Start Making Sense

Professor Dave Davidson was one of my undergraduate professors in Human Communication, my major at Rutgers 35 years ago. His theory of human nature: "Never assume that the next guy knows what he is doing...much less why."

That maxim has bedeviled me ever since. As a Communication and Information theory guy, Dave Davidson was very into the work of Karl Weick, the social psychologist. Among Weick's many contributions, his concept of sensemaking made a lot of sense.

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.

One of those challenging circumstances is organizational change. That's why Organization Development (aka OD) practitioners need to be sensemakers.

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, consider a company in the throes of post-acquisition integration. The buyer that acquired them is taking hold of everything, and everyone, changing a great deal of how the acquired company did business.

I've lived through this several times in my career. One time, my co-workers (and I) faced a constant stream of new faces, new demands, questions, and uncertainty. All the while, still trying to do our jobs.

In such situations, sensemaking comes in at every juncture as we attempt to adjust our mental models from the old to the new. The old model worked reliably. Hopefully, we say to ourselves, the new model will jell. It will take time.

The other day, a Masters student (at a college where she is studying HR and OD) asked me five questions about OD. Here are the questions, and my answers.

1.What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for business (or for organizations in general) in the next 5-10 years?

Looking 5 to 10 years into the future is guesswork at best. Practitioners of HR and OD have a great opportunity today (and into the future). We are living in very turbulent times, with much uncertainty. For example, here in the U.S., look at how the health care act, now in the hands of the Supreme Court, will impact health care organizations and their clients and their families, now and into the future. The one constant you can count on is Change. Who are the business experts in performance, culture, resilience, adaptability, learning, systems, organizational change and transition? It has to be HR and OD.

2.What do you believe will be the biggest opportunity/challenges for organizations from an OD/Change Management perspective?

While change is often good (eventually), human beings often have a hard time with it, especially when it seems to be imposed from outside forces. Change causes stress. And stress can weaken and erode vitality. When such change and stress are unrelenting, organizational performance and productivity can suffer. HR and OD must be there as facilitators to help the people through the transitions. For those in leadership positions, HR and OD must be coaches and advocates, teaching leaders how to lead, and being the conscience of the organization at times too.

3.What do you see as the challenges in their profession?

Being fearless. Having the courage to speak truth to power. Even at the risk of losing one's job.

4.What words of wisdom would you like to share with a graduate class of OD/Change Management students?

Learn constantly. Be curious always. Seek new ideas. Never stop improving.

5.Please share anything else you’d like for me/us to know.

Though this may seem like "strong medicine," I strongly believe that every HR and OD practitioner needs to experience first-hand what millions have experienced, namely a significant life altering change such as the loss of a job. Until you have felt this yourself, you cannot appreciate the devastating effects that downsizings have on people, their families, and their communities.

Effective OD practitioners are aware of and attuned to sensemaking. Especially in challenging situations such as organizations undergoing the upheaval of change.

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

Posted by Terrence Seamon on Thursday April 12, 2012


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