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Sensemaking: 7 questions to help you become a better decision-maker

Sensemaking: 7 questions to help you become a better decision-maker. make better decisions, starting today! This blog is about identity and how you can become a better leader or manager by knowing more about yourself and the world around you.

sensemaking AND decision-making

What brought you to be a leader or manager?

Did you train to become a leader or manager? We're guessing that you didn't. You are probably someone that was elevated to a leadership or management position because you performed well in a functional role. Then, hey-presto here you are, a decision-maker with responsibility for managing or leading a team, department or division.

Whether you know it or not, your world runs on varying degrees of complexity. Every interaction in your world is driven by competition or collaboration, requiring you to make sense of:

  • how your values and beliefs align with others

  • where you find common agreement on standards of behaviour

  • what brings you to share purpose or meaning

  • where you have shared ideals on what achievement looks like

Your ability to make the best decision at the right time is determined by your ability to make sense of all of the above, quickly.


Have you heard of sensemaking?

As a leader or manager, if you are going to make better decisions, you need to make better sense of yourself, your passions and your place in the world (belonging). In other words, you need to engage in sensemaking.

Sensemaking is your ability to translate the complexity of your world into:

“(a) situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409)

The essence of sensemaking is grounded in a desire to create sophisticated simplicity. Sophisticated simplicity occurs when you act to bring meaning to your world by labelling and identify plausible patterns in the information you receive. In other words, at a base level, you interpret the information presented to you, which enables you to make a decision.

The nature of complexity and whether it is possible to simplify the complex is admittedly debatable from the scientific perspective. However, from a human standpoint, it makes seems to make sense to want to take the complex and distil it down into manageable bite-sized chunks.

To create those manageable bite-sized chunks, and to make better decisions, you need to make better sense of your world. That need for awareness brings us to Karl Weick's powerful sensemaking framework.


Seven questions to change your life (adapted from Karl Weick, Sensemaking in organisations)

1. How can you know who you are until you see what you do?

What are your passions? To understand the way you make decisions, you first need to understand your own identity.

For example, have you reflected on the passions that fuel the way you make decisions? To better understand your identity, you have to reflect on how you think, not feel, others see you.

To know how others see you, you need information, which means engaging with the people around you (e.g. 360 feedback). Quite an undertaking, but how can you know who you are until you see what you do?

Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the “slave of the passions” (Hume)

According to Hume, intentional actions are the immediate product of passions, in particular the direct passions, including the instincts. He does not appear to allow that any other sort of mental state could, on its own, give rise to an intentional action except by producing a passion...The motivating passions, in their turn, are produced in the mind by specific causes (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

2. How reliable is your analysis?

How do you identify patterns in your world? There is only one way, and it means looking backwards because you naturally seek to make sense of what has happened to you by reviewing your experiences.

In other words, to learn more about yourself and the world around you, you retrospectively analyse your experiences. You seek answers, and when an answer lies beyond the limits of your comprehension (your knowledge, skills and experiences or those of a wider community or society), you fill the void through a human version of fuzzy logic. The fuzzier the information available to you, the more difficult it becomes for you to see patterns, which makes it difficult for you to make sense of what has happened. For some people, highly fuzzy environments lead to wild speculation and conspiracy theories.

risk AND sense making AND complexity

To better understand patterns, and, more importantly, reduce the risk of highly fuzzy logic, you could use a framework to support your reasoning.

We recommend Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework (see the video below for details on simple, complicated and complex environments), aligned against the International Risk Governance Council's Risk Governance Framework (see the image above for information on risk reduction measure through stakeholder engagement - basically, the extent of engagement according to whether you are in a simple, complicated or complex domain).

3. How aware are you of what others feel?

When looking back on any event, you need to think more about yourself and the context you create for others. What you feel is governed by your senses, where your actions (e.g. the way your passions betray you in defending your reasoning in a team meeting) set the context for the feedback you receive and your subsequent analysis of what happened during a given moment in time.

When you think of the consequence of individual action in a social setting, it will help you to consider your perspective on emotional and social intelligence.

4. When was the last time you questioned your basic assumptions?

Your view of social norms has been heavily influenced by language and meaning attached to your socialisation within the family, schools and society within which you were raised. These past influences, whether you currently accept or reject them, are shaping the ongoing creation of what you believe to be acceptable norms for you and your teams. The act of sensemaking means that we test our interpretations of the world against other views to refine our understanding. We then concretise our views or brings us to abandon them in favour of more persuasive views.

Argyris & Schol Double Loop Learning

When was the last time you questioned your founding assumptions?

For many, founding assumptions are unquestioned truths. Consider the last time that you failed to get buy-in for a decision with your team. You might have experimented with single loop learning, where your retrospective analysis brought you to alter your actions based on team feedback - a single loop change only brings you to change your applied strategy, where your founding beliefs remain as a constant. In a double loop learning environment, your review would bring you to question whether your applied strategy failed to land because your founding beliefs are at odds with the norms of your team.

5. What impact will today have on tomorrow?

Your world is fast-paced and dynamic, and you need to consider your ability to adapt, to be an agile learner seeking continuous improvement.

Perturbation: A deviation of a system, moving object, or process from its regular or normal state or path, caused by an outside influence.

For example, do you have a fixed approach to work where you expend energy on maintaining existing norms, with tightly defined roles, or do you put your energy into being agile, with broadly defines roles, and the ability to flex according to need? Are you task-centred and detached or people-centred and empathetic? Do you see mistakes as something to be avoided or an opportunity to learn?

To make sense of your identity and the way you approach learning, you might want to consider Carol Dweck's concept of the growth mindset (see the video).

6. How can you know what you think until you see what you say?

What you say, whether verbally or in writing, betrays your passions and acts to reinforce what you think. Returning to the concept of double-loop learning, who was the last time you reflected on your communications to truly see what you say?

For example, have you considered how what you think is being received, interpreted or translated by others? More importantly, how can you know the extent of your influence until you see the actions of others?

7. When faced with multiple paths, how do you decide which one to take?

Given that most of your work as a manager or leader takes place in a complex environment when is enough information enough? You have to move beyond accuracy and completeness because you will not know all the variables that influence your decision.

Instead, you are better to consider plausibility and sufficiency. Do you have enough credible information to justify your beliefs and, therefore, for your decision to seem plausible? Yes, proceed. No, gather more information.

When presented with multiple options, which one should you take?

The answer, apply Occam's Razor!

Occam’s Razor (or Ockham’s Razor, also known as the Principle of Parsimony) is the idea that more straightforward explanations are, in general, better. That is, if you have two possible theories that fit all available evidence, the best theory is the one with fewer moving parts. It’s important to emphasize the part about fitting all available evidence. Sometimes, the simplest explanation is very wrong because it fails to account for the evidence! In this case, Occam’s Razor does not apply. But if the explanations are both in agreement with the evidence, then Occam’s Razor tips the scale in favor of the simpler explanation.

Sensemaking starts with you understanding yourself, your identity, and how you find meaning, belonging and achievement in the world.

If you want to know more about how to improve your decision-making through sensemaking, join us for a Good Walk, a Good Workshop or drop us a line to learn about our bespoke coaching programme.


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