For Innovation to Happen it Makes Sense to Sensemake

The level of innovation capability within organizations is connected to the ability of making the right sense of collective experiences, especially in uncertain or ambiguous times. In this post Susanna Bill delves deeper on the importance of sense making and the effects it has on the level of innovation capabilities. And addresses a personal dilemma.

I have had a rough fall. One of my main strategies, which I have used for as long as I can remember, fell apart and didn’t work anymore. To me the strategy of determination, say writing an offer to a potential customer or creating a presentation for a meeting or seminar, has always helped me get things done. I wait until I feel a sense of urgency, then I act. All throughout last fall though, this method completely failed. An academic paper to be written never made it. A proposal for business collaboration did not happen. This made me very confused and I could not make sense of why.

Sensemaking is the process through which various information, insights, and ideas coalesce into something more useful..

Sensemaking is about how we as humans and the organizations in which we act make sense of experiences. By extracting pieces of information that seem relevant according the context in which we act, we create structures and feasible interpretations of the enormous influx of information that surrounds us. Sensemaking is the process through which various information, insights, and ideas coalesce into something more useful or stick together in a more meaningful way. We cannot make use of knowledge without firstly make sense of it.

Systems of sensemaking are webs of meaning that governs the knowledge people make sense of, and the sense they make. Such systems exist in all organizations and are combinations of articulated knowledge available to all members of the organization such as formal roles and routines, and tacit knowledge embedded within members and groups of the organization.

Sensemaking in the organization

In 2000, the researchers Dougherty, Borrelli, Munir and O´Sullivan discovered that the level of innovation capability within organizations was connected to the ability of making the right sense of collective experiences in uncertain or ambiguous situations such as radical changes in the market or technology paradigm shifts.

Less innovative organizations made sense of changes by forcing the existing logic such as way to solve problems and how things are done onto new insights. They looked upon newness as issues that had to be dealt with by existing rules of the game and hence, forcing new insights to fit into already existing solutions. The sensemaking systems of less innovative organizations thus inhibited innovation as they made the organization blind of market and technology changes by filtering out unexpected information or unorthodox competency sets, resulting in groupthink and more of the same.

Innovative organizations on the other hand, dared to challenge existing business logic and made use of new insights, not only to create new value propositions. In addition new insights were used to change existing interpretation schemes and thus, influence the overall evolvement of the organization so that the interpretation schemes themselves became more apt to deal with radical outside factors. Such work demanded organizational traits that are classic in innovation management theories: encouragement of risk taking, management and co-workers trust in each other and an empathic approach to failure. After all challenging existing logic creates tension and ambiguity, which is very challenging to act in.

I have worked within the Swedish Telecom industry for more than 15 years. When rumors had it that Apple were working on a mobile phone we first discarded it as rumors without real evidence. After all, what did Apple know about the telecoms industry and how to build phones? “Phone first” was the slogan of all traditional handset manufacturers and a strategy that had served us, and our Finnish colleagues very well over the last decade. We were of course grossly wrong and at the end the “phone first”  strategy, proved to be not only outdated but even harmful to use in the telecommunications industry.

Our sensemaking system had made us blind to the paradigm shift…

This is but one example of how new players in an industry are able to challenge existing truths and offer value that are more relevant to customers than what incumbents are able to. There are of course no easy explanations to why we acted too late, but to me sensemaking definitely plays a part in it. We had a culture that was very technology and engineering biased. We cherished cool engineering orientated solutions and tended to forget that the priority of the vast majority of users out there was a good user experience in all senses. And we were very much in hand of the operators. Our sensemaking system had made us blind to the paradigm shift that we, and all of our colleagues in the industry, were facing.

As for myself, well I noted that I over and over again asked myself  “what do I really want?”, “Do I feel that this is right for me?” “Does this situation attract me?” and I slowly began to make sense of my inability to force myself to do things despite a long list of To-Dos, which normally would have been my way to go. My subconscious had simply resigned from the strategy of determination making it impossible for my conscious to use it anymore despite trying to all throughout the fall. Instead a new strategy is in formation: that of wanting to, of feeling the desire to and the inclination for. It is going to be very interesting to see where that will take me. I can honestly say that I have no idea. Yet.

Does this make sense to you? How do you make sense within your organization?

About the author


Susanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.

  • Gijs van Wulfen

    Dear Susanna,

    Thank you for your insights on Sensemaking. I am intrigued by it. Although I am not sure I understand the term “sense making’  as you mean it. Are there practical examples on HOW you do this in a ‘right way’ in business practice?

    innovative regards,
    Gijs van Wulfen

  • Susanna Bill

    The core idea with sense making is how an individual or an organization detect patterns in the vast influx of seemingly chaotic and uncorrelated input that surrounds us. The resulting pattern depends not only on contextual and cultural macro factors. In addition individuals are proven to be very dependent on “the way we do things” within the organization.

    If for example the perception is that the firm is an industrial product producing firm, it may make more sense for the individual to evaluate information according to that perception and he/she may not see trends that are connected to consumers even though such insights could be of great use. The “right” way to make sense would allow him/her to take the consumer related insight back to the firm and use it to influence the discussion of self perception. Sense making done “right” is very connected to double loop learning during which the learning process entails not only solving the issue at hand but actively reflect upon and change the underlying mental models that influence problem solving.One example of sensemaking made right is the way the Professional toolmaker Hilti introduced the service of tool availability instead of simply selling the tools. In a highly competitive industry the were able to figure out that what the value they offered was availability of the right tool at the right time and not the tools themselves. The biggest challenge proved to be that of changing the mindset of the internal sales organization, for the customer the value proposition was more obvious. 

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