Sense and Sense Ability

As the anniversary of the UK’s first ‘lockdown’ passes, many are trying to make sense of the events of the past year. For those working in schools, this period has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride. The blogs which have emerged describe the numerous ‘stages’ of school functioning and how it has felt to progress through each stage. The authors of the blogs I have read often profess that the act of writing is part of a process of comprehending, as they search for an answer to the question, ‘what just happened?’ They provide a descriptive account, but are tentative about offering an explanatory one. Perhaps more time is needed to speculate on why things played out the way they did.

This post is not another attempt to make sense of ‘what just happened’. Instead, I would like to explore the mechanisms by which we make that sense. For various reasons, I have been venturing down the rabbit hole of sensemaking: a branch of psychology which offers insights into how humans interpret their experiences and how this in turn affects their actions. Of all the papers and articles I have found on this subject, the one which has absorbed me most is by Karl Weick, Kathleen Sutcliffe, and David Obstfeld (2005). It is called ‘Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking‘, published in the journal Organization Science. I have been studying this paper on and off for the past week. It intrigues me because it is such a comprehensive account of the field, and also because it suggests an alternative perspective to traditional organizational theory and how we explain the behaviour of decision makers. It is helping me make sense of sensemaking, which in turn helps me make sense of how we have interpreted recent events – how we answer the question ‘what just happened?’ and, perhaps more crucially, ‘what happens next?’

You could do no better than to read Weick et al’s article. But I shall attempt to extract some key concepts from it and illustrate these with some contemporary and relevant examples. We’ll start with the concept of dissonance, without which we would not need to employ our sensemaking abilities.

Same or different?

Explicit efforts at sensemaking tend to occur when the current state of the world is perceived to be different from the expected state of the world, or when there is no obvious way to engage the world.

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Prior to the pandemic, we reasonably assumed that children would continue to attend school each day (and so would staff for that matter). We quite possibly never countenanced the cancelling of examinations (even up to the day the announcement was made). We might have laughed at the dystopian image of mask-wearing students in our classes. These assumptions about the world have been rudely challenged again and again.

The dissonance created when events fail to match our assumptions is the match that lights our sensemaking fire. Weick et al note our mind’s constant questioning as to whether what we observe is the same or different to that which we expected. Difference has been variously described as a discrepancy (Orlikowski and Gash, 1994), breakdown (Patriotta, 2003), surprise (Louis, 1980), disconfirmation (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001), opportunity (Dutton, 1993), or interruption (Mandler, 1984). We may equally describe it as discordant, troublesome, or confusing.

It may not be true to say that dissonance has been more frequent in the last 12 months, but these moments have felt more jarring. We have struggled to reconcile how things should be with how they are. Sensemaking is invoked most strikingly when we are at our most uncertain. It is the equivocality of experience that drives our search for a better story.

What’s the story?

To focus on sensemaking is to portray organizing as the experience of being thrown into an ongoing, unknowable, unpredictable streaming of experience in search of answers to the question, “what’s the story?”

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How do we rationalise the events we see unfolding? The answer is that we create plausible stories which explain what is happening. When schools were told to close in March 2020, I told myself (and others) the plausible story that we would be open again in a few weeks time once the spread of the virus had come under control. This was not, it turned out, an accurate story, but at that time accuracy was less important than reassurance. The length of lockdown would have felt untenable as a prospect to most of us at the time, but a more naive estimation of the likely duration of school closure was palatable and enabled us to carry on.

Given this story, the decisions we took to set work for students (rather than launch full steam into online lessons) was rational. We were in no way geared up to do the latter, which would have required considerable investment, hardly justified given our expectations about the expected duration of school closure. But this was a bounded rationality, one which was legitimate in relation to the available data and assumptions.

Conceived of in this way, actions can be understood as arising from interpretation rather than as cold ‘decision making’. Traditional management theory would have us believe that action follows a rational evaluation of the data and available options. But an insight into sensemaking takes our attention away from ‘choice’, and whether these choices are good or bad, and towards a consideration of the ‘reasons’ for actions. Weick et al cite the work of Scott Snook (2001) and his analysis of a friendly fire incident over Iraq in April 1994:

“I could have asked ‘Why did they decide to shoot?’ However, such a framing puts us squarely on a path that leads straight back to the individual decision maker, away from potentially powerful contextual features and right back into the jaws of the fundamental attribution error. ‘Why did they decide to shoot?’ quickly becomes ‘Why did they make the wrong decision?”… Framing the individual-level puzzle as a question of meaning rather than deciding shifts the emphasis away from individual decision makers toward a point somewhere ‘out there’ where context and individual action overlap.”

With the benefit of hindsight and perfect information, many of the decisions made during the pandemic will appear erroneous. However, error is the privilege of the beholder from their future vantage point. In the moment, the decisions made may have been rational and ‘good’. If we are to learn to act more wisely in equivocal circumstances, it is by understanding the stories that led to behaviour rather than looking for deficits in the ability of the decision maker.

But where does the story come from? What do we notice, how do we connect events, and what meaning do we infer?

Functional deployment

(We start with) an undifferentiated flux of fleeting sense-impressions and it is out of this brute aboriginal flux of lived experience that attention carves out and conception names.

Chia (2000)

How do we name and categorise what we see? In the week leading up to the first lockdown, vulnerable staff began to quarantine and other staff fell ill. The effect was not dissimilar to the staff shortages a school may experience in the midst of flu season when there is a risk that there are not enough people left to safely supervise classes. This superficial similarity was a sufficient basis for action as schools took steps to mitigate this risk by sending year groups home. In many respects, it was not a comparable set of circumstances at all, but it was a sufficient handrail. The availability of a reference point, however approximate in its accuracy, was sufficient to determine immediate actions.

Weil et al define functional deployment as the act of ‘imposing labels on interdependent events in ways that suggest plausible acts of managing, coordinating, and distributing’. It is how we recognise things. We label what we see then categorise it. By doing so, we ‘stabilize the streaming of experience’. When we prevent a year group attending school (whilst we trace the close contacts of an infected individual) it is like a snow day. When staff express concern about whether they might catch the virus at school it manifests like other health and safety issues. These categorisations encapsulate many features of the events, but are only an approximation. They suffice while we either create a new frame of reference for ‘such things’ or incorporate this novel occurrence as a new example of a prototypical case we already hold in mind.

As the year progressed, the events which unfolded started to feel more familiar. By the time of the school closure in January of 2021, those in schools had a sense of how this would be. There was an expectation of future events; an expectation forged from past experience. What process enabled this future orientation?

Expectation

Organization is an attempt to order the intrinsic flux of human action, to channel it toward certain ends, to give it a particular shape, through generalizing and institutionalizing particular meanings and rules.

Tsoukas and Chia, 2002

Sensemaking is an attempt to make the world more orderly so that we can operate competently in it.

Weick et al tell the story of a nurse who is caring for an infant. Within a two hour period, the nurse observes what she describes as a dramatic deterioration in the child. Her observations result in a high level of concern, an emotion which causes her to act in the child’s interest by bringing them to a more senior medical professional’s attention.

When asked about her ‘assessment’ of the infant’s health, the nurse struggles to express her rationale for her concerns. She labels some aspects of the child’s appearance and behaviour which drew her attention: lethargy, pallor, a distended stomach, refusal to take food, a ‘strange’ blood test result, urine output, the sounds the baby makes, pulse, blood pressure, and so on. None of these signs on their own would lead to a significant concern, but clustered together, and coming to the nurse’s attention in rapid succession, she experiences a sense that the baby needs urgent medical attention.

We place a nurse in charge of patients because they are primed to notice discordant information relating to a patient’s health. Their training and experience means they are more likely to pay attention to relevant cues, more likely to notice change and to interpret this as ‘different’ to what they would expect a healthy patient to look like (smell like, sound like, behave like). They are employed to notice.

There is an expectation that this nurse has about how the infant’s condition will progress – that it will continue to deteriorate. In this example, we see how one’s interpretation of experience projects an expectation, or assumption, about how events will play out. It is this expectation that forms the basis for action.

Expertise in any given domain may be described as the ability to create a plausible story from a multitude of signals which to others present as a series of unconnected instances. Experts make sense of the ‘flux’ of experience in ways which suggest a course of action. They notice, cluster, and give meaning to impressions in a way that supports wise action.

Our expertise breaks down when the events are beyond our experience – when there is no reference point for interpreting what we notice. Indeed, in novel and highly uncertain situations, we may not even notice the right things. The feeling this invokes is unsettling. I vividly remember refusing to answer any questions about what would happen beyond the next 24 hours at a few points over the last year. It wasn’t just that I was too busy to think about it but that I couldn’t think about it in any meaningful way. My expectations for how events would unfold were so divergent that it would not have been possible to fixate on any particular version of the future. As uncertainty receded, the horizon once more extended so that ‘decisions’ could be made about next week, and eventually further ahead.

Interestingly, my mind appears to have developed a model for what this level of uncertainty feels like. The more I experienced this level of confusion, the more familiar it became. The consequence of this was that by the time of the January debacle, where schools re-opened only to be told that they must immediately close again, I was relatively unfazed. Incomprehensible U-turns felt quite familiar by that point.

So far, I have portrayed sensemaking as something which goes in inside an individual’s mind, but more often this sensemaking is social.

Dialogue

reading, writing, conversing, and editing are crucial actions that serve as the media through which the invisible hand of institutions shapes conduct.

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Words are not merely a way of expressing how we make sense of the world but an instrument in this sensemaking. It is not until we say what we think that we know fully what we think. And by giving our thoughts a form we open them up to challenge. In this way, sensemaking is social.

In the example of the nurse above, we can imagine how the interactions with others over the course of her career inform the frames against which she makes her observations. As the events unfold, the cues the nurse picks up from her colleagues – perhaps comments about the child or the written notes about his condition – feed into her sensemaking. When she brings her concerns to a senior colleague (and is initially brushed off), her sense of concern increases. Her expectation voiced, then ignored, creates a greater sense of urgency, which leads to her insistence that the child receives attention.

The distribution of information throughout an institution and wider system affects every instance of sensemaking by individuals. In schools, we may concern ourselves with the quality of ‘educational sensemaking’: that is the shared body of knowledge that affects the identity and personal knowledge of each individual agent.

Language, and its precision in codifying important ideas, is central to institutional sensemaking. Communication allows a situation to be ‘talked into existence and the basis is laid for action to deal with it’ (Taylor and Van Every, 2000).

To what extent did we have the vocabulary to make sense of the last year’s events? I would suggest that we were limited by a dominance of the language of certainty and predictability,. The ‘invisible hand’ of the institution of schooling has equipped us with concepts which assume stability: plans, vision, aims, implementation, non-negotiables, quality assurance.

It is tempting to see agency in individuals as they make sense of their lived experience. Weick et al point out that the evidence points more towards individuals being socialised and that ‘behaviour is shaped by broad cognitive, normative, and regulatory forces that derive from and are enforced by powerful actors such as mass media, governmental agencies, professions, and interest groups’ (Lounsbury and Glynn, 2001). I am minded to agree with this, and with the assertion that ‘no organization can properly be understood apart from its wider social and cultural context’ (Scott, 1995). We cannot separate our internal sensemaking from the institutional dialogue which takes place. In this regard, the response of schools to the pandemic is symptomatic, for better or worse, of the wider discourse about what schools are for, what priorities they should adopt, and how we go about improving them. If we want better schools we must change the nature of the conversation we have about schools.

The transmission mechanism by which the invisible hand operates is the the sense of identity of school leaders. It is this identity which determined what school leaders have paid attention to during the last year and what they have done in response.

Identity

who we think we are (identity) as organizational actors shapes what we enact and how we interpret.

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What am I here to do? I have asked myself this question, tacitly or explicitly, many times in the last year. I noted wryly in my Twitter profile at the start of the pandemic that I had a new job as Head of a Virtual School. It felt like a new job as the regularities of the school I knew were swept away.

Identity is often portrayed as immutable. However, who we are may depend more on how others treat us than we might like to admit. As Weick et al put it, ‘how can I know who we are becoming until I see what they say and do with our actions?’

Schools certainly received feedback on their actions in the early stages of the pandemic. Their decisions about remote learning were scrutinised (and lambasted by some). There was a great deal of attention paid (in a more positive way) to those who were delivering resources, even food parcels, directly to the homes of disadvantaged children. These public narratives about the role schools should be playing served to shape the identities of school leaders. It was not that a minority of schools were ahead of the game in switching to live lessons or taking on a role in addressing economic inequality and others were ‘behind’. Rather, stories were woven to create a narrative that served the needs of particular interest groups. This shaped the public narrative about the roles schools should play and, in turn, the private identities of school leaders who adapted their actions accordingly.

In this way, a school’s response is neither correct or incorrect, but may be seen as more or less plausible in relation to the public narrative about schools. That term ‘plausible’ again.

Plausibility

Sensemaking is not about truth and getting it right. Instead, it is about a continued redrafting of an emerging story so that it becomes more comprehensive, incorporates more of the observed data, and is more resilient in the face of criticism.

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In the blogs written by school leaders about recent events, there is a crafted narrative as if the events happened and there is one story to be told about these events. These leaders may admit to mistakes, present their journey as a quest to do their best, and reflect on the ‘rightness’ of their decisions. The pursuit of accuracy makes a good story, one in which we are the central character.

However, in reality there are multiple stories, not just because there are many players in the drama, but because each actor will continually over-write their previous interpretations of events. We look for better stories.

Better stories are not more accurate necessarily, rather they are more plausible. More plausible stories ‘tap into the current climate, are consistent with other data, facilitate ongoing projects, reduce equivocality, provide an aura of accuracy… and offer a potentially exciting future’ (Mills, 2003). Possibly most importantly, plausible stories keep things moving.

Organisational culture may be portrayed as the telling of more plausible stories. Managerial effectiveness may similarly be seen as deriving from the plausibility of these stories, rather than the accuracy of a manager’s perceptions. School leaders may satisfy themselves that they have made an accurate analysis of the facts and have determined their actions rationally, but if their version of ‘the situation’ is not plausible to others then no amount of persuasion or coercion will take things forward. What is required is ‘actionable knowledge’ (Bettis and Prahalad, 1995).

Traditional management theory which assumes stable goals, rational assessment of a range of actions, and sound decision making, appears questionable from a sensemaking perspective. In conditions of extreme uncertainty, which is how we might describe the situation in schools at various points in the past year, the orthodox conceptions of managerial effectiveness break down further. Weill et al suggest that the role of school leaders is to ‘bracket’ problems from ‘an amorphous stream of experience’ before action can be taken. Bracketing (which incorporates the labelling and categorising we discussed earlier) enables the organisation to move ‘toward general long term goals’ (Mezias and Starbuck, 2003).

To be effective in this regard, school leaders must be ‘in tune’ with both the external narrative and those within the school who must respond to emerging events. They may take on the role of story-teller, but their stories will not be heard if they are outlandish and discordant with the prevailing narrative.

However, is there any such thing as a shared story?

Consensus

Is the construct of collective belief theoretically meaningful?

Porac et al, 2002

Can we expect to reach a shared understanding of events? Perhaps. But at what cost?

Dialogue is undoubtedly the pathway to shared understanding and the oft-professed aim of a ‘common culture’. However, it may not be a good use of our time. Weill et al state the following:

“When information is distributed among numerous parties, each with a different impression of what is happening, the cost of reconciling these disparate views is high, so discrepancies and ambiguities in outlook persist. Thus, multiple theories develop about what is happening and what needs to be done, people learn to work interdependently despite couplings loosened by the pursuit of diverse theories, and inductions may be more clearly associated with effectiveness when they provide equivalent rather than shared meanings.’

The suggestion is that people learn to pursue productive endeavours despite differences in the way they make sense of events. Given the inevitable diversity of belief and experience among an organisation’s members, the goal of achieving shared understanding seems somewhat unrealistic. This casts doubt on the wisdom of the ‘common culture’ aspiration and points instead to an acceptance of diversity. Indeed, the persistence of diverse stories may in fact serve an important organisational purpose which is the generation of new meaning through the tension created as conflicting versions of events collide. Achieving a common culture may serve to arrest the social sense-making process, slowing down the creation of new ways of understanding which may lead to more fruitful endeavour. Diversity and conflict may be vital ingredients in a healthy, evolving organisational culture.

There was no shared conception of many of the events which unfolded at the most disruptive points of the pandemic but this diversity of thought and belief may have played an essential adaptive role in shaping a purposeful response. A dynamic response was required, not a once-and-for-all ‘decision’ on how to proceed, and the continual discord between the different answers to the question ‘what is going on?’ may have been our salvation.

Organising

increased skill at sensemaking should occur when people are socialized to make do, be resilient, treat constraints as self-imposed, strive for plausibility, keep showing up, use retrospect to get a sense of direction, and articulate descriptions that energize”

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We must play the hand we are dealt. Throughout this pandemic, school leaders have had to continually invent plausible stories for what is going on, keep showing up despite significant adversity, and energize those upon whom children depend. The stories we are telling about this experience may or may not be accurate, but this matters less than whether the narrative provides a momentum to keep moving forwards.

It matters also that we keep articulating these stories, to ‘lift equivocal knowledge out of the tacit, private, complex, random, and past to make it explicit, public, simpler, ordered, and relevant to the situation at hand’ (Obstfeld, 2004).

In the telling of stories we sharpen our sensemaking ability and find a reason to keep showing up.

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