How Sensemaking Helps You Lead In Complexity
Updated: Feb 10
In complex situations, traditional leadership skills are not sufficient. Surprisingly many of the skills that can help leaders in complex situations are relatively unknown.
As a result, many leaders struggle to succeed in complexity, seeking to tame it rather than embrace it.
Many situations in the business world are complex. This story by Brian Arthur highlights the situation many leaders find themselves in:
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?”
Sensemaking is one of the little known skills that can help leaders act effectively in complex situations.
What is sensemaking?
Sensemaking refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. It involves developing a mental model of a given situation, testing your model with others through insight collection, action, and conversation, then refining or abandoning, your model depending on how credible it is.
Sensemaking means staying curious with the unknown rather than jumping to decisions in attempts to simplify.
“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”
- Karl Weick
Within organizations, sensemaking can help leaders understand why teams are not effective, why customers are leaving, and why operations are falling short on safety and reliability.
At a personal level, sensemaking can help in understanding relationships. Why you might be struggling to influence a colleague or gain the trust of your team.
Cynefin, a sensemaking framework, has helped to increase awareness of this skill. However many leaders struggle to embrace this skill.
One reason might be because it's difficult. As humans, we seek certainty. We want to move away from unknown and ambiguous situations quickly. Sensemaking requires leaders to stay with not knowing. To stay curious about the situation at hand before jumping in and making decisions.
Sensemaking can run counter-intuitive to the culture in many traditional organisations. Leaders who don't jump to decisions can be seen as indecisive. Leaders who are decisive get promoted.
“Times of threat and fear may reinforce existing maps and mental models, increase our reliance on old information, and inhibit action. Threat and fear area associated with rigidity, a need for direction, and erratic behavior – which work against effective sensemaking.”
- Deborah Ancona
Sensemaking and Decision Making
Decision Making is touted as a key leadership skill. Decisive leaders often rise to the top of organisations. However, in complex situations, not jumping decisions is often what's needed.
Sensemaking is not about finding the “correct” answer. It is about creating an emerging picture that becomes more comprehensive through data collection, action, experience, and conversation.
When you find yourself in an ongoing, unknowable, unpredictable, even chaotic situation, sensemaking helps you answer the question, ‘What’s the story?’
What does it look like in practice?
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
- Marcel Proust
Sensemaking sounds like a complex topic but can be learned.
The key practices of sensemaking include:
Gathering data, stories and information about a system
Using this to build a map of the situation
Experimenting to see how the system changes
At IDEO, a product design company, sensemaking is a critical ingredient of their innovative approach.
One team that was redesigning a hospital emergency room put a camera on the head of a patient and left it on for ten hours. This was so that they could build visual data and story about the patient experience.
The insight: ten hours of the ceiling!
This new perspective completely changed the mental models of the designers, who up to this point had not fully considered the patient experience.
Armed with this new mindset they shifted the design to include writing on the ceiling and other spaces most visible to patients.
Without using sensemaking to gather data and build a map of the situation, the final design would have been far less effective.
How do you start with sensemaking?
Karl Weick likens sensemaking to cartography, the making of maps. Maps can provide hope, confidence, and the means to move from anxiety to action. By mapping an unfamiliar situation, some of the fear of the unknown can be abated. By having all members of a team working from a common map of “what’s going on out there,” coordinated action is facilitated. Maps will never be perfect but allow us to act in the unknown.
Wardley Mapping is one such mapping approach that supports sensemaking.
8 Habits of Sensemaking
Sensemaking can be described in a set of behaviours. These are set out by Deborah Ancona in her excellent handbook on sensemaking.
I like to think of these as the "habits of sensemaking".
Seek out many types and sources of data from diverse perspectives.
Involve others as you try to make sense of any situation. Your own mental model of what is going on can only get better as it is tested and modified through interaction with others.
Move beyond stereotypes. Rather than oversimplifying—“Marketing people are always overestimating the demand”— try to understand the nuances of each particular situation.
Disintermeditae. Learn from those closest to the front line and customers.
Do not simply overlay your existing framework on a new situation. Instead, let the appropriate map or framework emerge from your understanding of the situation.
Use images, metaphors, and stories to capture the key elements of the new situation.
Learn from small experiments. If you are not sure how a system is working, try something novel.
Be aware of how your actions shape the environment. Leaders are not separate to the system, they are part of it
An easy place to start is when faced with a complex situation; seek out diverse data points. Instead of relying on your individual mental model gather insights directly from those closest to the action.
Maybe you could even put a video camera on a customer to see the day from their perspective, much like the IDEO example?