Module MT130

Sensemaking

 

Module author

Katherine W. Isaacs

MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology
USA

Learning objectives

After you studied this module, you will be able to:

  • Define sensemaking.
  • Explain what the concept of sensemaking is about and what it tries to explain.
  • Discuss why it is relevant to know about this concept in today's economic environment and management practice.
Workload units 1
Reading extract Sensemaking

 

Why Open School of Management believes that knowing the concept of sensemaking is helpful

When you're tired, cold, hungry, and scared, any old map will do." (Karl Weick)

A Tale of Two Maps

In order to illustrate his organizational concept of sensemaking, American author and social theorist Karl Weick (born October 31, 1936) often told the story of a small Hungarian army unit that became lost in the Swiss Alps during an unspecified campaign. The force's commander, a young lieutenant, dispatched a reconnaissance expedition to find a safe passage for the men. For two days, the snow fell harder and the wind blew colder--but the expedition did not return.

On the third day, to the lieutenant's joyful surprise, the reconnaissance mission returned. They had found a way out of the mountains, thanks to a map of the Alpine region that one of the soldiers had unexpectedly discovered in his pocket. He handed the map to his lieutenant, who, after a quick examination, saw that it depicted an entirely different mountain range--the Pyrenees--not the Alps!

The historical truth of this anecdote has never been verified, apropos to the subject: in sensemaking theory, factual truth is insignificant compared to the subjective processing it provokes. For it is the process that prompts the action and ultimately determines the outcome. In this case, whether the map depicted the Alps, the Pyrenees, or Appalachia is irrelevant, because the soldiers' belief in its accuracy made them strategize, persevere, innovate, and hope. The sense they made of the map generated successful action and saved them from an icy death.

Definitions and Distinctions

Weick laid the foundations of sensemaking theory in his first book, 1969's "The Social Psychology of Organizing." However, he did not formally introduce and define the term until 26 years later when he published "Sensemaking in Organizations," his most influential work. In it, Weick defined sensemaking as, simply, the making of sense--or, less abstractly, the process by which people interpret a circumstance or event through the filters of past experience, cultural/societal influence, and individual priorities. These complex interpretations form the basis of every action and occurrence that, taken together, constitute the present moment.

"Sensemaking..." also introduced the seven qualifying characteristics that, according to Weick, define and identify the process. He maintained that sensemaking is always:

1. Grounded in identity construction: Sensemaking is, by nature, individualized and subjective. It is prompted by personal needs, beliefs, and priorities.

2. Retrospective: Arguably sensemaking's most defining characteristic, according to Weick. The process can only be reviewed after it has occurred.

3. Enactive of sensible environments: Simply put, sensemaking is a response to and interpretation of the surrounding environs.

4. Social: There must be an exchange of ideas--a dialectic--from which sensemaking evolves. It could be as simple as a tete-a-tete between two friends, or as multi-faceted as society's debate on a complex issue like marriage equality.

5. Ongoing: The process continues, unabated by any court rulings or "final decisions." In sensemaking, no decision is ever final, as someone, somewhere, is still processing and/or applying it.

6. Focused on and by extracted cues: Though they require proper context to be understood objectively, these cues provide the reference points for retrospection. They are the talking-points--the sound-bites--that must be connected together to understand an event and take appropriate action.

7. Driven by plausibility rather than accuracy: In sensemaking theory, facts are a nicety--not a necessity. Refer again to the map story--the inaccurate map provided a means for the men to exit the Alps, simply because they believed in it. The map's plausibility drove them to action.

To summarize these qualifications--and the overarching theme of sensemaking theory--Weick asked this question: How can I know what I think until I see what I say? Indeed, that is the question his theory seeks to illuminate and explore.

Gerunds and Possibilities

Sensemaking describes the process of becoming: the process of an entity's waking-consciousness imprinting itself on the physical world. Ongoing and retrospective, it happened as soon as it happens, and it is always happening. To best describe and encapsulate this paradox, Weick promoted gerunds as the language of the sensemaking construct--and sensemaking as an organizational strategy.

Why? Nouns and verbs, Weick reasoned, were already fixed and labelled: they embodied the past tense, what became or what has become. The "-ing" morpheme, however, suggested the process of becoming, the possibility of what could be. The caterpillar had not changed into a butterfly--it was changing. The business leader was not organized--he or she was organizing. Gerunds offered the fundamentally optimistic idea--the hope--that nothing was ever settled.

This notion, as represented by Weick's affinity for gerunds, implied something more, something bigger: never final and never-ending, sensemaking was a process that could be understood and affected. If people made choices via the sensemaking process, then tweaking the process could influence the outcome. Suddenly, Weick's theory was applicable to marketing, leadership, politics, history, management--any field that involved perception.

Business and Management Applications

The small-business owner makes decisions about which product to carry; the investment broker decides which stocks to sell; the executive decides who gets promoted. Everyday, whether they are conscious of the process or not, business workers employ sensemaking to interpret events and take appropriate action; those actions create the consumer's material world, which becomes the foundation for more sensemaking. Sensemaking's role in business--and therefore the creation of the material world--can hardly be overstated. Still, though, the question begs: can it be manipulated to acheive a desired outcome?

Probably not on an individual level, as far too many variables exist in most economic scenarios for one person to be able to make sense of them all, let alone influence them. Individuals can, however, influence other individuals, thereby creating a substantive, observable trend. Consider, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Deborah Ancona writes in her article "Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown," the revolutionary shift in management practice that occurred in just the last few years. For decades, management was a top-down, "know-your-place" affair, but the turn of the century brought with it something altogether different: the "we're-in-this-together" collaborative effort. Sensemaking--formulated and implemented on a deliberate, conscious level--arguably predicated this change, as middle and upper-level managers recognized that their revised methods were contagious--that if just one worker truly believed in the power of collaborative group-think, he or she could induce an entire department to believe in it, and suddenly collaborative group-think would be a "thing" with demonstrable results.

Furthermore, sensemaking requires an objective grasp of the facts, an intuitive flair for anticipation, boundless empathy, relentless retrospection, and a sublime appreciation of the possible: the same traits that make a successful manager or executive. Accordingly, sensemaking is a cornerstone of the 4-CAP leadership model taught in several prestigious MBA programs. Developed by the MIT Leadership Center, where Ancona serves as faculty director, 4-CAP theory maintains that sensemaking is the most vital component of effective, visionary leadership and successful, innovative business strategy. Today, globalized companies commonly embrace the concept, conducting educational seminars and organizing management teams to study sensemaking applications related to their particular field.

Conclusion

Due to its subjective nature, sensemaking is just as psychological as it is practical. It follows, then, that organizational theory will be fundamental to the emerging study of market psychology, which examines economic outcomes in an effort to identify and explain the actions that lead to them: a sort of reverse-sensemaking.

What about on a personal level? Can sensemaking be used to understand an individual's psychology, perhaps by tracing the results of his or her choices back to the motivations and influences that lead to them? In 2006, Danish researchers Thomas Basboll and Henrik Graham revealed that Weick's Alpine map story, which he employed so frequently to introduce sensemaking theory, was plagiarized--almost verbatim-from a poem by Miroslav Holub. What, according to sensemaking, does this reveal about Karl Weick?

 

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