Let me first acknowledge that I am not an expert in sensemaking in the academic sense. I am writing this as a practitioner/consultant in the knowledge work arena. Nothing in this article is intended to attend to domains outside of knowledge work although I am sure some of it does.
Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld state that “Sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action.”
Since knowledge work is done in a complex adaptive system, sensemaking is useful to better understand what often appears to be a chaotic, impenetrable situation. Systems thinking tells us that systems are more about the relationships between the systems than the components of the system. As Russ Ackoff points out, a collection of the best parts of the best cars is just a pile of junk. One way of thinking about this is not that we exist in different states, but that in knowledge work there is an integration of simple, complicated and complex relationships present.
These relationships have aspects that are simple, complicated and complex (meaning not understandable or even visible). Understanding how the parts of a system interact is consistent with what Dr. Eli Goldratt (creator of Theory of Constraints) describes in The Choice. He calls the essence of his approach ‘Inherent Simplicity.’ This is expressed in these quotes
Quotes by Dr. Eli Goldratt from The Choice:
“The first and most profound obstacle is that people believe that reality is complex, and therefore they are looking for sophisticated explanations for complicated solutions. Do you understand how devastating this is?”
”The biggest obstacle is that people grasp reality as complex when actually is surprisingly simple.”
“The key for thinking like a true scientist is the acceptance that any real-life situation, no matter how complex it initially looks, once understood, is actually embarrassingly simple. Moreover, if the situation is based on human interactions, you probably already have enough knowledge to begin with.”
“Inherent Simplicity. In a nutshell, it is at the foundation of all modern science as put by Newton: ‘nature is exceedingly simple and harmonious with itself.’”
"If we dive deep enough, we’ll find that there are very few elements at the base - the root causes - which through cause and effect connections are governing the whole system.”
The question, of course, is what are these “very few elements at the base?” Observations of both successful and failed attempts to improve an organization’s ability to deliver value to stakeholders has led me to the conclusion that there nine of these. I call these “vectors for effectiveness.” They are, in a sense, dimensions to observe how to improve an organization. They are consistent with the natural laws of knowledge work. They are:
- Value stream management
- Working on small items of high value
- Queues, task switching, delays, handbacks (measure of workflow efficiency)
- Making work and workflow visible
- Getting feedback quickly
- Efficient value creation Structure
- Independence of value streams
- Good product quality and architecture
Effective organizations tend to do these well and ineffective ones can improve by attending to them.
Because complexity (both inside and outside our organization) is ever present in knowledge work, we can never see exactly what is happening, nor can we make totally accurate predictions. However, if we don’t attend to the complicated causal relationships that are known via Flow, Lean and Theory of Constraints, our methods will almost certainly be out of control.
The approach I espouse then is to understand what we are predictably doing wrong. We look for the results of actions based on these factors and validate (or invalidate) them. This results in movement forward or learning by exposing relationships we either didn’t see or didn’t understand due to their complexity. This enables us to move forward. It also suggests we take a skeptical view of these factors themselves. Always looking to refine our model for understanding.
It is also important to recognize that in knowledge work there is a particular type of waste that complexity enables. These are when a small error results in a big cost. These are called non-linear events. Non-linear events due to a combination of three things: 1) a small error, 2) lack of visibility to see what’s going on (often due to complexity), 3) coupling that results in a cascade of errors, resulting in a big error. A great example of this in knowledge work is when a small misunderstanding of a stated requirement causes creating the wrong functionality in a big program that makes it useless. Or a “one-off” error in code causes a catastrophic error.
The bottom line is that sensemaking should be used as a basis for taking effective action. By using inherent simplicity and the factors for effectiveness I’ve identified, you can both better see what’s going on as well as having these observations be directly related to actions you can take to improve the situation.
If you are interested in learning more about how to apply these check out my workshops (including the Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant) and collaborative engagements see the Success Engineering website.