• Sarah Freiesleben

The Sensemaking Edge

This blog was co-authored with Martin Roth (Transformation Squared)

As we have touched upon in our previous blog, we consider transformation projects to be ones which involve implementing an innovative strategy through integrated systems and process designs. These projects present an increased level of complexity compared to traditional projects, as “the whole rationale for the project, the demands for innovation, the supporting infrastructure, and the long term service component, are driven by the client’s business strategy and objectives for a new enhanced service to its own customers”, as described in Making Projects Critical by Hodgson & Cicmil. The authors conclude that “the traditional view of project management, [as] a…process of planning, monitoring, controlling and coordinating…activities…does not equip a project manager to cope with projects displaying [this] additional complexity in terms of technologies or organizational networks and increased levels of uncertainty.”

In order to manage the increased levels of uncertainty found in projects with high complexity, project teams need to leverage traditional project management frameworks to manage the unknowns and purposefully practice Sensemaking within their project processes.

Sensemaking is considered one of the top 4 leadership skills by the MIT Sloan School of management, where they define it as, “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.”

But this skill is not only important for senior leaders. Highly complex projects need most members of the team to practice it, even if their key capabilities lie elsewhere. Not practicing it, can lead to wrong decisions being made either due to limited or filtered data inputs or failure to properly manage consequence tradeoff choices.

Consider the following, a global fast moving goods retailer is implementing a new system to give their customers a better experience at the check out. The senior leaders have agreed upon a go live date and all communications have been built around that date. As the go live approaches, there are key performance issues with the system which cannot be resolved. The project team fears missing the deadline, so they go live with the issues to avoid the fallout of missing the release. But who actually took the decision that it is more critical to go live on time than with a system that works well? And were the consequences outlined so the decision could be made on facts?

This is a real story and the day the system was implemented, the stores were packed with customers when the system sporadically froze. Some customers abandoned their shopping baskets and left frustrated, perhaps never to return. In other cases transactions were made but the turnover was not captured nor was the inventory updated. The customers were not even aware a new system was coming, so they would have clearly preferred to be able to buy their goods. Were their viewpoints considered when making the decision? Were the implications for the supply chain and finance organization worth the tradeoff of going live on time? If structured sensemaking had been used by the project team, the decision would have been taken based on consequence modelling and this unfortunate result could have been mitigated.

This example may seem like an obvious oversight, but when people are working in complex environments, it is almost impossible to focus on all relevant viewpoints and data points that impact the success. Very often, project members lose touch with other relevant viewpoints when moving towards a target or goal. With purposeful sensemaking, the decision model becomes the framework for structuring the unknown. Data and viewpoints are captured as input, taking care to objectively monitor filtering, even if it is uncomfortable. Information is structured based on relevance and condensed into digestible concepts which are used to analyse potential consequences and make key decisions.

In conclusion, high quality project management practices alone are not a sufficient success factor for projects with a high degree of complexity. The uncertainty of managing “unknown unknowns” leads to suboptimal decisions, which can in turn, lead to the wrong actions or paralysis. Purposefully practicing “Sensemaking” on your project can give your project team the edge to achieve project success.

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