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  • Writer's pictureMatt Arnold

Sensemaking: A Critical Leadership Capability

Is your organization struggling with complexity? Is your team displaying erratic behavior? Are previously successful practices seeming to be fail you? Sensemaking might help.

In Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, Deborah Ancona, MIT - Sloan School of Management, synthesized Karl Weick's work on sensemaking and highlights why it is a critical capability for leaders. Sensemaking refers to how we "structure the unknown as as to be able to act in it" and is one of the four capabilities taught in MIT - Sloan's leadership program.

Sensemaking is what helps us translate the unknown, chaotic, and complex into something that can be understood, explained, and drive shared action. Sensemaking is needed most when we are facing "adaptive challenges." Adaptive challenges occur when our environment is presenting us with surprises and "require a response outside our existing repertoire" (Ancona 2012). Or, paraphrasing Scott Hutcheson (Purdue Agile Strategy Lab), complex, adaptive systems do not respond to best practices.

When needing to act within a complex adaptive system teams and networks need to:

  1. Explore a wider system

  2. Create a map of that system

  3. Act in the system, to learn from it

"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 the situation." - Deborah Ancona

So, What Gets in the Way?

Ancona summarizes the things that stand in the way of sensemaking are rigidity and leader dependence. Rigidity and leader dependence are typical of command and control environments and allowed for success when a problem and solution were known. This Theory X form of leadership helps when efficiency is the primary goal. For the past 150 years, that worked most of the time. But what happens when we try to address adaptive challenges with solutions and best practices from the past? It's not good. Frustration and erratic behavior soon take over, as the tools that were once successful begin to fail us.

With growing complexity and uncertainty, we need flatter organizations, loose networks, better teams, and higher social emotional intelligence to address large scale challenges. This will allow us to learn and improve as we act within the system.

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