Good leaders develop a deep sense of what's really going on in their business. Sensemaking is a tool to help them with this.
Recently I was talking with Lesley - a ski instructor - about her work helping people improve their skiing.
She talked about the importance of understanding the learning styles of her pupils. That helped her to best coach people through developing the subtle skills of skiing. She also talked about how one metaphor she used worked almost universally - learning to "feel the mountain".
You start first with learning to intentionally feel your feet in the ski boots. The differing pressure in parts of the soles of your feet, the shifting angles and changes in sensation all give subtle signals to the skier.
Then once her students had mastered that, they add sight and sound to the mix. This helps them understand more about what's going on around them as they skied.
Bringing all those feelings and observations together in real time was the key. They provide the triggers for different techniques that the students had learnt. Reflecting on our conversation, the parallels with leading in the world of business seemed obvious.
As a consultant I'm used to going into businesses and pretty quickly getting to an initial understanding of what's going on.
But I'm always conscious of the limits of my understanding and the risk of missing something subtle.
I see leaders in many businesses reach for solutions too readily. They grab for a familiar response or the latest management fad from a podcast they heard recently. Recency bias can play into this too.
Are those leaders really "feeling the mountain" in their business? Have they developed a highly attuned sense of what's really going on around them to inform decisions about what to do?
Developing that innate sense of what's going on in a business relies first on an appreciation of one's own limitations.
A leader is just one node in the network that makes up any business. Their visibility of what's around them degrades incrementally through that network. They tend to bias towards the stuff they see or experience firsthand. They subconsciously overestimate the prevalence of this in the wider business.
Reporting on performance metrics helps provide a way to gain wider insights into what's going on. Over time trends and patterns in the data help build a picture. But it's not a complete picture and never will be. What's not measured or can't be measured is an important part of learning to "feel the mountain" too.
Getting out into the business, experiencing different areas firsthand and talking to a wider range of people helps. It provides clearer lines of sight to what's going on for people in the business and can be a source of diverse perspectives.
And direct contact with customers or clients matters too. Given most businesses exist to solve problems in some way, it's good to see how they're doing at fulfilling this purpose on the ground.
There's a caution here for leaders getting closer to team or customers - be careful to not over-extrapolate from a single data point. Instead look instead for patterns and recurrence that you need to be responding to.
What's your equivalent of Lesley's "feeling the mountain" in your leadership practice?
I'm drawn to the practice of sensemaking for leaders.
Complexity in business means they need to consciously manage their awareness of what's around them.
They need to continuously evaluate what they see and experience. They need to pick up sentient cues while learning to discard insights that are contextually irrelevant.
Sensemaking is how you develop mental models of what's going on in your organisation. It's about testing out those models through listening, conversing, learning and action.
Here are my top ten things to try out to build your sensemaking skills:
- Build a network across all levels in your organisation. Don't rely too much on existing hierarchies or relationships.
- Seek out insights from diverse sources across your network in the organisation. Don't always lean on the same people.
- Learn to ask open questions, holding space for people to share their experience and views.
- While listening, you need to allow for the effect of a likely power assymetry between you.
- Apply appropriate weighting to the insights you gain.
- Use critical thinking. If someone says "everyone is thinking this" the chances are that's not true. Very little is universally true. Seek the nuance.
- Get close to the frontline of whatever you're trying to learn about. Seek firsthand insight and downweight what you hear secondhand. Networks obfuscate detail.
- Be aware of your role and impact as a leader. You're part of the complex system that makes up the organisation, not separate from it.
- Challenge yourself when you find yourself thinking "I've seen this before". The chances are you haven't. You may recognise elements from previous experience, but every situation is unique.
- Test the mental models you build through conversation first and then action. Refine them. Repeat.
Three questions to ask now
- How could you diversify the sources you use to interpret what's going on in your business?
- What unrecognised assumptions might you be making in your analysis?
- How can you explore what's not being talked about in your business?
Get deeper into this
1. A nice succinct piece about sensemaking in organisations
2. More on sensemaking in leadership
3. And a more academic paper that takes a longer look at the history of sensemaking as a leadership practice.