threads of yarn

How can leaders use Sensemaking to unravel complex challenges?

2023 brings a level of uncertainty and volatility that’s hard to fathom. Navigating post-pandemic, climate, and global shocks makes it difficult to decide what to do and where to go next. And for many team leaders, this insecurity erodes confidence in their ability to deliver. Yet future success depends on their ability to unravel complex challenges and deliver effective actions.

We know that the future isn’t what it used to be, and tried-and-true approaches may no longer work. As The World Economic Forum says, it’s a wake-up call.

This should be a wake-up call, pushing us to deeply rethink how we operate, reimagine how we create, distribute and capture value – not only to survive and thrive but also to address the transformational challenges of the coming decades.

This is not only about the future, it is also about helping us do what we can and should do, here and now.

This big strategic thinking (sometimes referred to as “foresighting”) is essential for organisations. However, done rigorously, it requires top-level buy-in, training and investment. So how can teams apply a similar approach at the local level to unravel the issues and emergent challenges and make decisions that lead to practical actions?

This is where sensemaking makes sense.

Sensemaking, a term introduced by Karl Weick, refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding — a map — of a shifting world. Then testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation. And finally, refining or abandoning the map, depending on how credible it is.

Sensemaking is the stage before problem-solving and innovation methodologies become relevant.

For example, imagine your team trying to respond to an emergent challenge engulfed in a tangle of issues, just like a mess of woollen yarn. First, you must unravel the threads and create a picture that makes sense. This is the first step in deciding what actions to take.

Then, once you see the pattern, you can dive in. Identify the priorities and follow the process of understanding the problem and generating appropriate actions.

There are three lenses in our sensemaking approach:

  1. What is happening around us that might affect what we do?
  2. What is happening in our team that might impact our ability to do it?
  3. And what is happening to our customers and creating problems?

The case study below demonstrates how we used this approach, including our DECODE process, to unravel a complex challenge for a long-term client.

DECODE is our six-step approach to problem-solving that harnesses creativity, collaboration, and innovation.

Unlike traditional methods that start with a predefined problem and outcomes, DECODE begins with a problem description. Working through the six steps (describe, engage, clarify, outline, determine and evaluate), DECODE unveils insights and practicable actions. Importantly, it engages all relevant stakeholders and employs various techniques, including analysis, perception mapping, idea filtration, and priority planning.

Unravelling complex challenges for a global tech company

(Note, some details have been removed for privacy.)

case study

The Brief

A global technology company presented us with an open brief. To develop a plan to balance the teams’ short-term goals regarding the customer, products and platform development with their strategic goals of technology debt reduction and growth.

Importantly, the team leader recognised that achieving their goals depended on building positive relationships between team members, particularly integrating new hires. In addition, all team members needed to understand the context to identify project priorities and interdependencies.

Why Hargraves?

Hargraves was bought in to facilitate a customised workshop. As an external facilitator, our proven DECODE process ensured all team members contributed equally and positively, and the team reached actionable decisions.

The agenda addressed:

  • Strengths and weaknesses of individuals and their relationships with other team members.
  • Team performance across the six (6) pillars of collaboration.
  • Context, including external trends, customer expectations, and rapidly changing markets.
  • Actions achievable by this team within this context.

Outcomes for the group included:

  1. A set of actions to sustain healthy team performance and improve the engagement of each team member.
  2. A map of actionable ideas which could be achieved within budget and resourcing constraints.
  3. Alignment across all functions and roles, reducing confusion and wasted time.

Benefits of this approach

  • After working through the DECODE process, the team developed a clear purpose within the corporate strategy.
  • They recognised individual strengths and their practical aspirations for better team performance.
  • All team members connected and built relationships based on helping each other.
  • Bias, seniority, and loud voices were reduced by using an external facilitator and a combination of proven tools.
  • Perception Mapping ensured only actionable ideas were proposed that could be implemented within budget and resource constraints.

In our experience, collaboration thrives on 2 key attributes – confidence and connectedness.

While technology enables us to collaborate in different ways, understanding the attributes and behaviours that drive healthy collaboration has never been more critical.

Hargraves collaboration model - the 6 pillars of collaboration
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