Teams who "sensemake" together, succeed together
WHAT IS “SENSEMAKING”?
Have you ever been in a meeting and realized you are a bit confused about a few things but in order not to delay the agenda or drag out the meeting, made a mental note to follow up with a colleague to improve your understanding later? Maybe you and your trusted colleague went into a private space after the meeting where s/he drew and explained the topic in question, you didn’t hold back any of your questions in that comfortable space, and you both left feeling inspired and with a renewed sense of clarity.
Moments such as this are an example of shared sensemaking. “Sensemaking is the process of structuring the unknown by placing stimuli into some kind of framework that enables us to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute, extrapolate, and predict. [It] enables us to turn the ongoing complexity of the world into a situation that is comprehended explicitly and in words that serves as a springboard into action” (Ancona 2012). All of us are sensemakers. We continuously take in millions of stimuli per second, filter them (often unconsciously) to be able to focus on the most relevant pieces, structure them in our own personal ways, and use them to make sense of the world and shape our decisions and actions. But all of us make sense differently. And it is only through taking moments to share our sensemaking with others and find out about theirs that we improve our perspectives and optimize our decision and action potential.
WHY DO WE NEED TO PRACTICE SENSEMAKING ON OUR TEAM?
Sensemaking is nothing new. In fact, it is one of the top 4 capabilities taught at the MIT Sloan School of Management. But it is not a skill that should be reserved for leaders to invest in developing. It is a vital skill for all key project team members working in complex transformative environments to learn about and practice. There are two characteristics of complex transformation projects that make them specifically in need of purposeful sensemaking:
1) Integration induced cause or effect blind spots:
Transformation projects involve system enabled step changes to a business which touch multiple functions and stakeholder interests. The systems implemented or enhanced through these projects rely on a high level of integration points and shared data which result in users not always knowing the extent of the impact of their actions or the upstream causes of the inputs to their actions. Due to this complexity, problems can be very difficult to unravel once the final product is released because problems will primarily be seen from the limited viewpoint of the user. “Sensemaking” in the development phase can not only help the various stakeholders contribute more holistically to the requirements by understanding the cross functional implications of their preferences, it can also help system developers make better recommendations to develop a more foolproof user experience.
2) The “Earned Dogmatism Effect”:
Highly complex transformation projects are staffed by many experts and rightfully so. But “according to the Earned Dogmatism Hypothesis, social norms dictate that experts are entitled to adopt a relatively dogmatic, close-minded orientation. As a consequence, situations that engender self perceptions of high expertise elicit a more close minded cognitive style” (Ottati, Price, Wilson, Sumaktoyo 2015). Complex projects require certain levels of expertise that are best brought in from the outside, but it is vital to recognize that transformative environments demand an increase in open-mindedness which is contrary to how experts are generally expected to behave. As we examine in a previous blog, projects with a high degree of complexity also bring with them a high degree of uncertainty and things that even experts cannot know. When working in such an uncertain environment, it is critical to foster an attitude of curiosity and feel comfortable expressing doubt to avoid the negative consequences of assumed certainty. This is exactly why sensemaking is so vital to these situations. Project teams need to encourage even their most elite consultants to ask questions and be open when they do not know something; likewise, internal project members need to engage in the complex discussions with the experts and ensure that there is enough joint sensemaking to drive the right decisions and actions. Of course, all project members cannot get into all details, but it is important to develop a sense for which topics need further dedicated sensemaking.
HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN SENSEMAKING IS NEEDED?
1) Misaligned realities: If you notice that meeting participants seem to be having different conversations even though they are meant to be speaking about the same thing, it is a warning sign that something important needs to be clarified. This does not mean that people need to be in agreement about a matter or have the same viewpoint. It means that it needs to be clear that they are speaking about the same or a similar reality. Discussions in this space can get very technical and sometimes be hard to follow, which is when many business professionals lean back and decide to “let the experts handle it” in the name of efficiency. However, these critical times are exactly when project members who consider themselves less technical need to lean into the discussion and take the time to practice shared sensemaking.
2) The “whack-a-mole” topic: This is the topic that keeps coming up during every meeting you attend for one reason or another. This is the perfect candidate for a meeting to be scheduled inviting the various people from the scattered meetings to come together for the purpose of sharing their sensemaking. It can sometimes be comical how soon you will see that people are experiencing completely different realities about the same topic.
3) The elephant in the room: This one is obvious because the expression itself implies that it is obvious. But it also exists because people still do not want to talk about it. Of course, these topics, though the most obvious, are the most critical to be addressed by the leadership. Is the project strategy completely wrong? Are politics preventing any progress? Is the scope not clear or overambitious? Having a mobilized project team staffed with expensive externals trying to implement a transformation strategy that is misaligned at the top is like an unhappy married couple trying to repair their dysfunctional relationship by having triplets.
HOW DO YOU WE PRACTICE SENSEMAKING?
Sensemaking is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. It involves listening to truly understand others, sharing private sensemaking, and structuring information in a way that leads to clear mental models that can be easily discussed. Some basic pointers to get started practicing sensemaking are as follows:
Pull the relevant team members together and frame a discussion around purposefully sensemaking together about a topic. Review your premises, purposes, and assumptions about dependencies. Ask others to share their take on the same things - even the ones who are not aggresively trying to get their point across. Openly express your doubts and listen to the doubts of others. And don’t be shy about talking about the basics for fear of coming across as “stupid”. Most of the time smart people are misaligned on complexities because they took a different turn at a very basic part. Find the fork in the road together without assuming that viewpoints that are not the same as yours are wrong. Take the opportuity to learn and come to new, clarified conclusions together. Once you feel aligned, if relevant, you can continue framing the relevant decisions or actions that are currently in scope for your project.
There is tremendous value to be gained by nurturing a team culture where expressions of doubt are welcomed, and openly sharing one’s own sensemaking of something is an expected practice. This might sound like a “nice to have” to improve team spirit, but the impact of fostering shared sensemaking goes much deeper than relationship improvement. Team sensemaking ensures the team share the same purpose and goals and increases the likelihood that conclusions made in all of the informal meetings, point in the same direction. Having a unified team moving toward a shared goal with aligned decisions and similarly motivated actions is the recipe for driving a successful transformation project.
Ancona, D. 2012. Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Uknown. MIT Sloan School of Management. https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/42924_1.pdf
Ottati, V; Price, E; Wilson, C; Sumaktoyo, N. 2015. When self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition: The earned dogmatism effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.