Sifting through the noise: sensemaking matters

15 May, 2023

This underrated leadership attribute is vital to success in our increasingly complex and turbulent world.

I was recently speaking to a leader who had just taken on a senior role. While he was excited about the new responsibilities, he was also feeling overwhelmed with the different shifts he had to navigate, the various tradeoffs, the deluge of information and the complexities he had to maneuver. He was struggling to make sense of it all.

Ask leaders about the most important attributes for success, and you will receive answers such as vision, conviction, communication and problem-solving. Rarely do we hear of “sensemaking” in this context, which is a pity because this skill has become increasingly critical for leaders in today’s world.

What exactly is sensemaking? Since Karl Weick first introduced the term in 1979, it has been described by various experts as:

“structuring the unknown”

“a process in which individuals develop cognitive maps of their environment”

“placing stimuli into some kind of framework…to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute, extrapolate, and predict”

“turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action”

To put it quite simply, sensemaking means mapping a complex environment to create a plausible understanding of it, which can then be tested and refined. On the basis of this mental model, leaders can take actions to drive their organization forward.

While the notion of sensemaking has been around for decades, it has never been more relevant than right now, with business models, consumer preferences and technology evolving at an unprecedented rate.

Disruptions triggered by the pandemic continue to play out at the local and global level, while political, economic and climate upheavals are adding new layers of complexity all the time. Under these challenging circumstances, sensemaking offers a powerful tool for businesses to innovate, survive and thrive.

This week, my message focuses on the value of sensemaking. What benefits does it offer, and why is it often overlooked? And how can leaders foster a culture of sensemaking in their organizations?

Weick compares sensemaking to cartography, which is a helpful way to think about it. Essentially, it means using data, stories and information to construct a “map” of an emerging situation, then testing your hypotheses through execution. Remember, the initial picture will never be 100% correct. The goal of sensemaking isn’t perfection – it’s learning and getting comfortable with the unknown.

This map then functions as a guide for leaders and their teams, as they move forward through uncharted territory. It allows them to identify emerging opportunities and challenges, design better solutions, and recognize the warning signs of failure. As Deborah Ancona, founder of the MIT Leadership Center, puts it:

Sensemaking enables leaders to have a better grasp of what is going on in their environments, thus facilitating other leadership activities such as visioning, relating, and inventing.

The more unknowns we face, the greater our need for sensemaking. Ancona shares a wonderful analogy by Brian Arthur, capturing the uncertainty challenge faced by today’s leaders:

Imagine you are milling about in a large casino with the top product leaders from across the industry. Over at one table, a game is starting called Artificial Intelligence. Over at another is a game called Virtual Reality. There are many such tables. You sit at one.

“How much to play?” you ask.

“Three billion,” the croupier replies.

“Who’ll be playing?” you ask.

“We won’t know until they show up,” he replies.

“What are the rules?”

“These will emerge as the game unfolds,” says the croupier.

“What are the odds of winning?” you wonder.

“We can’t say,” responds the house. “Do you still want to play?”

Viewed from this perspective, sensemaking allows us to grasp the nature and rules of the game – even as we start playing it.

The invisibility of sensemaking

Research shows that sensemaking is a key leadership activity and a vital predictor of success, yet few of us give it the attention it deserves. This is partly because the impact of sensemaking isn’t straightforward and obvious.

Think of it as a first-line skill. Sensemaking is what enables leaders to forge a vision, build connections and navigate change – yet it is the latter activities that end up in the spotlight.

Even leaders who personally practice this skill undervalue its importance across the ranks.

Another reason is highlighted in a piece on sensemaking in the MIT Sloan Management Review:

Leaders tend to prioritize taking action to solve problems. They are less inclined to first go through the messier and more painstaking process of deciding next steps by developing hypotheses, gathering information, looking for patterns, and making intuitive leaps. The most common refrain we hear from executives is, “But we have to act quickly. We don’t have time.”

The authors also point out that sensemaking remains poorly understood. Some leaders mistake it for competitive analyses and customer feedback – indicating a superficial grasp of the concept. Sensemaking goes beyond these typical activities, involving deeper work like questioning our assumptions, understanding multi-stakeholder perspectives, and testing our learnings.

 Fostering a culture of sensemaking

Embedding sensemaking into organizational structures enables companies to act effectively in the face of unpredictability. Here are 4 steps leaders can take to embed this valuable skill into their teams.

1. Weave it into your work process.

Instil sensemaking into your organization by making it part and parcel of all initiatives. Build the following steps into your work process:

  • Expand the learning field. Teams should seek out perspectives, data and practices from diverse sources to learn everything they can about the issue at hand. This includes talking to a wide variety of stakeholders, experts and people with previous experience in the area – both within and outside the company. Employees can also observe relevant practices in action, conduct surveys and interrogate longstanding stereotypes.
  • Map the current reality. Using this knowledge, teams can then create a picture of the situation. Remember, this doesn’t have to be precise or long-lasting. At this stage, it should simply represent a shared understanding of the current reality. Resist the temptation to simply overlay new information onto an existing framework. Instead, allow the framework to emerge from the patterns, themes and insights gathered during the previous step. This might take the form of a report, a story, an image or even a metaphor.
  • Refine through action. Sensemaking is a springboard to action. As teams use their map to experiment with potential solutions, they will continue to gain valuable data and learnings, which can be used to further enhance their understanding of the situation. The important thing is to not get bogged down in endless data or a quest for omniscience. Instead, keep actioning, learning and securing early wins to create momentum.

2. Hire for sensemaking.

By incorporating sensemaking into the hiring process, organizations can bolster innovation as well as their ability to navigate tectonic shifts. The authors of the MIT Sloan article recommend looking for candidates with the ability to reach out to diverse stakeholders, find patterns in complexity, and test their assumptions quickly.

3. Be a role model.

In order to instill a sensemaking mindset in their teams, leaders also need to showcase this skill personally. This means practicing it, talking about it, and making space for it in shared forums. The MIT Sloan piece offers an excellent example:

A CEO, who runs a global technology and manufacturing company, kicks off senior global leadership meetings with a dinner. During the cocktail hour, he asks top team leaders to share news from their businesses or regions and describe recent challenges, surprises, and trends they have spotted. By the time dinner starts, the team has a shared sense of issues the whole company is facing and can then engage in a more informed and thoughtful strategy formulation session.

4. Provide support for sensemaking.

It is up to leaders to create an environment that is genuinely conducive to sensemaking. If your company only rewards quick action and problem-solving, employees will simply go through the steps as a formality. To encourage sensemaking, managers need to consciously support activities like listening, asking questions, delving into data, and reflecting on learnings.

Instead of being chastised for “wasting time”, employees engaged in these pursuits should be encouraged and rewarded. Ancona emphasizes that building a sensemaking culture calls for a new vocabulary and stories that celebrate team members who venture out of their comfort zone to map relevant situations. Sensemaking can also be brought into promotion criteria and leadership capability models, so it becomes embedded into the organization’s approach and lingo around performance.

As leaders engage with an exponential rate of change, sensemaking offers a useful pathway to approach uncertainty, form a shared understanding, and kickstart effective action. This skill is not only useful in the C-Suite but also for employees across all levels of the organization. By integrating sensemaking into company culture and processes, we can strengthen our ability to meet the challenges of the moment.


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