leaders can ill-afford to find themselves and their organizations immobilized by these circumstances and challenges. While the current volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity can feel just a bit overwhelming, it cannot be allowed to be all-consuming. Chaos cannot be incapacitating nor debilitating. Rather it must serve as a catalyst for seeking out new opportunities rising up and out from what many want to term as our “new normal.” Which will ultimately require new understandings, new thinking, new frames and maps, and new abilities and skillsets from our leaders and our organizations.

As we move deeper into dealing with the chaos of current times, it begins with the realization that we are and have been moving from a complicated to a much more complex world. In many ways, it is very reminiscent of the difference between dealing with a technical problem as opposed to tackling an adaptive challenge.

As author of It’s Not Complicated Rick Nason shares in Inc., “A complicated issue is one in which the components can be separated and dealt with in a systematic and logical way that relies on a set of static rules or algorithms.” Nason adds, “It may be hard to see, but there’s a fixed order in something that is merely complicated and that allows you to deal with it in a repeatable manner.” Whereas, according to Nason, “A complex issue is one in which you can’t get a firm handle on the parts and there are no rules, algorithms, or natural laws.” Nason continues that, “Things that are complex have no such degree of order, control, or predictability. A complex thing is much more challenging – and different – than the sum of its parts because its parts interact in unpredictable ways.”

Much like adaptive challenges and dilemmas, complex problems often don’t have an easily identifiable answer, and most often don’t have a set solution at all. Which requires a different approach from the answer view that we take to solving technical problems and complicated issues. In fact, a lot of organizational frustration and even dysfunction arises from approaching these adaptive and complex challenges with the same sets of frames, maps, and solutions that are applied to technical problems and/or issues that tend to fall more to the complicated. As Nason adds, the mindset needs to shift in regards to moving from complicated to complex with the approach of, “Think manage, not solve.” Which is a very different approach and mindset, but one that will be more and more necessary of today’s leaders for our modern organizations.

Furthermore, in realizing that our organizational ecosystems have become increasingly more complex, it is then understanding that the idea of “Sensemaking” will become a much more needed and necessary ability and skillset for traversing the volatile, chaotic and unknown conditions and contexts that today’s organizations and leaders are currently facing. As Deborah Ancona shares, “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. Enabling leaders to explore the wider system, create a map of that system, and act in the system to learn from it.” In many ways, sensemaking gives us a frame for making greater “sense” of the rising complexity across today’s organizations and organizational ecosystems. Or as Ancona adds in her article Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, “Sensemaking is the activity that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity of the world into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action. Thus sensemaking involves – and indeed requires – an articulation of the unknown.” Which takes us back to the opening paragraph and the need for leaders and organizations to not let the current VUCA context to paralyze them into inaction. Rather, it is in this willingness to attempt to articulate and map out the unknown that organizations can begin to become more adaptable and agile moving forward. Especially as sensemaking requires constant awareness of the organizational context and situational scanning to better move the organization towards action. Too often, especially in the midst of chaotic and disruptive times, organizations allow static processes and status quo thinking to entrench and insulate them, which will do little towards mapping out the unknown and engaging the organization in the experimental and discovery learning necessary for creating of these maps.

In fact, sensemaking, has seven properties that work interdependently for making meaning and creating coherence towards constructing new understandings, especially as the world around the organization becomes less understandable and more unknown.

Below we find a representation of the seven properties of sensemaking (italicized) provided by Laura McNamara from her article, Sensemaking in Organizations: Reflections on Karl Weick and Social Theory:

  • Sensemaking is a matter of identity: it is who we understand ourselves to be in relation to the world around us.
  • Sensemaking is retrospective: we shape experience into meaningful patterns according to our memory of experience.
  • How and what becomes sensible depends on our socialization: where we grew up in the world, how we were taught to be in the world, where we are located now in the world, the people with whom we are currently interacting.
  • Sensemaking is a continuous flow; it is ongoing, because the world, our interactions with the world, and our understandings of the world are constantly changing. You might also think of sensemaking as perpetually emergent meaning and awareness.
  • Sensemaking builds on extracted cues that we apprehend from sense and perception. Cognition is the meaningful internal embellishment of these cues. We articulate these embellishments through speaking and writing – the “what I say” part of Weick’s recipe. In doing so, we reify and reinforce cues and their meaning, and add to our repertoire of retrospective experience.
  • Sensemaking is less a matter of accuracy and completeness than plausibility and sufficiency. We simply have neither the perceptual nor cognitive resources to know everything exhaustively, so we have to move forward as best we can. Plausibility and sufficiency enable action-in-context.

It is also in recognizing, as Samdanis and Lee share in Uncertainty, Strategic Sensemaking and Organizational Failure in the Art Market, that strategic sensemaking necessitates and includes the ability of a leader to continuously “scan, interpret, strategize, act, and adjust” according to the chaos and constantly changing context that most organizations are facing. Which in today’s current volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, is similar to the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop frame that fighter pilots have utilized to make fast and accurate decisions while operating in these VUCA-infused environments. Or even the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle that we find utilized in most continuous improvement efforts across organizations. Engaging a variety of frames allows us to become more adaptable, more agile, and more able to adjust to constantly changing organizational situations and contexts. Or as John Boyd, the U.S. Air Force Colonel who designed the OODA loop for thinking in complex and chaotic situations adds, “We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.”

Engaging sensemaking, creating maps, enabling a variety of frames, as well as engaging foresight abilities, allow leaders and organizations to begin to become much more aware of the signals on the horizon. Signals that may and can have great effect on our organizations, both in the present and the future. Which requires leaders and their organizations to constantly be aware of and always monitoring the horizon for signals (weak or strong) and engaging sensemaking strategies to determine what those signals may mean. It allows leaders and their organizations to be much more aware of what is emerging, both in the present and for the future. Which will not only require new maps and framing, but ongoing reframing as new learning, new knowledge and new data makes itself available and known. As Maree Conway shares in Foresight Infused Strategy, “The environments in which organizations now exist are moving so quickly that future outcomes can no longer be assumed. Because our worlds are mired in complexity, there are often no obvious choices. A different approach to strategy development is needed.” For which she adds, “The future is characterized by uncertainty, complexity, and much that we simply can’t yet know. Foresight has value because it allows us to acknowledge uncertainty and seek to better understand it, not to try and explain it away with predictions. Done well, using foresight moves thinking beyond the status quo and helps organizations prepare to respond to change proactively.” 

In the chaotic and often disruptive spaces of our current context, the future is constantly emerging in often unexpected and unforeseen ways, bringing new meanings, new interpretations, and new understandings toward this new reality we are experiencing. A space where our current maps, frames and mental models try to make sense of and guide us through our new reality, but often come up short and remain insufficient and lacking towards the challenges that we are facing and lie ahead.

As Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld share, “There are truths of the moment that change, develop, and take shape through time. It is these changes through time that progressively reveal that a seemingly correct action “back then” is becoming an incorrect action “now.” And it is with that reveal that this new normal pushes us to acknowledge the insufficiency of our past maps, frames and mental models in overlaying them upon our current context. Maps, frames and mental models that must not only be updated, but  transformed toward closing the gap between that insufficiency of what was and the adjustments necessary to meet the new reality of what is emerging. As Weick shares from the properties of sensemaking, “People extract cues from the context to help them decide on what information is relevant and what explanations are acceptable. Extracted cues provide points of reference for linking ideas to broader networks of meaning and are simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring.”

Which will be the leadership and organizational work for moving forward, especially in world overrun with too much information and data. We will all have to become much more equipped to engage in sensemaking in our organizations, as well mapmaking and frame braiding, out of which new narratives for the future can be created to guide our way. Or as Weick shares, “People enact the environments they face in dialogues and narratives. As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think, organize their experiences and control and predict events and reduce complexity in the context of change management.” Which will be paramount for growing complexity of today’s organizational ecosystems. 

Or as Weick adds, “The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs.”

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