What is it?

Sensemaking has been defined as the process by which meaning is given to an experience or situation. Literally, it’s when an individual or team makes sense of an event or situation, past or current.  Dr. Weick eloquently described sensemaking as, “a diagnostic process directed at constructing plausible interpretations of ambiguous cues that are sufficient to sustain action.”  Taylor and Van Every described sensemaking as “a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action.”  In short, sensemaking is a springboard for action, or in the case of a high-reliability team, effective sensemaking is a springboard for effective action.

When does one use sensemaking?

Typically, sensemaking is deployed when the situation is, or the event was, unexpected, unusual or ambiguous.  The reflective or post-event retrospective sensemaking is critical to learning.  Sensemaking in the midst of a high-stress, high-risk circumstance, which drives relatively quick and effective action, is critical for a high-performing team to effectively act in an unexpected or complex situation effectively.  This sensemaking is still retrospective, but the real-time nature of it allows for the action to impact that specific circumstance.  Prospective sensemaking isn’t as well defined in the literature, but it speaks to anticipating future events and circumstances for the purposes of framing a mental model and creating understanding in order to proactively prepare.

What makes sensemaking effective?

Effective sensemaking is facilitated when wisdom, originating from practical knowledge of theory and meaningful experience with best practice, is tightly coupled with thoughtful and honest learning of accumulated experiences, as well as sufficient current situational awareness and mindfulness.   Effective sensemaking can be recognized when its there, but its hard to insert when its missing.  It can be nurtured when leaders support training, professional development, provide time for open reflection, and have a plan for recognizing, and retaining senior people.   Yet, individual commitment to excellence over time as experience accumulates is perhaps the most important element.

The more wise the leaders and influencers of a team the more effective the sensmaking of that team.  However, there are attitudinal as well as behavioral elements that influence the quality of the sensemaking.  For example, when reviewing a safety event, if a just culture attitude and approach isn’t taken, the sensemaking will be limited and not balanced.  Another example is during a rapid response or code situation.  If there isn’t a designated leader and clarity among team members as to what their roles are, the sensemaking isn’t organized and therefore is less effective.  Without psychological safety, a team can’t collectively do effective sensemaking, and can’t get better at it over time.  Someone senses that something isn’t right, but doesn’t speak up, and thus doesn’t leverage the team to sensemake and formulate an actionable picture of what’s going on.