Sensemaking Through Uncertainty

“Simply pushing harder within the old boundaries will not do.”  -Karl E. Weick

We currently find ourselves positioned in this valley that exists between “old world” and “new world” thinking. We aren’t deep enough down in the valley to realize that retreating to “old world” thinking is no longer a viable possibility, if necessary and needed. And we aren’t far enough along in the valley to have created some semblance of what “new world” thinking will look like if incorporated across the entirety of our systems. So, what we find ourselves facing in current times is an inevitable tension, the tension brought on by trying to resist the comforting pull of “old world” conformity, while wanting to push through the uncertainty, and even fear brought on by the tug of a newly emerging “new world” proposition.

In many ways, we know that we need a new map for the future, we just haven’t entirely figured out how or what it means to make a map of the unknown. Especially when our current mental models and mental maps tend to constrain vivid understandings of this  unknown space that sits beyond this valley in which we currently find ourselves.

Which is why it is vital that today’s leaders are taking more time to meticulously translate and create greater understandings across our systems of the change forces we are facing. As we sit on the cusp of a variety of disruptions, it is important that individuals and our organizations realize that no “present” map will be perfect in moving us through our current context or the many extreme uncertainties we are or will be facing, but absent any map, we will ultimately find ourselves void of the individual and organizational action that will be needed to move forward and create opportunities for ongoing progress and forward momentum. Absent of any map or narrative to guide us into the future, we may find ourselves slipping back quickly and safely into “old world” thinking. A retreat into the kind of thinking that can entrench us in an overwhelming sense of inertia and stasis, especially when it is accompanied by the uncertainty and sense of unknowing that runs rampant across our current circumstances.

Inevitably, any disruptive change we face will most often feel like a threat, bringing forth feelings of imminent danger and even fear, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not. It is in the face of these disruptive forces that we can find ourselves acting in favor of status quo ways of doing and being, we can find ourselves acting in our own best interest, and we can even find ourselves even acting in ways that we can even find to be irrational in nature and deed. As Deborah Ancona shares in Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, “Times of threat and fear may reinforce existing maps and mental models, increase our reliance on old information, and inhibit action. Threat and fear area associated with rigidity, a need for direction, and erratic behavior – which work against effective sensemaking.”

In many ways, today’s leaders are going to need to begin to build up new competencies, one of which is being able to translate and convert change, even disruptive change, into an understandable and decipherable narrative. Providing people and their organizations both guidance and assurance in moving forward, even when all is not certain. Especially in the midst of these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments that can tend to be overwhelming and even debilitating towards a sense of action. As Ancona shares from Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld, “Sensemaking in such an environment involves “being thrown into an ongoing, unknowable, unpredictable streaming of experience in search of answers to the question, ‘What’s the story?'”

For which Ancona in her work Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, shares this story…

Brian Arther (1996)  gambling casino analogy to illustrate the kind of profound uncertainty we currently face that creates a great need for sensemaking:

Imagine you are milling about in a large casino wit the top figures of high tech… Over at one table, a game is starting called Multimedia. Over at another is a game called Web Services. There are many such tables. You sit at one.

“How much to play?” you ask.

“Three billion,” the croupier replies.

“Who’ll be playing?” you ask.

“We won’t know until they show up,” he replies.

“What are the rules?”

“These will emerge as the game unfolds,” says the croupier.

“What are the odds of winning?” you wonder.

“We can’t say,” responds the house.

“Do you still want to play?”

Which means that today’s world necessitates deeper awareness, awareness of your circumstances, awareness of your context, awareness of what is emerging amidst the current crisis or disruption, awareness of the threats, as well as internal and external awareness of how current reality are having impact on your individuals and how the dynamic and fluid way change is orienting and orchestrating itself within your organization.

For, in most instances, people and organizations don’t want to play. They don’t want to wait on what is emerging. Rather, they demand answers, before determining if they are even asking the right questions. In most instances, these uncertain and unknown environments drive individuals and organizations towards, often faulty, assurances and certainties.

Too often we are looking for the “right” answer to provide individual and organizational assurance to the current crisis or disruption that is occurring. Rather than stepping back to determine what is emerging in a world that is no longer the one that existed within our previously perceived mental models and maps. It is in being reflective and intentional enough to reframe our mental models in response to the uncertainty and unknowns that the current volatility of a shifted world has inevitably created upon our mental maps of the past. As Ancona adds, “Sensemaking is not about finding the correct answer; it is about creating an emerging picture that becomes more comprehensive through data collection, action, experience, and conversation.”

Which means, that without action in the midst of the current volatility and disruption, there will be no new learning, there will be no new ideas, and there will be no new thinking that allows us to begin to construct new maps and new mental models that can lead us more creatively, more innovatively, and more relevantly into these VUCA-infused environments. Constructing new maps and mental models allows to be more open to reframing our thinking towards the future, and determining more openly what is emerging amidst the current chaos that any disruption or crisis creates. It allows us to be open to seeing new connections that may have seemed non-existent previously.

In Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, Deborah Ancona provides 3 elements and 9 steps to better understanding and utilizing the concept of sensemaking as a leader, and as an organizational tool for moving forward through uncertainty and the unknown:

  • Explore the Wider System
    • Seek out many types and sources of data.
    • Involve others as you try to make sense of any situation.  Your own mental model of what is going on can only get better as it is tested and modified through interaction with others.
    • Move beyond stereotypes.  Rather than oversimplifying, try to understand the nuances of each particular situation.
    • Be very sensitive to operations.  Learn from those closest to the front line. What trends do current shifts portend for the future?
  • Create a Map of Story of the Situation
    • Do not simply overlay your existing framework on a new situation.  The new situation may be very different.  Instead, let the appropriate map or framework emerge from your understanding of the situation.
    • Put the emerging situation into a new framework to provide organizational members with order.
  • Act to Change the System, To Learn From It
    • Learn from small experiments. If you are not sure how a system is working, try something new.
    • People create their own environments and are then constrained by them. Be aware and realize the impact of your behavior in creating the environment in which you are working.

As a leader, responding to individuals and the organization by saying that we are moving into “unprecedented times” does little to enact a translation of that change or provide deeper clarity towards these uncertain, VUCA-infused environments. Rather, engage individuals and the organization in “sensemaking processes” that allow both individuals and the organization to begin to articulate, anticipate, and build new narratives, scenarios, and mental maps of the unknown being faced. Thereby, bringing a greater sense of coherence into uncertainty and creating opportunities for action that leads to new learning, new capacities, new competencies, and greater clarity.

While with any framework, realizing that all of the elements and steps are important, we must also remember to begin with a sense of what are our current circumstances and from building a deep awareness of our context. Too often we approach these processes in a linear fashion, step one, step two, step three, but it is also in realizing we no longer live in a step by step world.

Rather, context awareness leads to the social, organizational, and systems awareness to know where you are, where you have been, and where next steps may lie in moving forward in response to your current context and circumstances. Or as Karl Weick shares, “Sensemaking is about the enlargement of small cues.  It is a search for contexts within which small details fit together and make sense.  It is people interacting to flesh out hunches.  It is a continuous alteration between particulars and explanations with each cycle giving added form and substance to the other.”

It is seeing how these elements and steps work together within the system. To see a sense of interdependence in how they interact and fuse together to begin to provide some semblance of understanding to the current disruptive change and the uncertainty and unknowns that it is currently evoking.

Which is why it will remain important in moving into the future that leaders are able to determine and create spaces where individuals and the organization can begin to interpret and translate change. To begin to determine what the change means for them and their organization, under their current context and circumstances. It is in these spaces that mental models are shifted, thinking is reframed, and new maps and narratives for the future can be created with sense of collective efficacy and advocacy, that provides a starting point for moving forward into the unknown and through the current uncertainty that is being faced.

“As we try to map confusion and bring coherence to what appears mysterious, we are able to talk about what is happening, bring multiple interpretations to our situations, and then act. Then, as we continue to act, we can change the map to fit our experience and reflect on our growing understanding.”  – Deborah Ancona via Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown


eLeading: Building Organizational Capacity And Alignment

“To build leadership, a company must be capable of reinventing its industry; to rebuild leadership, a company must be capable of regenerating its core strategies.  In this sense, it is not enough to get smaller and better; a company must also have the capacity to become different. But to ultimately be different, a company must first think differently.” –Hamel and Prahalad via Competing for the Future

It is difficult to look around and not be overwhelmed, almost mesmerized by the outright ferocity and speed for which this current crisis has upended and left our previous sense of normal in tatters. In many ways, we have watched our previously entrenched mental models of future expectations uprooted and defaced in a matter of weeks. For many, if not most leaders, any semblance of strategy for the future and next steps has brought everyone back [remotely] to the organizational table. Or as Peter Thiel shares in his work Zero to One, “Big plans for the future have become archaic curiosities.”

In many ways, we have to come to terms with the idea that we previously created our organizations to sustain, and now we must prepare them to adapt, continuously.

Today’s leaders will have to learn how to strategically disassemble the current organizational DNA that traps us in outdated and outmoded operating systems. Surgically removing the DNA that allows stasis, static and status quo ways of doing and operating to entrench us within and across our organizational ecosystems. Recognizing that organizations are tilted towards and designed for safety and stability, requires modern leaders to move forward from a deeper sense of intentionality, especially in creating the spaces and room for these cognitive shifts of change to be unveiled and explored.

To create spaces that allow individuals, as well as the organization, to push past our unconscious [or conscious] bias for the stability of past practices, towards the willingness to engage in the experimentation and eventual discovery learning that will allow our individuals and organizations to build upon “best” while moving us towards and into necessary “next” practices.

To provide individuals and organizations the capacity to continually adapt into the future in a more connected and relevant manner.

In VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments, where we find ourselves currently existing, the speed of change is often both turbulent and accelerated, which means that individual and organizational learning and adaptability must gain its own heightened and amplified sense of velocity, momentum and flow across the organizational ecosystem in order to parallel pace this acceleration of change. At all levels of the organization.

Which will necessitate a leadership reframe, a reframe in order to engage not only new ideas, but different ways of thinking, especially in order to effectively navigate and weigh the cognitive load created from the organizational tension and individual strain required from this heightened level and manner of parallel pacing change.

Tension and strain that will only be amplified under the current constraints of building up this capacity and creating a greater sense of alignment, remotely, or at distance.

Which will require from leaders, to begin to…

  • Reimagine how to engage ongoing organizational learning and capacity building beyond face to face spaces and arenas
  • Determine current capacities and capabilities necessary for the present, while focusing on which core competencies that will need to be added or expanded for the future
  • Communicate beyond current modes, to a more diversified multi-media approach, both internal and external to the organization
  • Tap more effectively into formal and informal individual and organizational  learning networks
  • Allow space for experimentation and discovery learning, creating opportunities to share the learning from those experiences, both positive and negative, in order to better scale and cascade creative and innovative strategies, practices and behaviors that are having positive impact and outcomes across the organization
  • Communicate and effectively engage the organization in determining new or changed targets, objectives and/or goals in moving forward, as well as creating ongoing opportunities to deepen individual clarity and responsibility around and towards those targets, objectives and goals
  • Provide space for individuals and teams to engage in continuous improvement opportunities for systems-wide inquiry, root cause analysis, question posing, problem-solving, and scenario planning
  • Engage individuals and the organization in future thinking and future narrative processes to support scenario planning
  • As the organization moves from “best” to “next” practices, allow the organization time and opportunities to begin to determine new and evolving metrics that allow for improved ways for measuring the effectiveness and outcomes generated by these “next” practices
  • Create a platform that can not only measure learning, but allow that learning to be channeled, transferred and ossified across and throughout the organizational ecosystem

As Hamel and Prahalad share in their book Competing for the Future, Strategic planning almost always starts with “what is.”  It seldom starts with “what could be.” However, current circumstances may and undoubtedly will require today’s leaders to reverse that statement, and begin to determine how to backwards map from “what could be” to “what is.” To begin to create scenarios and future narratives of change and transformation that allow us to push past entrenched mental models of the past, towards aligning our individuals and organizations towards new and emerging visions for the future. To determining a new, and hopefully better way forward.

“What was a core competence in one decade may become a mere capability in another.” -Hamel and Prahalad via Competing for the Future

Leading In A Time Of Complexity And Chaos (Part 2)

Whenever companies tackle complexity, they will ultimately find some individuals who seem less troubled by it than others. This is not surprising. People are different: some freeze like deer in the headlights in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, complex roles, and unclear accountabilities; others are able to get their work done regardless. Companies need to locate the pockets of individual strength and weakness in order to respond intelligently. Although some people can deal with complexity innately, we now know that others can be trained to develop what we call “ambidextrous” capabilities – the ability to tolerate ambiguity and actively manage complexity. Such skills will enable employees to create and use networks within organizations to build relationships and help overcome poor processes, bridge organizational silos, or manage whatever value-creating pockets of complexity their companies decide to maintain.”  -McKinsey & Company via Putting Organizational Complexity in its Place

Organizational learning, capacity-building, and adaptability cannot afford to cease or stall in the midst of the complexity and chaos that accompanies any disruptive change.

Which, unfortunately, is the very thing that often happens.  

Especially as the constant tension and growing sense of complexity and chaos expelled from the current disruptive forces entering the organizational gates will tend to compel most individuals and their organizations to recoil back into the safety and cocoon of the known. To the safety of past practices and processes.

It is as natural an organizational reaction as the fight or flight response that has been deeply imprinted upon our individual DNA throughout the ages. As individuals and organizations find themselves face to face with these often disruptive and turbulent change forces, they can find themselves becoming more enamored with the past, while being equally determined to insulate themselves safely from those forces that are bearing down upon them and their organization.

Even to the point of it serving as an impediment and/or detriment to future effectiveness and relevance.

Today’s leaders, in the face of the current circumstances, must be even more empathetic to the learning gaps and needs of those within and throughout their learning ecosystem, as well as being more aware of how those learning gaps and needs are being attended to and fulfilled. Especially when the current circumstances are less than compatible towards ongoing growth and capacity-building.

Today’s leaders will have to be much more intentional towards the design of their systems and strategies incorporated, amidst the undergirding uncertainty brought on by the current complexity and varying forms of disruptive and adaptive challenges, in order to enable and support any type of sustained individual and organizational learning.

Which will require modern leaders to be much more cognizant of how those within the organization are determining to individually support their own learning and capacity, beyond any formal organizational structures, to adapt towards the disruptive change that is currently being faced. In the midst of growing complexity and chaos wrought on by change, individuals within the organization, when lacking clear objectives and targets, without being supported by an array of strategies and processes, will move beyond formal organizational networks to tapping into their informal networks. Which, while being supportive for individual capacity and adaptation, can add to the growing complexity and chaos inherent within the organization during this time. Which in turn, can take both individuals and the organization off-course.

As ideas and strategies crop up informally and begin to spread, especially during times of disruptive and turbulent change and adaptation, they often fail to scale in any effective manner across the organization. Most often, because leaders and the organization are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge informal networks and innovation that is scaling up within those networks.

When goals and objectives are not clearly communicated, when clarity and design are lacking or haphazard, instead of scale and spread, ideas and strategies that are showing worth, often fail to be vetted at the organizational core and find themselves relegated and siloed into pockets of positive deviance, most often pushed to the edges of the organization. Thereby, slowing opportunities for innovation to emerge, evolve and spread more efficiently and effectively across the organization in response to current conditions, diminishing individual and organizational agility and adaptation.

As leaders design for organizational adaptation in times of disruptive or great change, it will require an acknowledging of not only the organization’s formal networks, but the informal networks that are having deep influence on how individuals and the organization adapt in these VUCA-infused environments.

As MITSMR share in Designing Effective Knowledge Networks, “Knowledge networks are clearly vital to our connected world. Yet our research indicates that we, as leaders, must be thoughtful about how we design and manage them. Though much network behavior is emergent, the way network leaders catalyze action makes a difference.”

When leaders are more aware of how those within the organization are connecting with, accessing and utilizing both formal and informal networks, they will be able to see how that access is leading effecting pockets and patterns of new, novel and emerging innovation in the midst of the current change forces. Leaders can allow those understandings and knowledge to help them guide these pockets towards organizational goals and objectives. It will allow leaders to design structures and processes that effectively utilize that knowledge of what is emerging to determine more efficient and effective methods towards scaling and spreading those strategies and behaviors across the organizational ecosystem.

In effect, allowing the organizational edges and the organizational core to interact in ways that are more fluid, dynamic, and impactful. It is in this interaction between the core and the edges that more agile and adaptive mindsets and thinking are infused across the organization, providing a more positive response to the current disruptive change forces that are being faced.

As McKinsey&Co puts forth, “Executives contemplating a reorganization shouldn’t focus on formal organizational structures so much that they ignore informal communication channels and opinion leaders. By understanding the networks that employees use to get work done, executives leading organizational change efforts can harness, rather than bump up against, the power of invisible but highly influential webs of relationships.”

As the organization becomes more open to adapting their structures and processes to enhance their ability to learn, connect, and build-capacity in the midst disruptive change, complexity and chaos can become much more approachable and manageable. Allowing the organization to infuse and ossify the structures, processes, strategies, and behaviors that can effectively spread and scale the flow of ideas from these formal and informal networks into viable and effective organizational change.

As leaders become more open to recognizing the informal networks that reside alongside the formal networks in organizations, they will be better equipped to support the tension and pull of both networks while attempting to evolve and adapt in response. A recognition that will provide those within the organization a greater understanding of their role within the change. Creating a form of loose and tight within the organizational system and structures that allows individuals to flex and adapt more positively to not only current circumstances, but towards building the capacity and autonomy to meet the demands of the change.

“Executive embarking on a transformation can resemble career commercial air pilots thrust into the cockpit o a fighter jet. They are still flying a plan, but they have been trained to prioritize safety, stability, and efficiency and therefore lack the tools and pattern-recognition experience to respond appropriately to the demands of combat. Yet because they are still behind the controls, they do not recognize the different threats and requirements the new situation presents.”  -McKinsey & Company via Transformation with a Capital T

Leading In A Time Of Complexity And Chaos (Part 1)

“Embracing complexity will not make [our] jobs easier, but it is a recognition of reality, and an idea whose time has come.” -Dr. Richard Straub

If we hadn’t previously understood the turbulent rise in the pace of change in today’s dilemma-induced world, there is probably a very good chance that you have had to come to grips with it in very recent times. As the sirens of automation, artificial intelligence, as well as the rise of the robots and the new world of work captured our attention and narrowed our focus in the disruption it stood ready to wield upon society…the world showed us how complex and chaotic it could and can be.

It also showed us how incredibly flexible, and how fragile and brittle that we as individuals, as well as our organizations, can be towards disruptive change.

Through this disruption we have begin to discover the power and importance of both internal and external networks in moving forward more relevantly in the face of great change. We have ignited a willingness to accelerate individual and organizational capacity towards a goal. We have tapped into wider support systems and evoked greater levels of empathy across our educational ecosystems. We have had to overcome our bias towards change.

And we have struggled…

We have struggled with the ambiguity, uncertainty, and unknowns created by this current challenge. We have struggled with the complexity and chaos that it has created in our personal and professional lives, as well as the lives of those around us. And we have struggled with the gaps it has revealed in our systems.

As we reflect on the urgency of the moment…

We find that in many cases, leaders currently find themselves living at the zero to five hundred foot range as they attend to the urgency of the moment, the urgency of the crisis. However, in those moments when the urgency of the moment subsides, in that reprieve, it will necessitate that leaders intentionally allow themselves time to zoom out. Not zone out, but zoom out and expand their view, moving themselves to more of a ten, twenty, even thirty thousand foot view.

To intentionally breathe in the nuances and complexity of the dilemma, of the crisis that is currently being faced…

All too often, especially in the face of sudden or disruptive change, individuals and organizations have an embedded need, you might say an internal recoil mechanism, that automatically pushes them to return to the comfort of “old ways” of doing and being. It is in the midst of this recoil, that leaders need to recognize the recoil and intentionally support their individuals and organization in adjusting and adapting to this change. Leaders need to intentionally wrangle individuals and the organization away from this internal bias towards returning to the automaticity of status quo ways.

Which will necessitate that leaders have determined proactively how to provide the capacity and space to deal more effectively with this tension that will be felt, this tension between chaos and order, complexity and simplicity, urgency and complacency, between the linear and non-linear, between the predictable and the unknown…between “old” world and “new” world ways of being, doing and working.

Leaders will need to provide the necessary space for individuals and the organization to capture the complexity of the situation, of the crisis. A space and environment to wrestle with this new and evolving tension.  

As it is only in building a deep and overarching understanding of the complexity of the dilemma, of the crisis, as well as the entirety of the system, that we can actually begin to simplify that complexity towards more effective supports and solutions in moving forward more effectively.

It is in this space and environment, that individuals and the organization determine how to begin to become more adaptable, to realize where capacity has been created and where it will need to be built up, to sense how to respond in a more agile manner, and to truly understand if we are asking the questions that will drive us towards the root cause of the dilemma being faced in order that the changes initiated will allow for a more coherent and systematic sense of improvement, for individuals as well as the organization.

Leading in today’s dilemma-filled world requires the ability to see the entirety of the system, to then recognize and embrace the complexity of that system, while finding ways, often new and novel, to continuously improve that system, while simultaneously helping those you lead and the organization as a whole gain access to that same view.

While this does not take us entirely to where we need to be, it is a beginning. A place to begin the conversation at a deeper level. A beginning to becoming more acclimated to a world where leaders don’t have all the answers, but learn to engage in deeper and better questions. A beginning to leaders learning to become much more comfortable with the complexity and chaos that inundates our organizations, both internally and externally.

A beginning to a journey…

“Complexity deals with a world far from equilibrium and is creative and evolving in ways we cannot hope to predict. It points to fundamental limits to our ability to understand, control, and manage the world, and the need for us to accept unpredictability and change” -via Alex Trosiglio