There’s a skill that’s one of the most important for leaders to get better at right now. It’s nothing new. No trending buzzword like ‘the great resignation’ or ‘quiet quitting’.
But although it might not be in vogue, it’s a skill every leader should start brushing up on. And soon.
What am I talking about?
Karl Weick is credited for introducing this concept and many authors – including Founder of the MIT Leadership Center, Deborah Ancona and David Snowden, who came up with the Cynefin framework – have contributed to the body of research on this crucial leadership skill.
So what exactly is sensemaking?
It’s how we structure the unknown so we can act on it.
It involves three steps:
- Creating an emerging picture. We gather data, stories and information about a system. We develop a mental model of a given situation, especially when it’s not clear, is still emerging or we don’t have all the information (sounds like pretty much everything in leadership right now?). We use this to build a map of the situation.
- Testing this model with others via conversations, data collection, action, experiments and experience. Sensemaking is all about your hypothesis, whilst “playing the game”.
- Refining or abandoning this model (or map) in favour of others that better explain a shifting reality.
At its most basic level, it is map making. Weick compared the process of cognitive sensemaking to cartography. The early maps one cartographer made may be different from another, depending on what they saw and experienced. In this context of sensemaking, the map does not need to be ‘precise’ or even ‘correct’ in detail at the start. What is more important is that a shared map needs to be relevant to a particular circumstance.
As Weick sums it up: “What distinguishes great leaders from average leaders is their ability to perceive the nature of the game and the rules by which it is played, as they are playing it”
Sensemaking uses both intuition and logic. It’s not about finding the correct answer. It means staying curious with the unknowns and being comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing. It’s about not rushing to make decisions or solve the problem. As Ancona summarised, “the things that stand in the way of sensemaking are rigidity and leader dependence”. Rather it requires us to toggle between what was, what is and what can be.
Why is sensemaking important now?
For one, it will make you a better leader. Studies have shown that sensemaking is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness — even more than visioning. Why? Because as Ancona points out, “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.”
Secondly, sensemaking is useful for you as a leader because when things seem to be moving at pace, when you are dealing with problems and situations you and your team haven’t dealt with previously, and when complexity and interdependence seem to be the name of the game, sensemaking helps you navigate unchartered terrain – like , a map that acts as a collectively- understood guide.
Sensemaking can help an organisation respond to a rapidly-emerging new market trend. It can help you identify why a particular customer group seems to be leaving. It can help you explore what’s really going on with employee engagement. It can help you understand why a new safety policy isn’t flying or what a new geopolitical landscape may mean for your business.
Here are eight tips to help you build your sensemaking muscles:
- Seek out many types and sources of data from diverse perspectives on the issue or opportunity. Don’t rely on the usual suspects. Combine hard, analytical data and known facts with more qualitative and intuitive information like conversations, gut feel and what you’re ‘sensing’. Be aware of your personal bias for either logic or intuition – and make sure you aren’t relying too much on one but are tuning into BOTH.
- Involve others. Sensemaking isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s a team sport. Your own mental model of what the story is should be tested with others, particularly those with diverse perspectives or opinions that are different to yours. Listen deeply and actively.
- Resist the temptation to jump immediately to a known, existing framework to solve a new or emerging situation. Have that as one option, but not the only option. Rather, be open to new ‘maps’ to help create a way forward. Let the solution emerge. It might not be as efficient or fast a solution, but do you really want to adopt a fast route to the wrong place? This approach takes courage, especially when there are many forces at play insisting that we move quickly.
- Do little experiments. Reflect, learn and then apply those learnings in another experiment. See this blog for more on how to dip your toe in the water and experiment on a small scale. Examples could be trying a new initiative or idea in one team, or with a small set of customers. You don’t have to go all in, all at once. What if an experiment ‘fails’? Good. Consider: what have you learnt? What will you do differently next time?
- Look for patterns. Where do things seem to be repeating? How often are we seeing this? Does this resemble anything else we have seen before? Where are the connections? What are the outliers? What are these outliers and connections telling us?
- Use stories and metaphor with others to explore and make sense of what the data is telling you. Data needs unpacking to become insights. See here for a post on how to use metaphor.
- Beware your biases. Question your basic assumptions. Watch out for shortcuts in your thinking or places where you default back to the road more commonly travelled, and actively work to counter these.
- Embrace different answers and disagreement. Seek perspectives that are different to your own and input from people who will challenge you. What would the naysayers say? If you can’t find one to engage with, consider what the opposite argument to your own would look like, and see if you can learn anything from it.
In a time when we are more and more looking for meaning, sensemaking is a valuable skill. It helps you lead when you don’t have definitive answers and it invites collaboration – which is a powerful way to bring others along on the journey. I’d love to hear how you use this in your work as a leader, or how you get on if you give it a try!