The following illuminating extract is from a Chief Executive interview with Marc Benioff, founder and co-CEO of the behemoth SaaS firm, Salesforce, as he discusses its stellar success. He says a lot about business and organisational culture, but his answers also say a lot about organisational sensemaking and leadership.
“You’re one of the few people who have gone from founder to enterprise CEO. You’ve had to continuously learn. How do you learn? How do you go to each level of leadership?”
‘We talk a lot about beginner’s mind. The Japanese have this great word, shoshin, this idea that everything has to be looked at anew. When we look at the pandemic, that was a moment where we all had to kind of say, “What’s really happening here, and how are we going to go forward?” Things that applied before no longer applied. The
way we worked didn’t apply.’
Put simply, Individual Sensemaking is the way that humans process information in order to create meaning from situations that they face. (What’s the story here….and, therefore, what do I do next?). Put less simply, our brains sift situations for clues that fit past frames of reference (events) and then form tightly or loosely held meanings which enable people to make decisions and take actions. Organisational Sensemaking is the collective social processing of information, however incomplete, that results in the creation of meaning (not always shared equally), decision-making and actions.
Benioff may not have heard of sensemaking but, more importantly, he is enacting great sensemaking in the practice of leadership. This might come as something of a relief for Jeff Dickson in his call for Non-Routine Leadership:
‘It [sensemaking] has been absent from commercial contexts. This is curious, considering sensemaking’s superior value as the prerequisite skill for complex problem solving and decision making.’
Indeed, given his attributes and track record for success, Benioff might be the definitive non-routine leader, but then he does set the bar rather high!
What makes a great leader?
When asked ‘what makes a great leader’, I provide the attributes shared by great sensemaking leaders, amongst which feature:
- curiosity (don’t assume you have seen this situation before)
- humility (don’t assume that your solution fits today’s situation)
- asking great questions (to establish ‘what’s the story here?’ The chances are that the answers will lie with others)
- thinking complex and doing simple (the need to make sense of complex environments but render them sensible through common-sense-giving)
- focusing on enactment rather than enthinkment (sensemaking is retrospective so people learn more quickly from doing things)
It is appropriate to be curious about the paucity of programmatic sensemaking (rather than the ongoing nature of instinctive sensemaking) in organisations but, even if leaders are philosophically persuaded, it is not an easy task. Effectively it means a mindset characterised by creative disturbance – balancing the duality of thought processes that simultaneously credits ongoing events (confirms meanings) and discredits ongoing events (questions meanings). This is difficult enough but, when dealing with a series of important issues, people can be overwhelmed by the scale, complexity and contradictory nature of the information available. And with a high degree of emotional turbulence (time pressure, politics, concurrent events and risks), the task of piecing together fragments into explanations (the creation of common-sense-meaning) only adds to the challenges that leaders face.
Dickson is not the first to call for improved sensemaking in organisations as my own contribution in Business Leader testifies, and I stand by my conclusion:
‘If ever there was a point in time for the power of technology to prove its value to leaders who face a ‘perfect storm’ of decision-taking it is now. Nothing else will meet the needs of the time, or indeed the unique circumstances.’
In order to take root in a widespread manner, organisational sensemaking (the ‘what’) also needs a fit-for-purpose ‘way’ to do the heavy lifting so that the world can see more non-routine leaders such as Marc Benioff!
You can read more about The Wisdom of Organisational Sensemaking here.