The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you. – Neil deGrasse Tyson
I wanted to understand sensemaking as a concept and came across the work of Karl Weick, an American organizational theorist who started by talking about meaning and then moved onto sense-making (with a hyphen) before finally settling on sensemaking as a way to understand what happens in organizations.
A 2020 paper by Mary Ann Glynn and Lee Watkiss titled Of Organizing and Sensemaking: From Action to Meaning and Back Again in a Half-Century of Weick’s Theorizing introduced me to some of his ideas.
Let’s start with what we think happens in organizations and what actually happens in organizations. We’d like to think that people have a plan – they come together and set goals and then figure out what needs to be done and then execute and it’s all good.
That’s what they’d like you to think.
The reality is that in most organizations there is something else going on. It starts with people doing things – taking action – and then explaining what they’ve done to themselves and others.
Take how governments have dealt with the pandemic as an example. Do you think they had a plan and executed it or do you think they took action based on what they believed was the right thing to do and then looked back on what they did and talked about it as if it was the plan they had all along?
Take this collection of quotes from Dominic Cummings, which includes the following one: “It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan, it’s true that I helped to try to create what an official plan was. I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.”
In Weick’s work over a half century he starts with an idea that action leads to meaning and ends up with the idea that the two are interdependent – they both matter for sensemaking, which is how organizing is done.
There are a few terms there that are worth noting. If you and I work together, we engage in organizing. We do that because it makes sense to us. It makes sense because we can look at the actions we have taken and if they were good ones or bad ones – we can ascribe meaning to them, interpreting what’s going on.
The way in which we do all this is through communication. Communication is how we share what we think and what we understand and how we see things. And it’s a continuous, iterative activity that goes on for as long as we’re engaged in any kind of organizing activity.
Why is it useful to consider these things?
Well, for a start, things just seem to happen one after another. The financial crisis, Brexit, Trump, nationalism, Covid. There’s always something new that comes along and which needs to be made sense of.
It’s easy to say that the wrong decisions were made once something goes wrong but there are also lots of wrong decisions that we don’t know about because nothing has happened yet.
But perhaps if we become more aware that we have a tendency to act and then justify what we did even if it turned out wrong then we might try and think a little harder before we made big decisions.
Or, of course, you could not bother and simply run for Prime Minister or President.
And you’d probably win.
That’s what history seems to be teaching us anyway.