The world around us is changing so rapidly that we need everyone to participate in making sense of it. It will require all kinds of perspectives to figure out what is changing and what actions are needed. That’s why, as we brace for the unpredictable future, the ability to quickly adapt and apply new information will become more important than any other hard skills. Creating meaning from shared experiences is going to be—if it isn’t already—a prized capability.
Sensemaking is the process of creating meaning. It is literally the act of making sense of the environment, and it is achieved by identifying, organising evaluating and interpreting data until that environment can be understood well enough to make reasonable decisions to manage it. Sensemaking allows people to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity by creating rational accounts of the world. Done individually, it allows for the creation of unique frames of reference per person, which draws them to take on different roles in the organisational process. When enabled collectively, organisations create deep meaning from shared experiences in the context of change and therefore growth.
Sensemaking capability, in sum, is an observable human attribute that is both universally applicable and timeless. Other examples of enduring capabilities include team-building, counselling, coaching, and learning. Compared with skills, they’re more transferable to different roles and situations and have an exponential impact on outcomes.
Sensemaking is a practice that involves developing a set of ideas drawn from a range of disciplines, such as cognitive psychology, asocial psychology, communication studies, and cultural analysis, to approach organisation problem-solving.
Central to this practice is the notion that explanations of organisational issues cannot be found in any structure, process or system but in how organisational actors attribute meaning to things. The individual’s experiences, beliefs, value systems and socio-cultural and economic background also influence the way they make sense of their environment.
Individual sensemaking occurs within a person’s head and collective sensemaking occurs with facilitated sharing..
Approached from this lens, strategies, culture, goals and policies are not things that exist in an objective sense within the organisation. Rather, their source is people’s way of thinking. It is an ongoing process that emerges from efforts to create order whilst attempting to understand and decode complex environments.
A social process
The whole process is engineered as a social activity with room for individual interpretation of reality, within the framework of bounded rationality of the organisational context.
In sensemaking, meaning cannot be construed independently of others: it is refined, articulated, challenged and expressed in a social (collective) context. Meaning is influenced, expressed and shaped through shared experiences, where individual meaning resonates with ideas and view of other experiencing the same context or experience. That’s a key reason why diversity and inclusion have come to play such a critical role in enabling organisational strategy. It takes all kinds of people and their thoughts to contribute toward a shared pool of wisdom for meaningful decision making and seamless execution. The approach has to be a holistic one because to understand human thought, action, choices and expression one has to understand perception, context, and identity as influencing factors at both individual and collective levels. The more diverse the experiences, the more robust the devised game-plan – a key factor of differentiation in a competitive world.
When we engage in dialogue with others, we observe what they say and do whilst simultaneously observing how they respond to our words and behaviours. We add these observations about them and the world around us to our existing ideas, continually adapting and changing as a result of these interpretations. In the moment, this can sometimes lead to changing how we see ourselves in a social group.
To this end creating a shared narrative, using relatable metaphors, understanding the socio-cultural contexts/sub-texts, and engaging in social processes of human interaction become key to designing meaningful interventions around sensemaking.
The introduction of a sensemaking perspective into organisation studies has largely arisen from the seminal work of organisation psychologist, Karl E. Weick (1995). He observed that organisational actors not only come to an understanding of their environments through the process of sensemaking but also create those same environments through the active roles they chose to play thereafter in the organisation.
It is on the basis of their subjective perceptions of their occupational environment (organisation structure, their job role, manager, leadership, work conditions, policies, and so forth) that employees will take action and make a range of decisions, such as whether to respond proactively or reactively, challenge status-quo, be unafraid to take contrarian stands, decide on the degree of effort and enthusiasm to invest in the workplace and ultimately, take calls whether or not to leave the organisation. Collectively done, over a period in time, the culture of an organisation comes into a state of fruition.
To differing degrees, each decision will influence individual, team, department, and organizational performance and productivity. Hence, how these individuals come to understand their environments provides the basis for action, ultimately shaping this same environment.
No single person can possibly have the collective intelligence of a large organization. But by listening to different perspectives, organisations will be able to harness the skills, knowledge, and opinions of all in ways that will help the organisation reach its combined potential. Organisational listening plays a key role here; creating platforms for sharing views and exchange of experiences in an environment that feels psychologically safe.
In the absence of a safe environment where people are free to question ideas, question themselves and others, their competencies and understandings, organisations could lose ideas, solutions, creativity and enterprise, which are the core elements that deliver competitive advantage through innovation. Without a safe environment, moments of sensemaking will be held back because little will be held up to the light and questioned. This results in the stagnation of reactions and feelings, and skills, knowledge and expertise bias become suppressed.
As we move towards increasingly complex environments plagued by wicked problems, sensemaking is a critical leadership capability that aids our efforts to be architects of the future and not its victims.
The writer is a senior vice president of human resources with Kotak Life.