management, sensemaking

What does a Corporate Sensemaker do?

My blog opens with the aspiration to describe a new way to corporate (and individuals) support, which I name “corporate sensemaking”.  As for any new description of the world around us, also mine is competing for legitimacy and recognition. Its niche is wide open to many previous concepts, like for example consulting, coaching, organizational development, strategic advisory, mentoring, etc. My new concept, therefore, is struggling hard to survive amidst such competitors. I like to equate it to the early mammals, which tried it hard to survive amidst giant dinosaurs. This analogy sounds well because, first of all, it echoes the adaptability of corporate sensemaking. And of course, it anticipates a much happy ending!

Apart from the analogy, I am a firm believer that the way corporate support has been developed is approaching its ending. Information travel so fast and are readily available to everybody, benchmarking is almost instantaneous, new ideas abound and information asymmetry is diminishing. Traditional corporate support proliferated thanks to information asymmetry. Bright individuals, bright enough to behave as consultants, have exploited information asymmetry to create value for themselves (and of course the company they helped). They were (are) mainly information brokers or operational deliver. But once information is out there, where does their values lie?

And that’s where sensemaking comes in. Sensemaking is a cornerstone idea in Karl Weick theory of organizations (or better ‘organizing’, intended as the process of continuously co-creating organizations). In Weick’s approach organizations are constructed socially by the actors who come to inhabit them. The process by which this occurs is called sensemaking. I do not want to get into the meanders of social constructionism vs. realism. It suffices for my purposes to shed light on the fact that management (and reality, more broadly) is deeply affected by processes of social construction of reality. Want an example? We share the firm believe that performance appraisal should lead to an open feedback, while we know that power motive types in McClelland theory are depressed by feedback.

As well as management daily interactions within our organizations (boards, cross functional teams, units, offices, coffee machines, etc.) are sustained by a collective effort aiming at defining what to expect from others and how to interpret the reality we experiences. But as life goes, we know that the way we framed ourselves when eighteen, needs to be changed when we approach our forties (heard about Peter Pan syndrome in organizations?). So also organizations need to promote sensemaking activities in order to reframe the way they see themselves and break out of a heavy load of stereotypes and hidden assumptions.

That is exactly when a coporate sensemaker is needed. She is the one who can bring inside a fresh look. He acknowledges he will be part of a collective sensemaking process as well, but has no incentives to impose a specific reading of that reality (contrary to most traditional consultants who have THE way of doing it…). She is trained BOTH in quantitative and qualitative methods. Corporate sensemaking comes in different shapes. Sometimes it occurs when managers are forced to see the data according to a different framing. Others it occurs through extensive dialogue sessions and is prompted by unexpected words or behaviors. And to act as a Corporate sensemaker one needs to possess a deep knowledge of narratives, both specific (management, leadership, organization theory, and today ICT, social media, new ways of working, etc.) and general (what was the last book you read? It may come as a surprise how literature fosters sensemaking…). The easiest analogy comes from a series of novels by a German writer, Cornelia Funke. ‘Inkheart’ and the following parts of the trilogy describe sensemakers in the form of the novel writer character (Fenoglio) and in the ‘readers’ (Meggy and her father Mo). They shape reality through words and that’s exactly what a corporate sensemaker does: he discovers the power of words and reveals how they are shaping problems and issues within organizations. It is a gift, difficult to acquire just through training, but it is of great values to organizations.

A brief example can help me summarize. I have been asked to help the board of a social cooperative to define a new governance. The board is composed of 9 members differing in tenure, age, educational background, and obviously internal status and power. One of them was a leading manager in the organization, but he has been recently ousted and lost the role of HR manager. He is really embittered and sad, but loves the cooperative so much he does not want to leave. The others feel the sorrow and are somehow paralyzed by remorse. I could have answered technically, that is go there collect data and then propose a new structure; after all I am a recognized expert on social cooperatives in Italy. However, I sense they need something different and I decide to go through the corporate sensemaking process. First, I ask to spend a day at their headquarters and simply observe people around the offices. I am free to move where I want and join conversations. Second, I conduct extensive interviews with all the board members and let them discuss the issues from their angles. I am not there to answer their doubts, I only encourage them to talk and provide empathy when needed. I understand that they live in completely different perspectives. The facts are completely consistent, they are targeting exactly the same goals, but they fail to connect the dots among completely different framing processes. Third, I ask to observe their board meetings. I will not comment, I tape them and occasionally I take video shots of what is going on. They feel as in a fishbowl and I realize they are letting their pain go. The boards turn into an unexpected success. They are able to talk to each other again. It is a kind of Hawthorne effect, but it is enabled by the extensive talking and narrating that we have put in place. They are reframing what they are at and the extensive sensemaking is getting out of my direct control, it becomes their way of approaching change. They decide to discuss the new governance with internal members of the cooperative, they engage in design by themselves. They use me to check around the alternatives, they do not expect me to tell them what to do.

Interestingly, success of a corporate sensemaker comes from radically disappearing, pretty much the same that happens with a great book: the author disappears, but as there’s no book without the author, there’s no coroporate sensemaking without the corporate sensemaker…

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