Sensemaking in organizations Pt. 3

Thresholds for action

In complex environments organizations are required to lower their thresholds for action. Organizations cannot afford to maintain complicated decision paths up, down and across roles and reporting levels. Better choices emerge from finer grained sensing close to the action, than from coarse-grained abstraction, analysis and generalized reasoning at higher, more remote levels. Therefore, organizations must learn to refactor decision paths from down-hierarchies to up-hierarchies where decision choices are reported upwards as actions taken, rather than downwards as instructions to be followed. The up-hierarchy I am describing here rarely follows conventional managerial and supervisory hierarchies. Rather it describes the up-flow of sensemaking processes from proximate (near the action) to distal (further away from the action) locations in the organization.

Terminology like up-hierarchyproximate, and distal can help organizations refactor their information flows, fine-tune their decision paths and lower action thresholds. These address items # 2 and 3 in our sensemaking list. Smart, agile organizations, will complete the list by redesigning their organizations so that roles and responsibilities are organized around these kinds of sensemaking up-hierarchies. Good companies already respond to this need, except the change it requires of them comes at a high cost. People accustomed to fixed power roles and static managerial relationships tend to see these as guarantees against change, and therefore, experience changes to them through the lenses of betrayal and broken promises. That organizationsdo execute these changes despite the high costs to morale, trust and employee engagement, means that leaders are already sensing the changing contexts and hidden forces that are driving the need to lower their thresholds for action.

Research shows that teams will organize themselves in different ways in response to how different types of complexity strains their sensemaking capacities. In order to increase their sensemaking potential, teams will reorganize their relationships in recognizable ways. We can think of these as emergent patterns of collective sensemaking. Sensemaking technologies can help teams visualize these patterns, enabling members to identify shifting contexts very early on. The subtle sensing and shifting can be visualized at the collective level, well before individuals can explicitly articulate what they are sensing. If designed well enough, sensemaking technologies may in fact have the potential to visualize subconscious processes that are more refined sensorsthan the generalized intellect which operates at the level of speech and is vulnerable to public scrutiny.

Over time, teams learn how to best interpret the shifting patterns of their collective sensemaking, and gain confidence in a range of actions that will carry their work forward, eventually identifying key signals and optimum decision-paths. Supported by “early detection technologies” sensemaking in this way lowers the thresholds for action at the base of the up-hierarchy. What that means for sensemaking further up into larger and larger strategic wholes, is the subject of another story.

Sensemaking in organizations Pt. 2

The second wave of sensemaking

The 70’s and 80’s were times of competing ideas on organizational structure and group behavior. These were the intellectual grounds that produced open systems experimentation and a variety of hybrid structures. Organizational models moved away from the notion of an isolated organism, and metaphors based on the ideas of the new science of ecology, came to predominate. Yet the ideals put forth by open systems and ecological thinking were handicapped in practice, not because the models were faulty, but because information technology was inadequate to support the kinds of information flows that the models told them were necessary. Only until the mid 90’s was it possible to explore these models in actual practice — but the scene had already been set a decade before. Not surprisingly, then, organizations evolved at an unprecedented pace.

Open systems

The central insight emerging from open systems thinking is that all organizations are incomplete and depend on exchanges with other systems.The notion of “environment as threat” was replaced by the realization that environmental features are conditions for their survival. Open systems are characterized by 1) interdependent flows and 2) interdependent activities, performed by 3) shifting coalition of participants by way of 4) linking actors, resources and institutions, in order to 5) solve problems in 6) complex environments.

To make sense in open systems, the new information technologies were adopted to update the way information propagated through the system. But the two other sensemaking requirements also needed to change, namely, the ways people organize to sense and make sense together, and their thresholds for action.

Sure, organizations were quick to adopt ready-made information technologies that satisfied a decade-long demand, but they remain slow to examine their own structures and policies. On the structural front, sensemaking is thwarted by hierarchical systems, fixed power roles, functional silos, and vertically integrated companies. On the action side, change is stifled by centralized administration, bureaucratic inertia, policy-driven decision making, and an obstinate aversion to risk.

Agile as a social experiment

As soon as hackers could assemble comparable computing power in their own homes, or garages, a social experiment was underway. Was is possible for a small group of purpose-driven people to compete with companies whose employees had comparable skills, but whose financial coffers contained much larger resources? Of course, we now know that not only could the hackers compete — they completely out-performed the establishment.

The biggest take-away from this experiment was radical, and is often overlooked: As complexity of a task rises above a certain threshold, we will need to deconstruct the complexity in the organization in order to tackle it. Think of this as taming the problem situation.

As complexity of the task rises above a certain threshold, we need to deconstruct the complexity in the organizationin order to tackle it. Think of this as taming the problem situation.

The Mathematics of Sensemaking

Just as good engineering secured the success of early manufacturing companies, and sophisticated systems design guaranteed survival for the natural system organization, sensemaking becomes a primary directive for the open organization. But sensemaking is very different from engineering and systems design. Let’s use a mathematical formulation to illustrate just how different.

At the level of rational systems, things get complicated and require better engineering. We can think of engineering as additive. As the assembly line or service route becomes more complicated, we need to add roles, tasks, quality control stations, safety precautions, and other kinds of redundancies. At the level of natural systems, things become more interdependent and complex, requiring more complex systems design. We can think of systems design as multiplicative (or even exponential), because it deals with amplifying forces.

When it comes to open systems, however, we need to work in reverse direction. We need to subtract from the existing complicated path dependencies, and divide out the interdependencies that make systems complex. We need to deconstruct the old assumptions and figure our way into a new way of thinking. Here, sensemaking begins from a fresh starting position where people can reason from first principles and find simple, but powerful protocols for action.

Sensemaking in organizations Pt. 1

Closed organizational types

Richard Scott and his teams of researchers studied organizations for over 40 years. They developed a way to describe the evolutionary changes that occurred as organizations faced ongoing pressures to adapt to increasingly complex environments. Scott identified two types of closed organizations: the rational(closed) and the natural(closed).

The rational organization

Rational organizations, as Scott describes them are 1) deliberately constructed around 2) the coordination of tasks, performed by 3) the cooperation of people, under 4) specified guidelines and formal arrangements, in order to 5) achieve specified goals. It is easy to see that this type of organizational structure best suits industries such as assembly line manufacturing, where people are tightly coupled to tasks specified by predesigned workflow processes.

The “machine” is the appropriate metaphor for the rational(closed) organization. It sees people as an extension of the machine. It sees the environment as a resource for raw materials and relies on fairly straight-forward engineering to achieve success. Good engineering guarantees a greater market share — the purpose for which the rational(closed) organization exists. In the context of organizational development, the rational(closed) organization is “engineered to control action.”

The natural organization

In recent years, the core operations of this type of organization have been fully automated and embedded in a new kind of organization — what Scott called the natural(closed) organization. This organization is now centered on 1) collectivities of people who 2) pursue multiple interests, 3) operate under informal relations, and are 4) guided by generalized values, in order to 5) perpetuate the organization. In this organization we see for the first time, emphasis on people and their skills (1); a diverse and oftentimes evolving portfolio of interests, such as manufacturing, franchising, servicing and financing in the automotive industry (2); a shift toward human resource development and career relationships (3); and an emphasis on organizational values as the basis for stability (4).

People, not the environment, are seen as the main resource of this new type of organization. The natural organization derives its sense of inherent value from the sustained corporate culture and ideology, loyalty from employees based on career development inside the organization, and loyalty from customers based on brand identity. The appropriate metaphor here is organization asorganism, and as an organism, it has a strong interior-exterior boundary, i.e. it is closed by Scott’s definition. Just like an organism, this organization is designed to grow, learn, develop. As a consequence of its ideology of survival, the environment begins to be seen as a threat against which the organism must adapt to survive. This introduces the problem of continuously increasing complexity. In this case, good engineering is not enough — sophisticated cybernetic and complex dynamic systems thinking are required to insert system-wide control measure to stabilize the organization. This is the domain of The Fifth Discipline — a notion described by Peter Senge and the title of his seminal book. Senge introduces the necessity of perpetual learning, systems thinking, and shared vision into the literature on organizational science. He refers to systems archetypes, ecosystems, and nature’s templates as patterns that can control events. He talks about planning as a balancing process that is meant to “achieve homeostasis” in order to maintain condition for survival in complex environments.
 The natural(closed) organization signified a radical shift in organizational ideology. In one sense it came with a breath of fresh air. No longer were people seen as mere appendages to the machines. Quite the contrary — it wasbecause people and only people could learn that made them even more valuable than machines. Corporations began to invest heavily in their education, training and career development. Human resources were redesigned to support and facilitate learning, which required them to take care of the well-being of their employees. These were all positive and meaningful consequences of thinking of the organization in a new light. Still, these natural organizations, like the rational organizations that preceded them, remain closed in several key ways:

1. There is a strong sense of boundary between the organization and the society “at large”

2. It is expensive to maintain that boundary

3. Society becomes seen as a threat to the internal organization

4. The organization adopts policies designed to defend itself against the society it otherwise exists to serve

5. Corporate benefits are monopolized

6. Corporate costs are externalized

7. Behaviors that are seen as unethical “outside” the organization are sanction on the “inside”

8. The organization ‘supervenes’ on the individual and group level

9. The organization strives to maintain strong power asymmetry between itself and social actors (clients, customers, citizens)

10. The organization relies on artificial scarcity of information (intellectual property)

New theories of management and leadership evolved alongside the natural(closed) organization. Managers became increasingly interested in thinking about the organization in terms of complex dynamic systems. They appropriated systems thinking around production and distribution chains, resource flows and markets into the domain of social interaction.Management theories modelled human groups as if they were complex systems, with specifiable boundaries and complex internal relations.Eventually managers took these models literally, and came to think of human groups as systems that could be controlled from the outside, and steered into preferred directions. In other words, when seen as members of a team from the “inside,” people were understood to be free agents who exercised choice in their actions; but from the perspective of the mind of the manager, who considered himself in a privileged position on the “outside,” these same people were seen as de-animated parts of a system that could be manipulated and controlled from the outside. People were self-determined at one level, and simultaneously determined by the system at the level of the “whole.” People came to understand their personal agency in whole-part terms, like the difference between the agency of the cell’s in one’s body, and the agency that the body exercises as the person. Except in this case, the organization represented the whole-body and the individual played the role of the cell-part. The goal of management became that of shaping groups of people into teams that behaved less like a diverse array of individual participants, and more like a “whole organism” that it could modify, steer, direct and teach to speak official scripts.

As a result of this imperative, organizations began to spend considerable sums of money to provide social and training events so groups of people could be shaped into cohesive teams and come to behave as a “whole organism.” When realized, this whole organism was construed to function with a mind of its own, a larger and higher intelligence which exercised downward causation — an intelligence that organized the minds, intentions, beliefs and values of its member-parts.

The language people used in systems thinking did not help. It was easy, for example to say that the “organization” learned something new or to talk about organizational intelligence. Rarely did people make the crucial distinctions between what the figures of speech were saying, and the actual reality of organizational life. “It is important to notice how Senge handles the question of the individual and the team,” write Ralph Stacey,

It sounds as though he is making the group primary to the individual. However, this is not so. Although he says that it is the team that learns … it is clear that … an effective team provides the context within which a number of individuals together learn more than they could on their own. It is still the individuals who learn. They arrive to form a team and an atmosphere … that affects their capacity for learning together.

If this language of organism and systems theory is taken too literally, if its ideology becomes “calcified in the rhetoric of managers, and reified in the minds of subordinates,” the natural organization reveals a darker side.

Two key claims open the way for a more worrisome version of the natural(closed) organization. First, the assumption that managers can occupy a position from which they can leverage the behaviors of a group as a whole.Secondly, the anticipation that people had that a collective phenomenon occurs when as a group, they open to the flow of a higher intelligence — either one controlled by the laws of dynamic systems, or one controlled by a larger, more mysterious kind of higher intelligence. The net effect is that people became focused on a higher level of agency and thought of themselves less as self-determined agents, and more as interchangeable parts of a communal field. As part of this communal field, people expected they would share not only social norms and work routines, but also common values and beliefs. People didn’t question the models that managers made of them, and as a consequence, a kind of group think embedded in strong belonging needs, came to permeate organizational life. Entire teams developed a kind of “learned incompetence” that persists throughout our organizations today and represents a major obstacle to creating new workplace dynamics.

Why sensemaking will save agile

Agile is and has always been about making sense in complex situations

Agile delivery

Agile methods have gained widespread adoption in software development, because they perform better. In many sectors, software projects had become so complex and unmanageable, that something had to give. There were too many layers of complexity. Some of the complexity was associated with the nature of the task itself — computational and cognitive complexity. Much of the complexity had to do with how people organized themselves to face that complexity. There were excessive layers of bureaucratic, management and administrative “fat” that were in the way. Information that was authorized at the top and flowed downhill further complexified the situation. Top tier managers made decisions based on systems thinking and sophisticated abstractions that had little to do with what was actually needed in developing software. Information flows were subject to hierarchical filtering — practices that essentially gutted anything that didn’t already fit into their models.

On the periphery, hackers were working much quicker and more efficiently, in small teams where people shared a sense of fellowship and purpose. These teams were accurate at sensing opportunities to disrupt the status quo. The benefits of agile were invisible to the big companies, and its adoption in their industry seemed highly improbable. For the hackers, however, the advantages of agile seemed obvious and inevitable.

When agile moves into a big organization, it trims off organizational fat, and shreds its way through managerial control. It creates modular and iterative approaches to software development and emphasizes respectful human interaction and the power of teamwork. Agile methods prioritize refactoring or scrapping old code that has grown unwieldy over time from lack of diligence and care. Higher up the organization, agile exerts pressure on leadership to migrate crucial steps in decision-making from centralized policy wonks drawn from the professional managerial pool, to workers who are skilled in key operational activities and representative of the culture and values of the local contexts in which they work. In these local contexts, a quiet revolution happens. Ordinary people become less concerned with status and more concerned with doing good work while focusing on creating value — two key concerns they now share with their customers. Armed with a sense of collaboration, camaraderie and purpose, these “ordinary people” consistently make better choices.

Agile firmware

Today agile has been established as a kind of “firmware” in many of the largest companies operating in all key sectors of the global economy. That might sound like good news, but we are also seeing the commodification of agile as an instrument of technical production, instead of a catalyst of organizational change. As long as the meaning of agile is confined to developers and programmers, agile will have little impact on business as usual in the larger sectors.

I believe that agile is the tip of the iceberg of a larger change in organizational life. I also believe that to lead this change, agile needs to reinvent itself. The agile movement must take itself seriously. It must return to the big questions of how do people best organize to solve the complex problems that we face — even when those problems are not primarily technological nor software-based.

Agile sensemaking

I am proposing that agile’s core purpose could be more broadly conceived as aplatform for sensemaking in complex environmentsI am proposing that this is agile’s primary directive, which first manifested itself in the complex environment called “software development.” I am proposing that in order for agile to make inroads to larger organizational contexts, to lead the social and economic innovation of our century, agile must re-brand itself as innovative sensemaking that has broad sweeping advantages for organizations in an increasingly complex world.

Agile must re-brand itself as innovation in sensemaking in a complex world.

Complex environments represent a continuous challenge for sensemaking in organizations. Continuous ambiguity exerts continuous pressures on organizations to modify their patterns of interaction, information flow and decision making. Organizations struggle to address situations that are precarious, explanations that are equivocal and paradoxical, and cognitive dilemmas of all kinds. This creates a demand for innovative approaches in sensemaking. Since agility is what is required in navigating complexity, we can call these new approaches “agile sensemaking.”

In 1995 Karl Weick introduced the notion of organizational sensemaking in his book Sensemaking in Organizations. He continued his research for more than a decade, mapping sensemaking practices across different fields such as forest fighting, aviation, aricraft carrier flight control and infectious disease control. He identified key features of sensemaking in HROs (highly reliable organizations) and crucial fault lines in sensemaking that lead to disaster in times of crisis. In 2011, Kobus Ehlers wrote a thesis incorporating Weick’s research and re-interpreting agile software development as managed sensemaking. The seeds of a new integration and future of agile have already been substantially, albeit academically, authored. It is now time to implement these ideas.

Weick, Ehlers and others have already published broad and sweeping studies of sensemaking in organizations. We can begin to experiment and innovate by focusing on the three core concerns that underlay all of their findings:

  1. How do people organize to best sense and make sense together?

  2. How does information propagate through the network?

  3. What are the thresholds for action?

We can, for example, interpret the agile manifesto as answering these three questions for software development.

Sensemaking in software development, would mean 1) People organize around individual interactions (more than processes and tools) where 2) information is derived from responses to change (as opposed to planning) and 3) action is focused on working software and customer collaboration (rather than comprehensive documentation and contract negotiation)

In a similar vein, we can re-interpret the principles of extreme programming, as deriving a unique approach to sensemaking in the complex programming environments.

  1. How do people organize to best sense and make sense together?
    - Establish work and life balance; mix skills, experience and personalities; recognizable responsibilities of individuals and authority

  2. How does information propagate through the network?
    - Seek repeating patterns of design; establish formal and informal opportunities for individuals and teams to reflect on the project; identify problems as opportunities to develop new strengths and remove weaknesses

  3. What are the thresholds for action?
    - Establish business value of all software and development; do the best today and strive to do better tomorrow; avoid stage- gate approaches and develop continuous flow; be redundant: employ multiple simultaneous angles in design, testing and development; anticipate failure; keep pace without sacrificing quality and process and product integrity; move in baby steps when adopting new behaviors

It is easy to see that both these ways of sensemaking break the mold of conventional organizations who 1) organize in highly hierarchical ways based on fixed power roles and task assignments, 2) where information is first centralized, then authorized by top leadership, and then disseminated as official scripts down the ranks, and 3) where actions are directed by managers who in turn are directed by strategic plans from top tier leadership.

We can think of these three core concerns as simple yet powerful protocols that enact rich and diverse patterns of sensemaking. Alternately we can think of sensemaking as patterns of organization, information and action that emerge through the ongoing interactions of people.

The time is ripe. Increasing complexity exerts a continuous pressure on organizations to modify their structure, information flows, and action potentials in order to be successful in making sense of the environments, situations, and challenges they face. Ultimately, advanced sensemaking technologies could enable organizations to not only face unexpected challenges, but to release complexity in unexpected ways, and reveal surprising new opportunities. Agile coaches and leaders are uniquely situated to innovate in the field of organizational sensemaking, shifting it from theory to practice, from possibility to actuality.

Team Action Potential

Over time, teams settle into a “groove” that tends to maximize operational flows and minimize interruptions. These action patterns are “dispositional states” of a dynamic system. These states also show up as propensities for certain types of actions, because members tend to amplify some aspects of their experience, while dampening others. It is useful to think of these propensities as potential for various kinds of collective action, or team action potentials.

Since these patterns emerge from implicit dynamics and the tacit meaning beneath what people normally talk about, surveys that speak to the generalized intellect rarely expose them. Sensemaking tools are specifically designed to help reveal these otherwise hidden patterns.

Our TAP profile is a sensemaking survey that is easy and intuitive to complete. It profiles teams along three key parameters that shape team action:

  1.  Autonomy & Identity
  2. Communication and Shared Meaning-making
  3.  Experiment and Discovery

Steps in the process:

  1. Survey the team
  2. Facilitate team-level sensemaking around result
  3. Identify key criteria for shifting toward more future-ready team dynamics
  4. Implement team development training
  5. Resurvey


The TAP survey is designed to visualize the deeply embodied, implicit understanding of team members. It is based on advanced research that tells us sensemaking in complex environments is primarily situated first in the action of embodied beings, and then only secondly in narrative exchanges. The leading thinker in organizational sensemaking is Karl E Weick. His work with team dynamics in HRO (highly reliable organizations) looks at environments which are unanalyzable and shows there are two discrete pathways for human sensing. In equivocal situations, where there are many competing narratives, or many plausible explanations, people search for cues in the environment which will cull some of the narratives, and sharpen others. Eventually a single or a few actionable choices emerge, which continue to shape a shared meaning. Alternately, in ambiguous situations, where there is little or no information, people turn toward deeper, subtle sensing based on feeling and intuition. These subtle levels of sensing are even prior to linguistic structures, and therefore sensemaking technologies based on semantic mapping of narratives (Such as Snowden’s Sensemaker) cannot get at them. Needless to say, these deeper capacities are very distant from rational decision-making. Weick refers to them as action-rationality. Furthermore, research in neuro-affective dynamics confirms them as part of the affect-laden intentional-motivational streams in the embodied body-mind. They are crucial components of sensemaking in organizations, because, as the philosopher Eugene Gendlin’s decades-long work proves, the felt-sense and the IU (implicit understanding), are sense-making modes that are exquisitely tuned at a very fine level of detail and precision at the intersection of world (reality) and mind (understanding).

There are many layers in the intentional-motivational system of people. There are biological, psychological, and social patterns that prime the individual for certain types of responses over others. These patterns are associated with affect-laden neuro-chemical-electric processes in the embodied mind-brain. While it is possible to reveal these deeper motivations, through practices that borrow from mindfulness training and meditation, there is a short-cut we can use. Understanding that people are highly responsive, adaptive and evolutionary beings, we can adopt the principle that people are always solving the problem that matters most. Of course, there are many problems, and what comes to matters most is a complex, fluid matrix of process of participation among humans themselves, and within the environment. Adopting this view, we can say that what we do, how we act, already entails or perfectly reflects these complex patterns of participation. Let me give an example. We all know what it is like to be working on something at the office, and for some reason, without thinking about it, we find ourselves interrupting someone at their desk, or walking to the water cooler and bumping into someone there. We take these minor interruptions as trivial, and discount their meaning. But if we look carefully, we see that the ways we prod, probe, irritate or connect with others, already carries meaning forward. These many many ordinary inter-acts are like the particles of the wave-particle system. They are, on the one hand, atom-istic, individual acts.

Yet in the complex processes of human relating, they become waves of experience that carry us forward. It is on these waves of experience that we enact new environments and realize new futures. On the collective level, these waves determine the patterns of team action. They set the possibilities that teams will act in these ways, and not others. This is why we consider teams as the self-organization of collective action potential. These action potentials can also be thought of as action-logics that emerge only at the collective level. When we reflect on what people actually do in teams, we have a perfect translation of what people are actually sensing at the very fine, atomistic levels of interaction. The team is functioning like a tuning fork, or a satellite dish, sensing through tiny instances of somatic awareness, and embodied response. The TAP survey enables people to reflect on what they actually do at work. It provides a way to discover the underlying context that people are acting within. Is it a context that drives people to seek out autonomy? or to connect in relationship? or to act without knowing? Self-determination theory shows us that these are the “Big Three” in determining how people organize themselves into patterns of collective action-potential. Weick has shown that some patterns are associated with environments where people need to make sense before they act; while some patterns are associated with environments where people need to act in order to make sense. Our TAP survey can “get at” subtle shifts in environmental contexts by revealing which environments teams are intuitively sensing. The TAP survey can show us when, where and how the action-potentials of the team are varying with the subtle changes in complex environments. Are they invariant, co-variant or disassociated?

The TAP survey can be used as a tool to train teams to become more sensitive, more critically reflective, and therefore more future-ready. Coaches can help team members move from stale action-logics of social anxiety and resistance that lead to collective inertia, to action-potentials that welcome surprise, are curious and experimental by nature, and lead to breakthrough insights. Furthermore, because TAP is an aggregated survey, it discloses how the collective composes itself, and shifts the burden away from individuals (which research shows, time and time again, prevents learning and development) and toward non-linear, complex processes of relating. When enabled by OPO principles, and allowed to self-organize, richly textured patterns of power, trust and action emerge, and team performance is optimized toward synergistic flows. Lastly, TAP is an instrument when, supported by rich dialogue and conversations that matter, can deepen the kinds of intimacy that Weick has shown, is necessary for accelerated learning, problem solving in complex environments, and reliability in high risk arenas.