The current landscape around COVID-19 means we are facing something that is not changing monthly or weekly but hourly. New information and advice is coming out formally from governments and healthcare systems and first-hand in the accounts of medical experts helping those who are poorly. Some of it conflicts. Rumours circulate. Concerns develop.
In the midst of this it can feel like you are climbing a mountain into the fog; trying to keep your feet firmly on the ground, unsure of what the next step will bring and straining your eyes trying to see enough to keep you and yours safe. You know the fog will dissipate over time but the need is to see clearly right now. So how to do it?
The hyper-alertness that usually enables sensemaking in successful organisations – to scan from near to far, both inside and out to understand all that is going on – needs to be ramped up in times like this. Those responsible for sensemaking need to be agile, able to filter through the complexity and uncertainty and feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. In these moments, when you can no longer let sensemaking happen by accident, you need to be more purposeful with your approach. You can use this experience to build in systems and processes across the organisation to ensure sensemaking doesn’t just happen by chance but by intent.
1. Research and explore
When there is a huge amount of information around it can be difficult to know who to listen to. Panic might make us quicker to judge than previously and when we feel threatened, we make more emotional decisions and ignore our logic. Now is the time to head to the sources you trust and carry out intensive research so you understand the current situation (knowing it may change very quickly) and feel able to take just a few small steps until the air clears and a wider landscape becomes visible. If it takes a long time for the air to clear then a process of research, small steps, research, small steps becomes your norm.
2. Look for patterns
Organisations hold a huge amount of information and knowledge. When we are sensemaking we can take advantage of that. With so much disruption taking place it is an ideal time to run retrospective exercises to uncover patterns. In addressing each pattern you can then connect the abstract with the concrete to draw a basic map of your world. Working in this way means sensemaking is likened to cartography. It helps you visualise where you currently are – and where you might want to go. It can help you have the right conversations both in and outside of your organisation, even while you wait for the fog to clear.
3. Get everyone involved in sensemaking and sensegiving
To move from sensemaking to sensegiving it can be easy to shift into tell mode but this leaves many behind. A co-creation approach can work well here. Team meetings can offer the space to discuss the current situation and prompt ideas for shaping future strategy and actions to move forward. When there is a truly collaborative team effort everyone can play the role of sensegiver as well as sensemaker as the information gathered and the outcomes garnered become so much richer. When we get people involved in the process early we see that solutions are explored, discussed and negotiated and there is buy in for strategic change. This co-creation around sensemaking can help you deal with the complex problems that need to be confronted in disruptive times as the solutions tend to emanate from the collective wisdom of everyone in the organisation.
4. Encourage lots of communication
Communication is a central component of sensemaking – especially when it happens through extensive interaction, talking about the situation you are shaping into existence. Great communication systems, including informal activities where hierarchy is flattened and honest expression is encouraged, are vital for organisations who want to speed up the sensemaking process.
5. Put sensemaking systems in place
Systems to capture ideas, views and information can make relevant data more visible and accessible more frequently. Companies which sensemake effectively use team collaboration as a way to increase buy in for new systems. They incorporate time for activities to consider ‘what-if’ scenarios and ensure all ideas and concerns can be explored together. This approach means everyone in a team attunes their alertness as to important issues that might impact upon the business. This allows business leaders to be in a better position to spot weak signals or potential opportunities coming from the environment around them.
Over the next few weeks it may well be COVID-19 which speeds up our need for deeper and faster sensemaking. But within a few months it could be something entirely different. Shaping our organisations to be agile and adapt whatever the situation, will need us to work together so that collectively we are able to make sense of what currently seems to be such a complex and foggy landscape.