Coronavirus: a call for improving organisational sensemaking

Covid-19 | Covid-19 Advice | Employment & Skills | National | Sponsored | Technology

With coronavirus having a growing impact on business around the globe, Dr Mike Carter, Chief Scientific Officer at Footdown, explains how leaders need to harness the power of technology to meet the challenge.

How do leaders make better sense of their organisations to allow them to manage the unexpected?

The world stands at the beginning of a significant novel event – the outbreak of coronavirus. It is a new disease with no existing cure, that is capable of developing into a pandemic, bringing as-yet-unknown consequences.

The problem with potentially large-scale, dangerous novel events is that they can only judged after they have impacted because the tools and routines used to deal with them are either untested or have only been tested on what are bracketed as similar events. The more the degree of novelty the greater the shock and therefore the harder it becomes to take appropriate actions.

There is a limit to human ability to adapt to change beyond a certain level and to deal with novelty. Equally systems may not be able to respond to changes outside a certain range.

In such circumstances, routines become constraining rather than enabling and inertia itself becomes a problem requiring change.

Something new is needed rather than something reused, ie change that involves the replacement or addition of routines and tools rather than the modification or adjustments of what is already there.

‘The sensemaking perspective’

Many who witnessed the events of September 11, 2001, let alone received the warnings, found it difficult to believe what they were seeing. Indeed, as events unfolded, people updated their beliefs as to what they were seeing, which changed what it was they were seeing, creating a new level of understanding to match this novel situation.

A terrible accident becomes a terrorist attack: hindsight is bound up with hind-believing.

According to Kierkegaard ‘life is lived forward but understood backwards’. So how – or if – is it possible to balance the future-orientated, forward-living of life with the retrospective-oriented understanding of what has happened?

It suggests the gap between living forward with flawed foresight and understanding backward, with equally flawed but mischievously-seductive hindsight, is central to the process revealed on September 11 and lies at the heart of the sensemaking perspective.

Put plainly, sensemaking is literally what it says it is; namely making something sensible.

Put less plainly, it is about how people make sense of their world by reducing equivocality or ambiguity. That is, in an effort to introduce a workable level of certainty, people make informed bets as to ‘what is going on’ by ruling out a number of possibilities or ‘might-have-beens’ before arriving at a conclusion and then acting.

‘Huge implications’

From a leader’s perspective, what is needed are tools that can help frame their decisions with the best possible information, arrived at plausibly and quickly, and reducing ambiguity.

Whether it be the banking collapse in 2008, or the continuing machinations of Brexit a decade later, we know that these points of crisis have had huge implications for financial and social systems.

As a consequence, organisations were surprised by what they had to deal with, either because there was a break in expectations that come from situations that were not anticipated or situations did not advance as planned.

What is less understood (hence the real impact of novelty) is the recursive nature of the social instability caused both by preventative measures and direct causality arising from the disease.

As health professionals throughout the world are struggling to understand and resolve the scientific nature of the coronavirus, governments are structuring staged contingency plans to contain the spread and cope with the treatment of escalating cases.

‘A classic challenge’

Leaders in sophisticated and dispersed organisations will need to rapidly assimilate emerging trends and advice in order to take the correct and timely action; a classic challenge of organisational sensemaking amidst dynamic complexity in a novel situation.

As operational effectiveness is reduced by the direct impact of virus, the market viability of products and services will become constrained and unpredictable.

And yet at the very time leaders would wish to deploy some of their traditional assets (eg meetings/use of consultants, etc) to harness information and assess options, i) use of such assets is likely to be restricted and ii) the speed of change is, in any case, likely to outstrip the windows of opportunity.

It is suggested that leadership in the current organisational context of the coronavirus disease is about setting organisational structures and working practices that at one and the same time seek to learn from the past and exploit the weakness of that learning through the rapid reduction of equivocality into lightly-held, manageable and actionable solutions.

These need to be sufficiently adroit to match complexity and provide the requite variety that this situation is likely to require.

If ever there was a point in time for the power of technology to prove its value to leaders who face a ‘perfect storm’ of decision-taking it is now. Nothing else will meet the needs of the time, or indeed the unique circumstances.

Dr Mike Carter, Chief Scientific Officer at Footdown.

Dr Mike Carter is the Chief Scientific Officer at Footdown. Footdown has embedded the power of sensemaking in software technology to help leaders understand their organisations quickly, effectively and efficiently, framing and supporting their decision-taking.

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