In a recent Sunday Times article, Matthew Syed attempts to put into perspective the recent purging excoriation of conduct by politicians and officials during the pandemic: ‘The WhatsApp witch-hunt chisels away at our sense of fair play’. His central thesis being one that will chime, not only with politicians, but all leaders who face a novel crisis.
“It was one of these moments when uncertainty descended like a fog, and our lives entered a kind of twilight zone. All ministers in all nations made mistakes. This is what happens with a fast-moving crisis, with expert opinion divided, and no obvious playbook.”
In many respects, Syed is using the exchanges of WhatsApp messages between ministers and their aides as a synonym for the process of sensemaking (what’s the story here and what do I do next?). An astute reader of the article might even suggest that there were attempts to recast the ‘story’ so that, under later scrutiny, observers could be led to different, and
rather less damaging, conclusions
The article falters on the assertion that: ‘Messages fired off under extreme pressure do not deserve to be scrutinised out of context.’ As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard so aptly put it: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In understanding the unfolding nature of life, we always look backwards in order to comprehend events, analyse, reward and yes, blame. Such conclusions are always out of context because such events reside in the past. Which is why context is so readily substituted for the logical deduction of hindsight that pales as a poor distortion of the emotional context in which the sensemaking of events was conducted. Logical deduction is an attractive tool for the rendering of complex events, but it struggles to make sense of contexts driven by a profusion of emotional contradictions and responses and so these are marginalised or ignored. Which is the point that Syed infers, but does not conclude.
Sensemaking, as a fundamental building block of the way that people respond to events is well understood, both as a facet of science, and a process, but, until now, it has lacked utility. Its weakness being that the science and process did not tell you how to harness the sensemaking power of people in organisations to create more timely and accurate hindsight and, therefore, intelligent foresight. Which is why the mission of Tensense.ai is to reduce risk, make better decisions and improve performance for curious leaders, through the use of Organisational Sensemaking™, without need to examine their people’s WhatsApp messages!