This briefing note sets out the reasons and rationale for the development of the Tensense diagnostic as a distinct and differentiated means of measuring and reporting organisational sentiment from the perspective of the people who work in, and experience, performance-based activities on a daily basis. The science and origins of sensemaking are explained as a precursor to the importance of being able to report plausible outcomes across wide swathes of an organisation before an issue becomes a crisis.
The guiding principles and purpose for the development of the Tensense diagnostic has been to provide an easily administered process completed by people that indicates to their leaders, plausible areas of issue and best practice in their organisations. A step-change away from the consultant’s ‘discovery’ process or the requirement for multiple, accurate but narrowly focused, traditional surveys that seek compelling ‘proof’ points – at the cost of time, resources and disruption. There are clear benefits to such interventions, but our contention is that organisations are better advised to test [for issues] before they invest in potentially non-aligned solutions, and they are better off being sighted on plausible issues before they become probable.
There are some key drivers to this thinking:
- Given the added safety of anonymity, many people will respond to an opportunity to flag impediments to high performance. However, this can be hampered by ‘survey fatigue’ (too many surveys applied too often) or confiding to an interviewer who has to be taken on trust.
- The inability of leaders to demonstrate to their people that positive action arises from the collective results of consultant engagements or surveys (i.e. the risk that leaders are overloaded with data that can be contradictory), giving rise to the aphorism – ‘if everything is a problem then nothing is a problem’.
- Forty years of experience as a senior detective and qualitative researcher interviewing with many hundreds of people suggests that tacit knowledge or unspoken emotion is equally informative as the direct response the questions posed. (N.B. think here about the formative stages of a major investigation or consultant engagement; both of which start with broad enquiry and takes serious notice of the implied as well as the extant nature of evidence/data in order to then theorise and conduct more detailed investigation).
In common-sense-making terms, we all form opinions about the world around us, often from narrow channels of information and our experiences and knowledge of the context in which we find ourselves. Humans have developed, over millions of years, to instinctively recognise threat or opportunity based upon plausible conclusions and possible outcomes, whether articulated, actioned, or not. The way that we, initially, form our tentative theories about our surroundings is fragile, and prone to error, i.e. individually and collectively we tend to under and over credit the clues and cues from our environment. But to deny the relevance or importance of such, often, latent thought processing is to also deny what enabled our species (for better or worse) to dominate all others on our planet.
We live in a world of increasing evidence-driven data which is why much of our understanding of organisational functioning comes from deep data, detailed and narrowly focused surveys or large-scale consultant led projects. This represents a nascent opportunity for Tensense through our expert knowledge of the science and application of Sensemaking (a simple working definition for which is given above) to challenge the way that leaders can quickly make sense of complex and dispersed organisations in a plausible way that narrows the attentional focus to those areas most in need of further enquiry and deployment of resource (which might well be expert support or granular examination).
Background to the Science of Sensemaking
Karl Weick is a much-celebrated scholar; an organisational theorist known for his concept of sensemaking that goes back to the late 1960s, which refers to the process of making sense of the world around us. This concept is based on the idea that individuals and groups are constantly trying to make sense of their experiences and surroundings, and that this process is essential for successful adaptation and survival. It forms a life-critical building block of human decision-making, developed over millions of years. Flight or fight decisions take less than a second to make because our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of time; if they were confronted with a threat, they had to act immediately, or they would die. Logic or rational decision-making processes have been refined through socialisation (civilisation) for tens of thousands of years. The race between the two is not even close; emotion-laden pathways in the brain are faster than the logical signals. Because the emotional pathway in your brain transmits signals twice as fast as the more roundabout route involving logic, your judgment simply can’t intervene in time; it takes time to think, plan, analyse, and act.
For many years sensemaking has been an area of science much used to deconstruct and reconstruct major disasters where people have played a role in making a bad situation worse; when their sensemaking processes have been overloaded and the research associated with sensemaking has been especially useful for organisational learning, in what are known as High Reliability Organisations (technically complex organisations where failure can lead to loss of life e.g. nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers etc). Failures in such organisations (when the individual/collective process of sensemaking was overwhelmed by [variously] novelty, dynamic complexity, hierarchy and time limitations) led to the following, and many more, disasters:
- Boeing 737 Max crashes
- NASA’s Challenger and Columbia explosions
- Post impact 9/11 losses of emergency service personnel
- Bhopal chemical leak
- The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London Underground
- High infant mortality – Bristol Children’s Hospital, Paediatric Cardiac Unit
The practical business problems that we address
Leaders are gradually accepting that a business landscape shaped to some degree by uncertainty and disruption is now more of a norm than an exception. The speed, quantity and scale of major changes have all accelerated over the last decade. We are experiencing many events which are seen as exceptional in our recent experience – Brexit, a global pandemic, roaring inflation, a major war in Europe and widespread climate change challenges. It is natural and perhaps even comforting to accept the assumption that each event is a one-off, and we’ll go back to the more stable situation to which we had grown accustomed. Yet on every one of those issues, it is more likely than not that this assumption is wrong. In the midst of such dynamic complexity, that in one way or another touches all organisations, how do leaders keep pace (let alone get ahead) of evolving challenges?
Complex, evolving, environments cannot be fully engaged and understood by holding faith with established routines and meanings as they require continuous updating (‘what’s the story here?’). Even very capable people often make at least one big, basic, error – i.e. rushing to change in the mistaken belief that they already know what they have got, where they are going and how to get there – with little time to appreciate the cost or recurrent impact of change on the people.
Organisations that want robust analysis/interventions need to determine their own trade-offs. The professional researcher will provide general, but narrow, assessments through research and try and fit this into simple/accurate findings so that they produce actionable interventions (forcing complex theory into simple actions).
The discovery phase is typically used by consultants to gather data, perform analysis, and identify areas of improvement. This approach assumes that the consultant has a clear understanding of the problem and can provide objective, data-driven solutions. However, this assumption is often flawed, as the real-world problems faced by clients are often complex, multi-faceted, and subject to change.
In contrast, sensemaking can be a more flexible and holistic approach to problem-solving. It acknowledges that real-world problems are complex and dynamic, and that it is often difficult to understand them fully from a single perspective. Sensemaking emphasises the importance of considering multiple perspectives, including those of the stakeholders involved, and encourages the development of multiple interpretations of the problem.
This approach is particularly relevant in today’s rapidly changing business environment, where organisations must be able to respond quickly to shifting market conditions, new technologies, and changing customer preferences. The discovery phase, with its emphasis on data analysis and objective solutions, is often ill-suited to this type of environment, as it can take too long to implement and may not be relevant by the time it is completed.
As a process/science, sensemaking is well-understood but it lacks utility, that is, it does not tell you how to use sensemaking to make better decisions in organisations. Tensense mimics the process of sensemaking in order to enable leaders to understand ‘what’s the story here?’ and, therefore, make more informed and better decisions. By mimicking the sensemaking processes, through smart software and analytics, this is what Tensense offers.
Tensense.ai Science Road Map
This briefing note sets out the reasons and rationale for the development of the Tensense diagnostic as a distinct and differentiated means of measuring and reporting organisational sentiment from the perspective of the people who work in, and experience, performance-based activities on a daily basis. The science and origins of sensemaking are explained as a […]
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