Making Sense of Sense-Making

What does restructuring an organisation, undergoing a merger and acquisition, managing a crisis and leadership communication all have in common? These are examples of situations that require the skills of sense-making. Sense making is a process of gathering and interpreting information, events, and behaviours in organisation. It is a critical skill that requires an ability to use both existing and harnessing new information. Sense-making in organisations ensures that employees and the organisation can better understand what is happening so they can perform and thrive.


Here is a case study example: A healthcare organisation has multiple offices across Australia, a couple in Asia and in Europe. They have a large and diverse employee group, and service a global-scale customer population. As an organisation, their goal is to innovate healthcare and provide stellar products. The leadership is faced with numerous challenges, particularly considering the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges include supply chain disruptions, increasing product costs, regulatory changes in each country, employee absenteeism, as well as delayed pipeline of new products in the research stages.

For executive leadership to strategically plan for future outcomes all these possibilities must be considered. Experts specialising in each area of the business will assess data, information, patterns, and predict trends to forecast strategies and solutions. At the same time, employees communicating with customers and offering feedback from the bottom up -which sometimes compliments or conflicts with the leadership’s top-down plans.


There needs to be synergy between the different levels of the organisation. From the executive team to the leaders, managers, and employees. Also, the external factors acting outside the organisation influencing these interactions and how decisions can and will be made. This starts off the dynamic process of sense-making.


What is Sense-Making?

Sense-making or decoding information in organisations requires recognising the multiple people or parts involved in each situation and understanding the dynamics of the whole organisation. This includes looking for patterns of communication, evaluating current performance, and the many relationships and resources in the system that influence how the system does or could respond.
Remembering that organisations are responsive to all the internal and external relationships; patterns, and behaviours within the organisation-they are constantly changing. Therefore, how to analyse or make sense of what is known, considering what is also still unknown, and making decisions amidst all the uncertainty is challenging, if not overwhelming.


So Where To Begin?

The concept of sense-making is a relatively new idea. It was formalised in the mid-1990s, when one of the initial sense-making frameworks, looked at how signals or communications from the environment are perceived very differently between people. This is because the cause-and-effects of signals or communications are perceived differently by each person. How they understand and make sense of the many parts and people involved in their environment will be different. It is our own personal lens of the world. However, this becomes a little more complicated when you are a leader or manager and are required to lead and guide the sense-making process for teams, departments, or entire organisations to reach unified goals.

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework is a popular model for sense-making in organisations. It firstly looks at the identifying the different system types such as simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic systems-and how to make sense of information in each system type. It then suggests a process for defining the problem type. By applying an approach unique to the system type, leaders are better equipped for the depth and breadth of action, expertise, and collaboration that sense-making requires. This framework also looks at communication in each system state, how best information can be disclosed, and managing ongoing feedback.


Applying Sense-Making Locally

Sense-making is a process. Even though it is firmly seated alongside uncertainty and tackling the unknown in organisations-it has a structure and method to apply which offers great comfort when dealing with complexity and problem solving. Frequently, situations arise that are chaotic and sparse information is available but swift action is required to limit damages. This is where knowledge of sense-making is a essential tool for thriving in today’s complex workplaces.


Kylie de Klerk
Complex Systems & Leadership

Kylie’s focus areas are complex systems and dynamic organisational structures, ambiguity, adaptive leadership and leadership communication. Applying a holistic, whole-systems approach to thinking, sense making, and adaptive leadership, Kylie’s offerings are comprehensive, and insights grounded in current research. This makes her consulting both relevant and effective. If you would like to read more about Kylie and her workshops on Essemy click this link.