Sense making – Skills for 2020

Sense making is the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed As smart machines take over rote, routine manufacturing and services jobs, there will be an increasing demand for the kinds of skills machines are not good at. These are  high order thinking skills that cannot be codified. We call these sense-making skills, skills that help us create unique insights critical to decision making.

When IBM’s supercomputer, Deep Blue, defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, many took this of a sign of its superior thinking skills. But Deep Blue had won with brute number-crunching force (its ability to evaluate millions of possible moves per second), not by applying the kind of human intelligence that helps us to live our lives. A computer may be able to beat a human in a game of chess or Jeopardy by sheer force of its computational abilities, but if you ask it whether it wants to play pool, it won’t be able to tell whether you are talking about swimming, financial portfolios, or billiards.

As computing pioneer Jaron Lanier points out, despite important advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research it is still the case that, if we ask what thinking is, so that we can then ask how to foster it, we encounter an astonishing and terrifying answer: we don’t know.

As we renegotiate the human/machine division of labor in the next decade, critical  thinking or sense-making will emerge as a skill workers increasingly need to capitalize on.

 The process of improving our sense-making capabilities includes how to: scan environments actively to gather data that is relevant to pressing issues; interpret usefully what we see – including recognizing and framing problems/opportunities and skills in transforming data into information; make effective decisions – including creating useful rules for deciding how to decide, and how to talk with ourselves and others to receive and offer useful information, make wise choices, and implement decisions well; and evaluate well what we have done and what has occurred. These four topics are the activities of sense-making – an ongoing conversation with yourself and others about what is really happening and why it is occurring. Sense making involves placing stimuli into some kind of framework that is understandable to ourselves. Usually sense making is done automatically – unconsciously – without thinking actively about the usefulness or accuracy of our frames, or the process being used in our framing. However, sense making can be done consciously, that is, using controlled thinking instead of the usual automatic thinking processes.  Skill-building case exercises are written to help improve  sense making abilities.

Sense-making is the difficult art at the heart of leadership. We’d all like clarity about the complexities that we face in resolving the problems we encounter or in leading our organizations forward in a competitive world, but we are rarely that fortunate. The world is filled with ambiguity, and all leaders face the task of making sense out of what they find.  They get in trouble when they assume that what they see and understand is the same reality that others see and accept. That just ain’t so.

We all bring our own ways of interpreting what we see as we step midstream into organizations and groups that have evolved distinctive histories, cultures, and traditions. Even our ideas about how to lead – and what leadership is all about – are based on tacit and deeply-personal values and belief systems about what’s important and how things work.

A key challenge for any leader is how to make accurate sense of complex circumstances, recognize available choices, choose the best path forward, and convey all that to others in a compelling manner.  Whether we call this wisdom, executive judgment, reflective practice, or learning from experience, the lesson is clear. Effectiveness requires untangling the conundrums of the organizations we seek to lead and the realities of our current situation and translating both into sensible choices and actions for self and others.

We lead best when we understand the organizational cards we’ve been dealt: who has real power, what gives them their influence, how are things done around here, where do the sacred cows and landmines rest, where (and why) will change be welcome, and more – and when we recognize that others around us have their own answers to those same diagnostic questions.

Organizational sense-making is never as easy and straight-forward as we would wish.

To understand the world around us, we must first observe  what is going on.  Unfortunately, many of us are so busy and distracted by doing that we have a hard time observing. We also suffer from observation dementia. We are overloaded with “stuff,” and our capacity to remember and process is limited. Unless what we see has immediate relevance, we will forget it.

Some things we see are actually a “mirage” from the past. Let me give you an example. How many of you have experienced a conversation with a teenage child during which he or she declared with authority, “Dad [or Mom], you’re clueless!”  Regrettably, the teenager was probably right. Parents don’t see or experience the world through the eyes of a teenager. The world we grew up in is different from the world our children experience. In many cases, parents are oblivious to today’s teenage experience. While there are many things we think we know, there are also some things for which we are “clueless.”

We may be able to get a “pass” for being “clueless” at the dinner table, but the Board Room is a different story. Leaders are expected to know “what’s so” with customers, competitors, suppliers, financiers and employees.

Keen observation is necessary but not sufficient. We want to derive meaning from what we see today or expect to experience in the future. In most cases, a single observation by itself reveals only a piece of the puzzle. Perspective is needed to recognize patterns, discern trends and understand the potential implications of what we see. Context is essential in interpreting meaning. Two similar events in different contexts will likely hold different meanings. Our tendency, however, is to quickly evaluate what we see before we actually understand what it could mean. Is this good or bad? Do I agree or disagree?
Few of us have the patience required to weave together glimpses of information into a clear picture. Yet, if you show the picture to different people, you are likely to get differing interpretations. Our lens on the world is colored by our values and life experiences. We can easily debate the meaning of events as a set of competing truths.

Part of our interpretation of what we see in the present is based on our understanding of the causal factors from the past.  Similarly, we seek to understand the what may be the effect in the future of something that occurs today. We commonly call this learning. I call it educated guessing.
When we sense new information or a new event, our instincts prompt us to act or react, especially if we think we are approaching a crisis. However, if it is difficult to observe what is going on and easy to debate what it might mean, you can imagine the difficulties in deciding what, if anything, to do.

If we are myopic in how we view our environment, it is easy to be blindsided and scramble to respond. Some will want to learn from similar events in the past. “I’ve seen this before, and we should do this.” There is comfort in repetition, but a change in context can easily lead to an inappropriate action. On the other hand, a “thoughtful response” can easily be a delayed response.

Leaders who have natural sense-making skills maintain perspective, see things that others miss, know how to interpret meaning in the proper context and, finally, know when, how and how much action, if any, is required.  When these things all come together, the leader is leading. That’s why, in business, they make the big “cents.”


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