‘Winging it’ or Sensemaking?

In a provocative and thought-provoking article, Emma Beddington contrasts leaders who wing it, perhaps because they love the adrenaline of taking a gamble or perhaps because they are averse to research and study, with leaders who appear to wing it in their decisions, but really have a solid well-researched understanding of the potential risks and rewards. Beddington notes that ‘what looks like winging it can, in fact, be instinctive decision-making backed up by experience’. 


To avoid confusion, the first group of people who wing it outright do not have the requisite knowledge/skill of the subject area in which they are making decisions and therefore create potential danger for themselves or others. In leaders this would be a huge concern.

In the latter group, Beddington uses the examples of Elon Musk and tangentially, Steve Jobs. By many accounts in the case of Steve Jobs, his instinctive understanding of what constituted a premium experience was underpinned by a complete involvement in the details of every Apple product, whether hardware, software or services.

Dr Mike Carter, Chief Scientific Officer at Tensense.ai, defines this group as leaders who form rapid decisions based upon experience and skill; rather than ‘winging it’ they are using informed improvisation. He gives an example from the world of music to illustrate this – ‘Buddy Rich was a brilliant jazz drummer who could lay down a tempo and then say to the band “what song does this go with?” Their jam sessions only worked because he and they were experienced musicians and confident in their shared skills.’ 

What path should leaders follow, therefore, to get a good balance between complete immersion in their businesses and outright winging it? I suspect that, in spite of the kudos that might follow a great outcome from a risky decision, most CEOs and other leaders would wish to avoid the harsh publicity about poor results from decisions made as a result of winging it. On the other hand, they might not have the energy and detailed knowledge of a Steve Jobs to immerse themselves in every aspect of their businesses. Hence the majority of leaders are mostly dependent on data to run their businesses, both quantitative such as financial and productivity and qualitative, such as employee experience (EX). But, does this give them all the data they need or are they, to an extent, forced to wing it on some important decisions? 

An understanding of Sensemaking (the ongoing innate process by which people make sense of their surroundings and context before they make decisions) gives leaders more control to understand on what basis they are forming opinions and to avoid those areas to which they are tempted to be wilfully blind (winging it).

However, Sensemaking data is not readily available to many leaders today, until now. Organisations have this innate Sensemaking ability highlighted by Beddington, within all of their workforce which enables them to make sense of situations instinctively. This Sensemaking knowledge, when collected and analysed is invaluable in helping leaders determine the right paths for an organisation and can act as an early warning system for potential issues up ahead.

Tensense calls this Organisational Experience (OX) data and has been providing this early warning analysis for clients for several years, significantly improving their organisational performance.