What to do about Sense-Making?

I came across the term sense-making when reading an algorithmic management paper which studied how Uber and Lyft drivers tried to understand the nature of driver and dispatch administration with little understanding of how the underlying automated decision making systems were programmed.  Since that time the term has become much more important to me in that I believe it is a foundational tool that is used more and more by professionals the world over to better understand their environment.  Like the metal telco boxes on the side of the road, now that I know what it is, I’m starting to see it everywhere.

First let’s discuss sense-making in the formal sense. According to Wikipedia sense-making in organizational studies is described thusly:

It is a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding out of different individuals’ perspectives and varied interests.

That of course is a tremendously academic description. What it really means is exactly what the words imply, we are trying to make sense of some seemingly indiscriminate decision-making through our own life experiences, values, and worldview. I have come to believe that awareness of when we are engaged in sense-making can be a major asset, but engaging in the activity without being aware that is what we are doing can lead to negative outcomes.

The fundamental problem:

As we have discussed ad nauseam, the professional class is highly educated. Typically we are educated beyond what our normal job requirements are.  The problem comes from the complexity of the world, the risk aversion of organisations, and I think the highly litigious nature of the professional work environment.   These factors work together to create organizational cultures where “need to know” is the norm.   The net result is that even with all of the knowledge, training, and problem solving expertise, there is  a void of information that is needed to come to the same conclusions, or to at least understand the conclusions, of the decision maker or makers even if we disagree with those decisions.

If you are trying to be purely logical with less information than you need for a complete picture, then you would look at the variables you do know to be true and try and determine which one was the important point that led to the decision.  The professional may come to the conclusion “I guess they didn’t have enough money” for a project shut down when in fact the answer could have been that the organization is about to purchase some technology that made the project moot.    If your world view tends toward the emotional, then that skews the information analysis pretty heavily. What I mean by this is you would hear a phrase in this situation like “she never liked me” or “I try and do a good job and work nights and weekends on this project, why don’t they see that?!?”.   Compare this to the non-professional who doesn’t engage in sense-making. If you’re talking with someone on the shop floor more often than not they would shrug their shoulders and say something like “ who knows why those yay-hoos do anything up there in that Ivory Tower of theirs!”.  

How and Why do professionals use it?

So why do we engage in sense-making? Well the real answer is pretty simple, it is because the world is uncertain. Generally when something good or bad happens to other people around us we try and understand how that decision could be made if we were specifically involved.   I am being way too general here so let me pick a couple of specifics and then go through this process with them. In the business world there are two examples that stand out. 1) promotions and 2) layoffs.   Promotions and layoffs are unique in that every single person who wants to grow within their organization or who wants just to keep their job will nearly always engage in sense-making when they hear of the promotion or layoff.  

In the ideal organization both of these shifts in personnel would be obvious to nearly all parties. We do see it occasionally, for example, the person who is obviously next in line for the job and who has been groomed for it.  
A big layoff in the business unit that has been losing income for ages with no changes in sight and whose employees don’t have skills for other departments is very understandable.  There is also the worker who, no matter how much time the organization puts in, doesn’t quite ‘get it’ and everyone who knows them, even their friends, is expecting the ax to fall.   

Very few individuals work in in the ideal organization, and if they do, no organization is ideal forever.  In many instances promotions and layoffs take people by surprise.  This is when the arm chair quarterbacking in business management happens vis a vie sense-making.  This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just problem solving without being able to actually solve the problem.  The bad part comes when professionals are not aware that they are doing it, and it’s just a reaction to some unexpected professional, or even non-work related event.  


So why should we be aware of when we are engaged in sense-making?  This is a pretty valid question when you consider that the majority of humanity has been trying to make sense  of the world around us since probably the dawn of mankind.   I think the answer to the question is pretty simple. If we realize that we are trying to make sense of a situation then we automatically think “what else is missing” that allows us to complete the picture.

Sometimes what is missing is quantifiable data. We don’t know what the budget is. Usually we don’t know what the sales forecasts are. We don’t know what the influencers to the decision-makers are saying.  In really small organizations this typically isn’t the case because it’s really hard to not communicate or hide decisions in an office of 10 or 20.  It is a lot easier to keep information used for decision making contained in larger organizations with multiple offices.   Sometimes this happens even when the decision-makers want to get the information out to everyone.   

Ultimately for the purposes of sense making, quantifiable data is easy.  If we know that the budget is tight then we know that layoffs are coming.  If we know that HR policy is to stratify employees based upon education and the guy in the cubicle next to me has a master’s, and I just have a bachelor’s, then it’s very easy to understand why I will be getting the pink slip and the person next to me will be able to cherry pick exactly which stapler or computer monitor he wants from the empty cubes.  

Oftentimes it’s the  qualitative data  that is what becomes the focus of our sense making. You hear this when an employee says something like: “they let him go because they didn’t like him”.    Here is the problem with that type of sense-making. The reality is that most people in organizations have become, overtime, experts at CYA. We generally think in these terms when it comes to our own rear end, but we tend not to think of them when it comes to someone else’s rear end. There is a tendency to see senior leadership as being autocratic in their decision-making.  It is decision making that is perceived to be grounded in personal preference.  

Let’s use a real world model that is unrelated to layoffs or promotions:  How often would a coordinator or project manager who is heavily involved on the ground floor of a project wonder why the VP selected a specific mix of organizational ambassadors to go on site to see the vendor or customer but didn’t include them?  My guess would be that ratio is 100%.  It’s only human nature to wonder why you weren’t included if you are heavily involved in something like a big project.  It is at that point that sense-making would kick in and in the absence of quantifiable data the emotional override would conclude “I guess that VP doesn’t like me”. The reality is the VP may think that the Customer / Vendor already knows you well and they wants to show them the extent of other resources at your organization without your relationship becoming an attention distraction in the meeting.  The distraction that may happen for very good reasons like an update on a complex project issue.  If you and the customer / vendor are talking about how you are fixing the issue for the entire meeting then the VP doesn’t get to try and foster that same type of connection with others in your organization.  The VP may be thinking about the next major project and trying to build connections to make sure there is a higher chance your organization gets it.  That’s one reason, but there could be many many others including budget restrictions, a desire for conversations about other projects while in-route, etc.  The list is endless.   

Here is the kicker, the VP may also have to answer to somebody else and may need a good story to tell about how they did, what they did, and why they did what they did.  I.e.  the decision may not have been made with any thought to the project manager, it may have been made totally based on creating a CYA for the Vice President.  Using this example, six months or a year from now, if somebody like a board member asks the VP why they didn’t get the big next project, the CYA response will sound something like “We are uncertain, our pricing was competitive and I made sure the entire team was engaged, as everyone had been given some one on one time onsite with the customer / vendor”.   We all know a site visit or two does not create an ‘engaged team’, but the point is, the story exists, therefore the CYA exists.  

In a perfect world the VP would have come to the project manager and explained all of this well in advance. This is assuming that the VP has a good relationship with the project manager, or any sort of relationship at all really.   We don’t live in a perfect world. Considering the flattening of organizations there probably is a good chance the VP doesn’t know the project manager at all well because they simply don’t have the time to get to know them.   Rather than ruffle feathers, have to explain themselves or just have one more thing to worry about, the VP just decided to send the invite and not include the project manager.  That may be the easier path forward but it opened up a poop can filled with sense-making for the poor project manager.

What should we really be doing?  

I think the best solution for  avoiding the pitfalls of sense-making  is proactive awareness. We tend to think about the world from our own perspective and our own information sources. If you are involved in sense-making, the list of things you do not know should often be longer than the things you do know.    At this point a dispassionate analysis is important. The key word there is: dispassionate.   It’s really hard to truly analyze something if there are intense emotions involved. As I stated earlier, the two organizational biggies for sense-making including promotions and layoffs.  Both have emotional components that are hard to distance yourself from even if you are not personally affected by the decision.

The next step is very easy.  If the things you do not know are easy to obtain then go get that information. Usually the quantifiable stuff is easier to get than qualitative data.  That being said, sometimes through networking or observations over time you can get your hands on the qualitative data.  This would mean that you understand the individual initiatives or the thought process of the decision maker even in a ‘need to know’ environment.  Good for you if you can pull this off!   

Ultimately, if you are engaged in sense-making you’ll need to Look at the type of conclusions you have made and ask yourself:  Are you internalizing them to your own world view?  Then ask, What are the priorities of the person making the decision?   If the decision affected you and your trying to find a reason for it, ask yourself questions like:  will the person looking at your screw up think it’s that big of a deal?  What about your big successes? What beyond your failures and success, beyond your work entirely would have lead to this decision?

Maybe the best solution is to try and avoid it all together.  Maybe the guys from the shop floor have the right idea.  The reality is that sense-making normally produces more anxiety than it does comfort.  That alone may be reason enough to avoid it personally, and try and not let the sense-making of others affect your own opinions.  The one thing I do know for certain is that if you avoid thinking about decisions outside of your control, you will be able to get more done.  The more you get done during work hours means the greater the chances that you’ll be able to do more of what you want in your off hours.  So, in a way, maybe not making sense, actually makes sense.  


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Posted by Mike Peluso

Mike Peluso writes about the collision between between the business / professional world and life. He also writes about the journey involved with the Peluso Presents efforts including the Blog, Books, and Podcast so that others may benefit from his efforts. From Mike: I spend hundreds of hours working on these articles every year with no compensation other than support I get through donations. You can support with a tip and by Subscribing to the Podcast (and writing a review on iTunes would be really appreciated as well!) One time tips: www.paypal.me/pelusopresents https://venmo.com/pelusopresents

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