Leadership = SenseMaking = SenseGiving

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“It might be a bit of a mind-bender to some, but what we believe is changing most is how humans navigate and make sense of complexity in the context of continuous change.  For some of us, sensemaking is the revolution within the changemaking revolution” G.K. VanPatter, co-founder Humantific.

In IBM’s 2010 survey of over 1,500 global CEO’s (Capitalizing on Complexity), the landmark study found that with 8 out of 10 CEO’s expecting greater uncertainty and complexity over the next five years, more than half “seriously doubt their ability to cope” with the anticipated changes. It gets one to thinking. Where to look for ‘the’ answer.

The answer, as it happens, is an ‘anti-answer’.

All (or let’s agree virtually most) execu-guru’s offer prescriptive solutions for our problems du jour.  They all have ‘the’ answers we are looking for.  Likewise, how many times have ‘big’ 3,4 or 5 consulting firms been engaged by CEO’s to devise the next ‘big’ strategy or to find the next ‘big’ market for us.  To do the cognitive heavy lifting, and more (much more importantly) absolve us of any accountability/responsibility when things go south.  When one outsources the development of one’s corporate soul, an important benefit is to be able to blame the vendor when SOUL Version 3.0 proves defective. Kinda troubling though when its estimated that as many as 80% of consulting engagements fail.

Instead, the answer per se is not an answer, but rather a new way to perceive, understand and make sense of one’s environment – because that’s really what all of the outsourced truth-seeking noted above is about.  No matter how brave the bravado, most of us Leaders want help knowing what to do.

Sensemaking is a discipline that prepares us to better understand ourselves and our interactions with others while illuminating pathways of the possible that allow us to navigate through profound disruption.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, sensemaking is the derivative of a school of thought that has evolved in North American and European universities over the last 50 years, and is currently practiced by such as New York’s ReD Associates, Humantific and IDEO.  Also as noted, it is impenetrably dense, so here’s my take.  Sensemaking is a seven step (or so) process – more or less defined by University of Michigan’s’ Karl E. Weick – that teaches us to ask naive, uncomfortably honest questions about;

  1. how we define who ‘I’ ‘we’ are, both from the context of ‘I’ as person, ‘I’ as Leader, ‘We’ as a corporate entity, and ‘We’ as a community/society/country/culture
  2. how I/we (see above) perceive, understand and define our past, and employ that as a tool for leverage in the future
  3. how we impact and shape our environment even as we try and respond to it.  Remember the ‘Observer effect’?
  4. how we create, define, pursue and organize our social interactions
  5. how we perceive cause and effect as a continuous, ongoing process – negating the view that life experience is a linear series of discrete events. There is no cause effect – they are the same thing.
  6. where we take our cues from – how where we look for answers so profoundly biases the evident ‘truths’ we find
  7. how the quest for truth is subject to our sense of reality – how we are driven by plausibility rather than accuracy

I believe this is a powerful toolset precisely because it is NOT prescriptive.  It is not a one-size-fits-all doctrine that always provides a ‘red’ or ‘blue’ answer for rainbow of scenarios, but rather a way for you/me/we to author and target a thoughtful outcome based on a deliberative, action-oriented thought process that is agnostic and secular.  I have no idea what your ‘answer’ might be when you employ sensemaking, but I will have a profoundly greater expectation that it will at least be extraordinarilly well thought through.  And it will be YOUR answer.

ReD Associate’s Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen greatly add to the conversation by observing that sensemaking is an existential exercise that is by definition creative.  That to access and engage the touchpoints encountered through a sensemaking process we need to learn to trust our senses, our experiences, our instincts – ourselves.  That there is no right or wrong answer, because the context for that answer is forever changing.   And that the exemplars for enlightened discovery and exploration are NOT to be found in income statements, sales projections, focus groups or case studies, but rather in cultivating an understanding of the ‘humanity’ of ‘our’ context – our customers, shareholders, selves, family, employees, bosses, communities and societies.  It is the human sciences that should inspire and direct the engines of economic growth.

CAVEAT.  Business discipline is a prerequisite for survival.  I get that.  To excel, a leader must be able to bring the technical expertise to bear to ensure continued existence and the potential for future leverage of resources and position for gain, but that is not success.  Rather, successful companies have a sense of purpose, of mission and destiny – of sensitivity to their environments – that I would argue are outcomes of sensemaking.

It follows then that leaders must become leaders of sensemaking – or sensegivers.  The leader who understands, embraces and is excited by the conduct of business through the complexity of the Pre-Singularity Age and who plans to excel at it is;

“one who alters or guides the manner in which his followers’ mind’ the world by giving it a compelling ‘face’.  A leader at work is one who gives others a different sense of meaning of that which they do by recreating it in a different form, a different ‘face’, in the same way that a pivotal painter or sculptor or poet gives those who follow him (or her) a different way of ‘seeing’ – and therefore saying and doing and knowing in the world.  A leaders does not tell it ‘as it is’; he tells it as it might be, giving what is thereby a different face.   …The leader is a sense-giver.  The leader always embodies the possibilities of escape from what otherwise appear to us to be a chaotic, indifferent, or incorrigible world…*”

Are you up for being a SenseGiver?

* Karl E. Weick quoting L. Thayer in Sensemaking in Organizations, pp 10.


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