Gearshifts: From Problem Solving to Sense Making

By Lisa Slayton; part four of a series. Reprinted from The Wholeness Journey.

Last fall my husband and I took a wonderful trip to central Italy. After a few days in Bologna, we headed to Florence and Tuscany. On our way, we detoured slightly to stop at the Ferrari and Lamborghini factories. These stops included the opportunity for us to drive a Ferrari on the open road for a brief stint. As we got in, I squeezed into what was barely a back seat as Roger took the wheel and our guide jumped into the passenger seat. He turned to me and asked me if I wanted a spin at the wheel before our allotted time period ended. I eagerly said yes, I’ll take the last five minutes. We headed out onto the open road and Roger slowed down and then punched the accelerator over and over again to hit mind boggling speeds.

it was thrilling.

As it came closer to my turn, I realized two things. One, how much fun my husband was having behind the wheel of this $300k dream machine, and two, that there was no way I could figure out how to drive this complex car in just a few minutes. In one of my more generous wifely moves over 40 years of marriage, I gave my husband the last few minutes of driving the Ferrari.

This is where we find ourselves on many fronts as leaders right now. Not enough time to make sense of what is in front of us and the recognition that knowing how to drive a five-speed Toyota Corolla does not provide sufficient experience to just jump behind the wheel of a highly engineered complex machine and put it in gear.

That is why we must make this fourth shift from Problem Solving to Sense Making we can’t fix this problem.

Most of the skills we have learned up to this point around decision making and problem solving will not support the kinds of environments we are now navigating. The growth edge for leaders right now is to make sense of what we are seeing and learning in complex environments. Welsh social scientist and leadership guru David Snowden captured this way entering into complexity and navigating it quite differently in a framework he calls cynefin, a Welsh word meaning habitat or haunt. Snowden proposes that we all have connections, often through things we cannot see or grasp, and our work is to truly explore other “habitats” to learn how to make sense of our own.

In the visual below, there are the obvious or clear kinds of problems, and more complicated problems. This is where modern management and leadership science has spent tons of time creating models and tools to equip their people to lead and problem solve. This requires an analytical and engineering mindset and way of approaching challenges. And it is still helpful and useful for many kinds of organizational needs and challenges.

The chaotic, which we have all experienced over these last months, requires quick, decisive action that stabilizes the environment. But it won’t work over time.

Cynefin Framework, copyright David Snowden
Cynefin Framework, copyright David Snowden

Engaging complexity is not a simple thing to pay attention to as it is counter intuitive to traditional decision-making and problem-solving methods. However, the cost of not moving into this way of leading will severely limit you to the opportunities that begin to emerge and cause you to stumble if you are only relying on what you already know.  In order to make sense of what we are seeing and learning in uncharted territory, we must be able identify patterns as they emerge and then build our experiments and prototypes around those patterns. If problem solving requires categorizing and analyzing what we are seeing and experiencing, then a very different framework and road map is needed to “sense make”:

  • Listening and probing first, not jumping to categorizing and analyzing:
    • In problem solving, our starting point starts from an assumption that we know what the destination is, we just have to “engineer” our way to the solution. The starting point is “we know.” Sense Making starts with curiosity and question asking. It assumes that “we don’t know.”
    • Gather qualitative data: Ask questions about what people are experiencing around a specific challenge or concern. Capture key words and phrases. Over time you will see some patterns emerge that become actionable.
  • Minimum Viable Decision Making is learning to move forward when you can see the bigger picture to some degree but you have insufficient data. Often called abductive reasoning, it what is needed when inductive or deductive reasoning are not useful.
    • In abductive reasoning, the major premise is evident, but the minor premise and therefore the conclusions we can draw are only probable. We must experiment and be willing to move with insufficient information.
    • Thick Data, not just Big Data, that leads to Rich Data. Thick Data is the result of we learned in step one – by seeking patterns and making sense of what people are experiencing and marrying it to Big Data. It provides us with new perspective and insight so that we are not defaulting back to what we know when we begin to examine Big Data.
  • Emergent Practices, not Best Practices:
    • Best Practices only work on familiar, tried and true systems. Things that are known and repeatable. They tend to be rigid and focused on compliance when constraints are fixed. Over time, without review and improvement, they will produce mediocrity.
    • Good Practices allow for some flexibility, and offer governing constraint while allowing people to move with some creativity. They function best when the problem is known, and the solution can be identified, but the path to get there is complicated. They are very helpful in engineering environments.
    • Novel Practices occur when the environment is chaotic and there are no effective constraints. People must act and respond with little or no complete information and stress is often high.
    • Emergent Practices offer enabling constraints, but allow for a high degree of flexibility and agility. They can also emerge when we see that something that already exists – either tangible or intangible – can acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected.

To make these shifts will require interventions in all of your existing systems. It may even require you to abandon some of your systems and build new ones. The danger of simply rubber-banding back to pre-pandemic norms is that you will extend the trauma and pain your people are already experiencing, rather than giving them new conditions to realign around that create safety, resilience, possibility and hope. If you are actually relying primarily on what you know and what has worked in the past, you may find yourself and your organization in dangerous territory. 

This work as a leader is not easy or simple. It will require a significant commitment of your time, energy and focus. It might seem like this can wait until things calm down, or you have more certainty about the future. But when things settle down, and you have a better line of site to a new future, you may have lost some of you very best people along the way. Is that a risk you are willing to take?

Undertaking this work, especially in complex times, seems daunting. But it has never been more important. If we can be helpful as you navigate these shifts, please email here to schedule a 30-minute consultation.  

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