A frazzled cowboy once said,
"I'm so busy, I don't know if I found a rope or lost my horse."
Clearly that dazed and confused cowboy is trying to make sense out his situation.
How often, in your life, can you relate to that?
Organizational psychologist Karl Weick wrote some very interesting stuff about human behavior and organization. In one piece, he wrote about a team of smoke-jumpers who were dropped by parachute into a major forest fire. Though highly trained, some things happened that they were unprepared for. As a result, they became disorganized and sadly most of them died.
What happened? Weick wondered if there was a failure of sensemaking.
Sensemaking is the process by which people give meaning to what they are experiencing.
Weick's concept of "sensemaking" refers to the mental process of interpreting and constructing the reality we find ourselves in. 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 may not understand what is going on so we have to actively try to make sense of what is happening.
In my field of organization development, this is a frequent challenge. Especially when dealing with change in organizations.
Change is disliked by so many of us so much of the time because it throws us a curve and we end up like the cowboy who doesn't know whether he has found a rope or lost his horse.
Change is destabilizing. It rocks the boat.
For example, consider a company in the throes of post-acquisition integration. The buyer has come in "guns blazing," cutting heads in a bloodbath, taking hold of everything and changing a great deal of how the acquired company used to do business.
Imagine being a "survivor" in such a scenario. Faced with a constant stream of new faces, new expectations, new demands, questions, and uncertainty. All the while, still trying to do your job.
Sensemaking becomes acute. It comes into it at every juncture as we attempt to adjust our mental models from the old to the new. The old model worked reliably. Hopefully the new model will jell. It will take time.
The smoke-jumpers got disorganized, at least in part, due to a failure in sensemaking. Some things happened in the incident that did not make sense to the highly trained fire fighters. Because of this, panic and distrust mounted. Their structure and judgement collapsed. And doom fell.
When I was an undergrad at Rutgers, studying Organization Communication & Development, one of my professors, Dave Davidson, had a theory of human nature:
"Never assume that the next guy knows what he is doing...much less why."
This is because we are always making it up as we go along. Sensemaking is the norm.
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.
Sometimes, however, we find ourselves in very challenging circumstances --often in changing circumstances-- where we have to actively make sense of what is going on.
A great example of this kind of challenging situation would be a VUCA environment where things are so fluid that it feels volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Like a battle zone. Or a forest fire. Or a company undergoing a restructuring due to merger/acquisition.
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 develop ways of seeing things more clearly.
One way is 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, taking time to reflect on what we are going through.
Another way is to use visualization. I have often said that my favorite consulting tools are a flipchart and a set of color markers. With these simple tools, a facilitator can help a team to make sense out of a problem by writing their thinking on the chart and taping it to the wall.
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 "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.
In today's turbulent business world, sensemaking can mean survival.
Terrence Seamon is a facilitator of sensemaking. Follow him on twitter @tseamon, and on facebook Facilitation Solutions.