By Linda Fisher Thornton

“The pace of change in our world is increasing exponentially, but sensemaking – a necessary tool to navigate these turbulent waters – is unseen, undervalued and underdeveloped.”

Deborah Ancona, Michele Williams, and Gisela Gerlach, The Overlooked Key to Leading Through Chaos, MIT Sloan Review

Richard J. Cordes writes in Making sense of sensemaking: What it is and what it means for pandemic research (Atlantic Council), that “Sensemaking is our brain’s response to novel or potentially unexpected stimuli as it integrates new information into an ever-updating model of the world.” While the research on Sensemaking is deep and complex, there are some practical questions leaders who are trying to make good decisions and help others make sense of a torrent of information can use to begin to identify and map out meaning.

Sensemaking Together

“‘Structuring the unknown’ is also a social issue: as people’s projects and actions are interdependent, they have to make sense together so they can
be successfully defined and pursued.”

Florence Allard-Poesi. The Paradox of Sensemaking in Organizational Analysis. Organization, SAGE Publications, 2005, 12 (2), pp.169-196. ff10.1177/1350508405051187ff. ffhal-01251211f

Leaders who make sensemaking a priority will not only make better decisions themselves, they’ll also help employees make better decisions. People don’t just need leaders to share relevant data, they need them to share observations and insights about what data means and why the meaning is important. They need leaders to make sense out of information, including helping them answer questions like these:

Questions For Moving From Data to Meaning

Adapt these questions and add your own to create your own framework for interpreting information together and determining what it means for the project, the team, and the organization.

  • What do we see when we look at this situation from different perspectives or through different lenses?
  • What patterns and themes do we see across sources?
  • How does it relate to/integrate with other information?
  • What are our constituents saying about it?
  • How can we interpret this information?
  • Why should we use this information?
  • How does it enhance our understanding of our successful future?
  • What questions does it raise?
  • What does it mean for us?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What does it change?
  • What anecdotes and stories will help us share this with others?

More Resources:

Sensemaking: Framing and Acting In the Unknown, by Deborah Ancona, MIT, Sage

Structuring For Sensemaking: The Power of Small Segments, Cyndi Suarez, Non Profit Quarterly

Sensemaking 101: Tips For Improving Your Sensemaking in a Time of Confusion, Phoebe Tickell, Medium

The Cynefin Framework: Making Sense in Complexity, Jennifer Garvey Berger (Video), Defense Information School (DINFOS)

The 5 Fundamentals of Sensemaking in an Ever-Changing World, Ranjit Sidhu, Changequest

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  1. Thank you for sharing your insights on sensemaking and sensegiving, Julie. It takes just a few moments to have regular sensemaking conversations, but it saves time and frustration when leaders guide teams in making sense of complex information and events. As you point out, when senior leaders model this with middle managers, they can then carry it through to support the teams they lead, starting a positive ripple effect throughout the organization.


  2. Love this, Linda!

    My doctoral research includes sensemaking as a critical leadership competency for middle managers, especially during strategic change. Of particular importance are building peer networks for middle leaders to leverage during the sensemaking process. Also, senior leaders who engage in sensemaking with middle leaders will enable those middle leaders to engage in more sense-giving to their own teams, which researchers suggest facilitates more effective results during change.

    So the question for the “real world” is: What are some practical ways we might better support middle leaders to engage in sensemaking?


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