The Nine Steps to Successful Organization Development - Step 5

In the last installment, I mentioned Professor Dave Davidson's theory of human nature: "Never assume that the next guy knows what he is doing...much less why."

Because that maxim has bedeviled me for the past 30 years, I will explore it some more in this entry and relate it to the practice of OD.

Step 5 - What Do You Make of This?

As a Communication theory guy, Dave Davidson was very into the work of Karl Weick. (See my previous blog entry on Weick , "A Weick on the Side of the Head.")

Among Weick's many contributions, his concept of sensemaking made a lot of sense to me. In a nutshell, sensemaking is the mental process of interpreting and constructing the reality around us. So defined, we are sensemaking pretty much all the time as we go about our daily lives. Most of the time, stuff makes sense to us. Sometimes, we find ourselves in challenging circumstances where we have to actively make sense of what is going on.

People spend a great deal of their waking life (and maybe also some of their dreaming life) in sensemaking. That is, endeavoring to put two and two together. Sometimes we get four. Sometimes we don't.

Sensemaking goes on at home, in a marriage, at a store, in a courtroom, in a lab, at a traffic intersection, even in a boardroom. Any place in life where we encounter the challenges, problems, dilemmas, decisions, and confusion of everyday living.

The writer E.M. Forster once said, "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" Though years before Weick came along, this goes to the gist of sensemaking.

To make sense of stuff, we have to get feedback of some kind. Writers get feedback from the page in front of them. Sometimes we get feedback from others. Sometimes it's just from ourselves. For instance, at the store or doing the monthly bills, my mother used to do addition in the air with her finger. I would watch her and laugh. So would she. But it worked for her. And made sense.

In today's turbulent business world, sensemaking can mean survival. For example, right now the company I work for is in the throes of post-acquisition integration. The larger company that bought my employer is taking hold of everything and changing a great deal of how we do business.

My co-workers (and I) are faced with a constant stream of new faces, new demands, questions, and uncertainty. All the while, we are still trying to do our jobs.

Sensemaking comes into it at every juncture as we attempt to adjust our mental models from the old to the new. The old sensemaking model worked reliably. Hopefully the new model will jell. It will take time.

Effective OD practitioners are aware of and attuned to sensemaking. Especially in organizations undergoing change.

Furthermore, the successful OD practitioner herself is a sensemaker. Not in the sense of being an Answer Man. But one who recognizes that her clients are trying to make sense of things, and who is ready to help facilitate this sensemaking process.


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