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Capability: Part 9 – Sensemaking


Sensemaking

  • Meaning making

  • Making meaning to make sense

  • Making sense

  • Sense making as a meta-system

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sensemaking is the process by which people give meaning to experience. While this process has been studied by other disciplines under other names for centuries, the term “sensemaking” has primarily marked three distinct but related research areas since the 1970s: Sensemaking was introduced to Human-computer interaction by PARC researchers Russell, Stefik, Pirolli and Card in 1993, to information science by Brenda Dervin, and organizational studies by Karl Weick.

In information science the term is most often written as “sense-making.” In both cases, the concept has been used to bring together insights drawn from philosophy, sociology, and cognitive science (especially social psychology). Sensemaking research is therefore often presented as an interdisciplinary research programme.

In organization studies, the concept of sensemaking was first used to focus attention on the largely cognitive activity of framing experienced situations as meaningful. It is a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding out of different individuals’ perspectives and varied interests. The work of Weick in particular has dealt with sensemaking at the organizational level, providing insight into factors that surface as organizations address either uncertain or ambiguous situations.

Sensemaking has seven properties

  1. Identity and identification is central – who people think they are in their context shapes what they enact and how they interpret events (Pratt, 2000, Currie & Brown, 2003; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005; Thurlow & Mills, 2009; Watson, 2009).

  2. Retrospection provides the opportunity for sensemaking: the point of retrospection in time affects what people notice (Dunford & Jones, 2000), thus attention and interruptions to that attention are highly relevant to the process (Gephart, 1993).

  3. People enact the environments they face in dialogues and narratives (Bruner, 1991; Watson, 1998; Currie & Brown, 2003). As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think, organize their experiences and control and predict events (Isabella, 1990; Weick, 1995; Abolafia, 2010) and reduce complexity in the context of change management (Kumar & Singhal, 2012).

  4. Sensemaking is a social activity in that plausible stories are preserved, retained or shared (Isabella, 1990; Maitlis, 2005). However, the audience for sensemaking includes the speakers themselves (Watson, 1995) and the narratives are ‘both individual and shared…an evolving product of conversations with ourselves and with others’ (Currie & Brown, 2003: 565).

  5. Sensemaking is ongoing, so Individuals simultaneously shape and react to the environments they face. As they project themselves onto this environment and observe the consequences they learn about their identities and the accuracy of their accounts of the world (Thurlow & Mills, 2009). This is a feedback process so even as individuals deduce their identity from the behaviour of others towards them, they also try to influence this behaviour. As Weick argued, “The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs” (Weick, 1993: 635).

  6. People extract cues from the context to help them decide on what information is relevant and what explanations are acceptable (Salancick & Pfeffer, 1978; Brown, Stacey, & Nandhakumar, 2007) Extracted cues provide points of reference for linking ideas to broader networks of meaning and are ‘simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring.” (Weick 1995: 50).

  7. People favour plausibility over accuracy in accounts of events and contexts (Currie & Brown, 2003; Brown, 2005; Abolafia, 2010): “in an equivocal, postmodern world, infused with the politics of interpretation and conflicting interests and inhabited by people with multiple shifting identities, an obsession with accuracy seems fruitless, and not of much practical help, either” (Weick 1995: 61).
Each of these seven aspects interact and intertwine as individuals interpret events. Their interpretations become evident through narratives – written and spoken – which convey the sense they have made of events (Currie & Brown, 2003).

Sensemaking triangle

“Boundaries are possibly the most important elements, in sense-making, because they represent differences among or transitions between the patterns we create in the world that we perceive.” – Kurtz & Snowden


Sensemaking Sensemaking cynelin domains

Download the Paper: The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world.



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Mike R. Jay is a developmentalist utilizing consulting, coaching, mentoring and advising as methods to offer developmental scaffolding for aspiring leaders who are interested in being, doing, having, becoming, and contributing… to helping people have lives.

Mike R. Jay
Leadership University


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