Navigating complexity, and the power of sensemaking

I have been rereading Christian Madsbjerg’s book ‘Sensemaking.’

“When we get our understanding of humanity wrong, we get everything wrong.” Christian Madsbjerg

In today’s rapidly changing and complex world, effective leadership demands more than just traditional skills. One essential capability that stands out is sensemaking, a concept introduced by Karl Weick and further explored by Christian Madsbjerg in his book “Sensemaking.”

“Argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong.” Karl Weick

Sensemaking involves structuring the unknown to take meaningful actions. It requires leaders to create a plausible understanding of a shifting environment, test this understanding through interaction and data collection, and refine it based on credibility.

Why Sensemaking Matters

Sensemaking is crucial because it allows leaders to grasp the dynamics of their environment, enabling other leadership activities like visioning, relating, and inventing. This capability is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness, often more so than visioning. It remains a valuable skill long after formal training, persisting in organizational vocabulary and practice.

The Process of Sensemaking

Effective sensemaking involves three core steps:

  1. Exploring the Wider System: Leaders must observe their environment with a fresh perspective, collecting diverse data from various sources and involving others to understand different viewpoints. This helps in constructing a comprehensive view of the situation.

  2. Creating a Map or Story: Developing a shared framework or narrative that represents the current situation is vital. This collective map allows coordinated action and helps in reducing the fear of the unknown by providing a clearer picture of what is happening.

  3. Acting to Learn: Implementing small experiments to test understanding is crucial. This iterative process of action and reflection helps leaders refine their understanding and adapt to new information, thus continuously improving their situational awareness.

Key Insights from Christian Madsbjerg

Christian Madsbjerg’s book “Sensemaking” delves into the human aspect of understanding, emphasising the importance of context, empathy, and cultural awareness. Madsbjerg argues that in a world dominated by big data and algorithms, the ability to make sense of human experiences and cultural nuances is more critical than ever. His approach involves:

  1. Human Science: Integrating anthropology, philosophy, and sociology to understand people in their cultural contexts.

  2. Empathy and Context: Going beyond numbers to grasp the deeper, often unarticulated needs and motivations of people.

  3. Pattern Recognition: Identifying patterns in human behavior and cultural trends to inform strategic decisions.

Square Holes’ Approach to Cultural Research

Square Holes, an agency specializing in cultural research and insights, aligns closely with the principles of sensemaking by:

  1. Ethnographic Research: Immersing themselves in the environment of their subjects to gather deep, contextual insights.

  2. Narrative Development: Crafting compelling stories from data to convey insights in a relatable and actionable way.

  3. Holistic Understanding: Combining quantitative and qualitative research to provide a comprehensive view of the cultural landscape.

Overcoming Challenges in Sensemaking

Despite its importance, sensemaking can be hindered by several factors:

  1. Rigidity: Fear and threat often lead to sticking with familiar methods and avoiding necessary changes. Leaders must actively fight this rigidity to enable effective sensemaking.

  2. Dependence on Direction: In times of uncertainty, people may rely excessively on leaders for answers. While leaders need to provide direction, they should also encourage collaborative sensemaking to leverage diverse insights.

  3. Erratic Behavior: Rapid, inconsistent actions can disrupt sensemaking. Leaders need to allow enough time for new actions to yield meaningful feedback before making further changes.

Practical Tips for Effective Sensemaking

  1. Seek Diverse Data Sources: Combine various types of data—financial reports, direct observations, and personal interviews—for a well-rounded understanding.

  2. Involve Others: Engage different perspectives to refine your mental models and avoid blind spots.

  3. Move Beyond Stereotypes: Understand each situation’s unique aspects without relying on oversimplified views.

  4. Be Sensitive to Operations: Learn from frontline experiences and current trends to anticipate future changes.


Sensemaking is not just about finding the correct answer but creating an evolving picture that helps leaders and organizations act in a complex, uncertain world. By integrating insights from Christian Madsbjerg and the cultural research approach of Square Holes, leaders can navigate the unknown with greater confidence and effectiveness. Making sensemaking a core capability enables leaders to break through fears of the unknown and lead their organisations to adapt and thrive amidst continuous change.


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