Behavioral MetaDYNAMICS – Sensemaking

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                          BmD: Capability: Part
10 – Sensemaking


  • Meaning making

  • Making meaning to make sense

  • Making sense

  • Sense making as a metasystem

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sensemaking is the process by which people give
meaning to
experience. While this process has been studied by
other disciplines under other names for centuries, the
term "sensemaking" has primarily marked three distinct but
related research areas since the 1970s: Sensemaking was
introduced to
Human-computer interaction by
PARC researchers Russell, Stefik, Pirolli and
Card in 1993, to
information science by
Brenda Dervin, and

organizational studies

Karl Weick

In information science the term is most often written
as "sense-making." In both cases, the concept has been
used to bring together insights drawn from philosophy,
sociology, and
cognitive science (especially
social psychology). Sensemaking research is therefore
often presented as an


research programme

In organization studies, the concept of sensemaking was
first used to focus attention on the largely cognitive
activity of framing experienced situations as meaningful.
It is a collaborative process of creating shared awareness
and understanding out of different individuals’
perspectives and varied interests. The work of
in particular has dealt with sensemaking at the
organizational level, providing insight into factors that
surface as organizations address either uncertain or
ambiguous situations.

Sensemaking has seven properties:

  1. Identity and identification is central –
    who people think they are in their context shapes what
    they enact and how they interpret events (Pratt, 2000,
    Currie & Brown, 2003; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld,
    2005; Thurlow & Mills, 2009; Watson, 2009).
  2. Retrospection provides the opportunity for
    sensemaking: the point of retrospection in time
    affects what people notice (Dunford & Jones, 2000),
    thus attention and interruptions to that attention are
    highly relevant to the process (Gephart, 1993).
  3. People enact the environments they face in
    dialogues and narratives (Bruner, 1991; Watson, 1998;
    Currie & Brown, 2003). As people speak, and build
    narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they
    think, organize their experiences and control and
    predict events (Isabella, 1990; Weick, 1995; Abolafia,
    2010) and reduce complexity in the context of change
    management (Kumar & Singhal, 2012).
  4. Sensemaking is a social activity in that
    plausible stories are preserved, retained or shared
    (Isabella, 1990; Maitlis, 2005). However, the audience
    for sensemaking includes the speakers themselves
    (Watson, 1995) and the narratives are ‘both individual
    and shared…an evolving product of conversations with
    ourselves and with others’ (Currie & Brown, 2003:
  5. Sensemaking is ongoing, so Individuals
    simultaneously shape and react to the environments
    they face. As they project themselves onto this
    environment and observe the consequences they learn
    about their identities and the accuracy of their
    accounts of the world (Thurlow & Mills, 2009). This is
    a feedback process so even as individuals deduce their
    identity from the behaviour of others towards them,
    they also try to influence this behaviour. As Weick
    argued, “The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality
    is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts
    to create order and make retrospective sense of what
    occurs” (Weick, 1993: 635).
  6. People extract cues from the context to
    help them decide on what information is relevant and
    what explanations are acceptable (Salancick & Pfeffer,
    1978; Brown, Stacey, & Nandhakumar, 2007) Extracted
    cues provide points of reference for linking ideas to
    broader networks of meaning and are ‘simple, familiar
    structures that are seeds from which people develop a
    larger sense of what may be occurring." (Weick 1995:
  7. People favour plausibility over accuracy in
    accounts of events and contexts (Currie & Brown, 2003;
    Brown, 2005; Abolafia, 2010): "in an equivocal,
    postmodern world, infused with the politics of
    interpretation and conflicting interests and inhabited
    by people with multiple shifting identities, an
    obsession with accuracy seems fruitless, and not of
    much practical help, either" (Weick 1995: 61).

Each of these seven aspects interact and intertwine as
individuals interpret events. Their interpretations become
evident through

 – written and spoken – which convey the
sense they have made of events (Currie & Brown, 2003).

Sensemaking triangle 

"Boundaries are possibly the most important elements, in
sense-making, because they represent differences among or
transitions between the patterns we create in the world that
we perceive." – Kurtz & Snowden

Sensemaking cynelin domains

Download the Paper: The new dynamics
of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world

I hope you pick up valuable insights, ideas and tools during
this process, which you can use for your own

development as well as your work and leadership with others.

If you have comments, please feel free to leave them here on the blog.

You, Me, and We @F-L-O-W

Mike R. Jay is a developmentalist utilizing consulting,
coaching, mentoring and advising as methods to offer
developmental scaffolding for aspiring leaders who are
interested in being, doing, having, becoming, and
contributing… to helping people have lives.

PS: To learn more about our 2015 Program,
Behavioral MetaDYNAMICS and to enroll in the experience,


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