Sensemaking Through Uncertainty

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“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

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