Visualisation through maps helping to make sense of uncertainty

We all know the familiar sound of a piercing whistle signaling the team to run off the court, pitch, field or ice. The coach ushers them into a crowded huddle whilst rapidly scribbling the next organised play on the whiteboard as the team look on closely. Equally, a common scene in war movies is a group of generals hunched over a map in the war room surveying the battlefield, strategising and charting their path to victory. A familiar scene on a construction site is an engineer rolling out a set of construction plans with a bunch of workers huddled around to align around the actions for the day ahead. So what’s driving this observed behaviour of groups aligning around a visual map or plan? Is it innate, or a learned behaviour? Why does it exist in some environments and not others and how can we learn from it?

According to organisational psychologist Karl Weick, the process of creating and aligning around maps is a natural human behaviour that helps bring structure to the unknown. Not only can maps help individuals make sense of uncertainty, the benefit rises exponentially when it enables groups to align and act coherently. Simplified maps aid in distilling the complexity which exists in many areas of our professional and personal lives, bringing hope, confidence and the means to successfully transition from anxiety to action. This natural human inclination to communicate through visual representation is an aspect of human behaviour that Weick recognised in the term ‘sensemaking’ – to make sense of the unknown!

The digital age paradox, the more we know the less we can make sense of it

It is one of the great paradoxes of the digital age that never before have we had such ready access to information and knowledge of the unknown. Yet, the more knowledge we garner, the less we seem to be able to make sense of it. We are assaulted by commentary and analysis of a rapidly changing world. In theory, real surprises should be minimal and the ability to respond to change should be high as trends driving change are well flagged, analysed and critiqued. However, in practice, what I often find in my strategy consulting assignments is that leadership alignment around a plausible understanding of a shifting and uncertain world is not well developed. Frequently, management teams are attempting to create a battle plan without reference to a simplified and shared map of the current state. They are missing the art of sensemaking.

It doesn’t mean there is only one ‘right’ or ‘precise’ map. Depending on circumstances different groups will give significance to different formations in the same landscape. For example, while the military generals may be most interested in positioning their troops relative to topography features, the engineer may be most interested in positioning relative to other infrastructure. Importantly, a shared map needs to be relevant to a particular circumstance. In simplicity, the map needs to be one that whilst it leaves each party desiring further detail on troops, topography or sale trends (whatever the niche may be), it provides the broader picture view with a story that relevant people can largely agree with. There is alignment around the ‘lay of the land’.

The three-step process to effective sensemaking

The positive news is that like any form of art, it can be learnt, and with practice can be excelled at by the whole team. Sensemaking is the foundation upon which other core leadership capabilities of visioning, relating and inventing can rest.

The first step is a collection and distillation phase. The key is to work with others to observe what is going on, and to tap into different sources and types of data. It is at the same time high level and granular, making sure to get input from those closest to the action and most intimate with customers. It is a collective activity whereby different perspectives are bought to bear to overcome individual bias and well-established mental models about the world and how things interact. It is attempting to see with ‘new eyes’ – to overcome stereotypes. It is an expansive and collective process.

While the first step tends to come more naturally, many leadership teams struggle transitioning to the second step of creating and aligning around a plausible map of the current situation. It is the distillation of the complex to the simplistic. It is seeking for the ‘so whats’ and being able to translate this into a shared map or story map that, at least for a period of time, represents the current situation. It requires courage to allow a new map to emerge that may be counter to conventional wisdom. It is seeking images, metaphors and stories that make it easier to build a shared understanding.

The third step is to then find meaningful ways to act on the map or the specific story that has been created. Sensemaking is not a passive game but a participation one – as it is by participating that there is the opportunity to experiment, learn, and refine how to play in the complex and shifting system that persists. It is the means of collecting new knowledge that helps continuously refine your story map. It is the way to constantly check your senses to make sure they still make sense. It is where the generals adjust their strategy, the engineers revise their plans, and the sporting coach shifts the dynamics by transitioning players on and off the bench.

A foundational capability for leadership and strategy

In a complex and changing world, the art of sensemaking can help leaders break through fears of the unknown and lead in the face of complexity and uncertainty. It is the solid foundation on which effective strategies are mapped. Unquestionably, the global pandemic has been catastrophic to lives and livelihoods, and making sense of it in your business requires a map which brings leaders to the table to connect and collaborate, thus calibrating a finely-tuned GPS!