Sensemaking – The Hidden Advantage of Non Routine Leaders™

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Today’s most effective leaders have transition from a ‘problem-solver,’ to a ‘problem-sensemaker.’ Have you?

Member Insights by Jeff Dickson, Alloy

THE ADVANTAGE

During the past century, confident decision making and strong problem solving skills were the top celebrated qualities of great leaders, but today, problem solving is quickly losing its value as a leadership skill. Certainly, technology plays a role in this trend, as AI becomes more efficient at solving problems, often surpassing human problem solving abilities; yet as alarming as it may seem, leaders will not be called upon to solve problems in the near future. However, as leaders, we must realize that it is not decisions that drive organizations; rather, it is the meaning behind these decisions that shapes organizations. The ability to make meaning, or sense, is known as “sensemaking,” and it is the hidden super power of Non Routine Leaders™.

The examination of sensemaking as the ability to “make sense” of an unfamiliar or complex situation, has proliferated in academic literature over the past few decades, yet it has been absent from commercial contexts. This is curious, considering sensemaking’s superior value as the prerequisite skill for complex problem solving and decision making. If the idea of leadership is to “go before,” leaders must begin developing and strengthening their sensemaking skills as the powerful precursor to “go before” complex decisions and solutions and, if possible, simplify these situations for their team. Maybe it is time that leaders follow the suggestion of Peter Bevelin who said, “I don’t want to be a great problem solver. I want to avoid problems—prevent them from happening and doing it right from the beginning.” But, first, we will need to make sense of sensemaking from a leadership perspective.

Based on the results of a four-year mixed-method research study, Non Routine Leaders™ are the few who grow in spite of speed and complexity by demonstrating their ability to See, Think, and Equip (their teams) more effectively in non routine situations. Successful Non Routine Leaders have recognized sensemaking as an advantage in today’s work place where non routine challenges are rising faster than ever. This advantage can’t be overstated, as non routine work continues to surge. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, 44% of global business and HR executives identify changing work environments and flexible working arrangements as the biggest demographic and socioeconomic drivers of change across industries (2). The U.S. Census Bureau outlines this change, showing that non routine work has grown from 40% of occupations in 1975 to 60% in 2013(3). Given that trajectory, the proportion non routine work will likely pass 65% by 2028. Said simply, by 2028, more than two out of three jobs will likely be defined as non routine.

Most of this century’s non routine work is considered cognitive, and it requires that leaders navigate uncharted territory, take on new tasks, and face unprecedented challenges. With non routine work, your job and your team’s job is to come in every day and redefine what your job is and how to do it. There is no manual and no precedent — but it is clear that non routine work will require “making sense” of complexity in every form. A new leadership paradigm is in order, demanding that sensemaking, not decision making or problem solving, become the primary focus of every leader.

SENSEMAKING VS. ANALYSIS

Sometimes, when introduced to the concept of sensemaking, leaders confuse it with analysis. Analysis and sensemaking interact, but they are two different types of thinking and should not be conflated. Analysis involves logic (thinking) and assumes that the problem is known, whereas sensemaking includes all three activities of seeing, thinking, and doing where the situation is unknown. The dividing line between the two can be found between the non routine and the routine. When approaching a non routine situation or problem, leaders should always begin with sensemaking and move towards analysis, once they understand the situation. Consider a platter of various foods including cured meats, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, various cheeses, and picked vegetables. A child may use sensemaking skills as she observes (seeing), samples the food (doing), and compares similar foods from the past (thinking) to make sense of what is in front of her. However an adult who grew up in an Italian home, would instantly analyze this platter as Antipasto. The Italian in the room might even ask “where are the olives?” As the management expert and organizational theorist, Russell Ackoff once said: “Outside of school, problems are seldom given; they have to be taken, extracted from complex situations…” This is where sensemaking begins.

SAY GOODBYE TO FIRE FIGHTING 

Karl Weick, who coined the term “sensemaking” reminds us that “Simply pushing harder within the old boundaries will not do.” Yet, all too often leaders who feel the pressure of non routine challenges feel the need to fight fire with fire—responding to the pressure of speed by attempting to solve problems faster, or unwittingly responding to complexity by developing more policies and processes that simply add to the complexity. Fighting fire with fire is a mindset positioned for a more routine 20th century when problems were less complex, and business moved far slower. Today, fighting fire with fire is a sure way for leaders to get burned.

How can leaders overcome the firefighter mentality? The answer to this question lies in how leaders see themselves. The fact is that many leaders see problem solving as a part of their core identity. In fact, more than half of our audiences tell us that problem solving is a top skill listed on their resumes. But problem solving is just fire fighting by another name. To go beyond, leaders must shift their paradigm from a vision of themselves as problem solvers to that of problem sensemakers. This shift is even more crucial for new leaders who are making the transition from a “doer” mindset, where problem solving is key, to a leadership mindset where sensemaking is far more valuable.

SENSEMAKING DEFINED: A LEADERSHIP PERSPECTIVE

Ultimately, every part of our research, both primary and secondary, led us to the core assertion of Non Routine Leadership™; that “sensemaking” is the most powerful skill a leader can leverage and improve in today’s non routine context. Therefore, sensemaking also serves as the underlying theory for all three competencies of Non Routine Leadership™, acting as both an individual process and an organizational responsibility. With these perspectives in mind, we define sensemaking through the lens of leadership as a three-part process of:

  1. Recognizing the cues and blindspots of non routine challenges

  2. Leveraging a better frame in order to interpret the situation

  3. Equipping individuals, teams, and organizations to act and grow.

This three-part process coupled with the three actions of sensemaking—seeing, thinking and doing(4)—informs all three competencies of Non Routine Leadership™.

See Through Complexity — Train your intuition to recognize the cues and blindspots of non routine challenges. This competency improves your judgment, adaptiveness, and debiasing skills.

Think Like an Expert — Train your intuition to interpret non routine challenges. This competency improves creativity, strategic thinking, and rapid learning skills.

Equip for Future Success — Train your team for future flexibility and growth in non routine environments with innovative coaching techniques. This competency improves your training ability as well as your team’s communication, collaboration, and capacity building skills.

PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE SENSEMAKING 

Non Routine Leadership™ wields the power of sensemaking to explain how to make sense of both past events as a retrospective process(5) as well as to formulate expectancies about uncertain, future events as a prospective process(6), both of which can be non routine situations. This is an important concept because our minds are better able to make sense of non routine situations by combining our anticipation of the future(7) with our analysis of the past.

Psychologist Gary Klein uses the term “anticipatory thinking” to refer to future sensemaking; not for predicting, but for “recognizing and preparing for difficult challenges.” It is a sort of “gambling with our attention to monitor certain kinds of events and ignore/downplay others.”(8) To understand present and future sensemaking, Pradhan et al. (2005) studied the eye movements of both skilled drivers and inexperienced ones and found that, when driving, skilled drivers directed their focus to potential trouble spots even though no actual trouble was occurring. Inexperienced drivers ignored potential trouble spots. The experienced drivers weren’t necessarily expecting hazards or predicting them, but they managed their attention because their recognition and interpretation skills had been trained with the right patterns to do so.

Analyzing the past is also functional sensemaking. When engaged in past sensemaking, we don’t analyze the past to simply identify what went right or wrong. Instead, we look for cues to inform and train our recognition and interpretation skills in order to make future decisions. Our unique ability as humans to blend past concepts, experiences, and stories is a key part of handling non routine situations.

NON ROUTINE LEADERSHIP SPOTLIGHT

Like a spotlight on life’s ever-changing stage, Non Routine Leadership™ trains leaders to manage their attention and to interpret their surroundings. It trains leaders to focus on the most important types of cues and relationships — past, present, and future. This empowers them to navigate the most critical aspects of complex situations, while purposefully ignoring cues that are irrelevant.

SENSEMAKING – THE TOP PREDICTOR OF LEADERSHIP EFFECTIVENESS

As we continue to face a rapid rise in non routine challenges, MIT-Sloan School of Management suggests that “sensemaking” and “inventing” have become the top two predictors of leadership effectiveness. We would caution, however, that the two are inextricably connected. For instance, it is impossible to innovate without “making sense” of the customer’s needs or the dynamics of the context. Further, sensemaking informs all other predictors of leadership effectiveness. We find that when all three competencies of Non Routine Leadership™ are combined, sensemaking skills improve observably throughout virtually every area of leadership — strategic change and decision making (9,10,11) , creativity and inventing(12), visioning (13), communication (14,15) , education (16,17,18) , learning (19), response and action (20), as well as debiasing (21,22,23,24). Therefore, it is incontrovertible that sensemaking is the preeminent measure of leadership effectiveness (25) in non routine contexts.

Research Notes:

Our research stumbled into sensemaking organically. It’s important to the author, and to ALLOY as a commercial coaching and consulting firm, to mention that Non Routine Leadership™ was not born out of academic research; but is supported by it. However, to avoid reinventing the wheel of sensemaking, we leveraged secondary research to corroborate and fine tune our understanding. Ultimately, Non Routine Leadership™ was born out of observation and interviews with high performing leaders, and later improved as a result of academic research.

Primary Research:

Primary research was conducted using the recordings of three different methods: observational research via shadowing (n=24), ALLOY client interactions (n=27), and loosely structured interviews (n=30). The loosely structured, one-hour interviews with 30 leaders from a diverse set of organizations and industry to include technology, construction, logistics, medical and pharmaceutical, retail, as well as consulting and creative agencies. We used a responsive interview model in which the “…researcher set the overall subject for the discussion and encouraged replies that are detailed and in depth” (Rubin & Rubin, 2012, p. 99). All conversations were transcribed and coded using a grounded theory approach.

Secondary Research:

Ironically, it was not until we began to create and test the Non Routine Leadership™ model that we stumbled into sensemaking. Feedback from workshops, speaking engagements, and other interactions led us to the realization that sensemaking was the most powerful aspect of successful Non Routine Leaders™. For this reason we completed extensive literature reviews and comparisons of Non Routine Leadership™ to other sensemaking models and theories. This proved to be a healthy exercise as we fortified the language and instructional model of Non Routine Leadership™. We combined literature from several theorists and perspectives (e.g. Library and Information Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and the Psychologies). For the competency of “See Through Complexity”, we found supporting research from scholars such as Brenda Dervin, David Snowden, and Daniel Kahneman in defining the subjective perspective of sensemaking, which implies that leaders must recognize the cues of complexity and the personal cognitive gaps or blindspots they face in a non routine situation. We incorporated the work of psychologists such as Gary Klein to understand the need for superior mental models and frames to interpret non routine situations in order to form strategy and execution. We also leveraged the work from psychologist Robert Bjork, Karl Weick, and Peter Senge, which stresses the importance of generating collective meaning in organization cultures. Finally, the idea that sensemaking goes beyond thinking alone and occurs as a result of seeing, thinking and doing, helped us fine tune each of the three competencies of Non Routine Leadership™—“See Through Complexity”, “Think Like an Expert”, and “Equip (your team) for Future Success”(26).


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3 Adapted from U.S. Census Bureau. Current Population Survey.

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25 Ancona, Deborah (MIT-Sloan School of Management.). “SENSEMAKING Framing and Acting in the Unknown.” The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being, SAGE, 2012, pp.  3-19.

26 Mintzberg, Henry, and Frances Westley. “Decision Making: It’s Not What You Think.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 15 Apr. 2001, sloanreview.mit.edu/article/decision-making-its-not-what-you-think/.