Author:Ancona, Deborah

What is great leadership? If you ask almost any large group of executives this question, their answers will tend to focus on three things: visioning (creating a vision and communicating it with passion); execution (making the changes necessary to move toward the vision and operational excellence); and establishing trust. While these are all part of great leadership, something is still missing.

In a world where techincal information doubles every two years and speed, agility, and innovation are strategies for success, great leaders also need to engage in "sensemaking." The term, coined by Karl Weick at the University of Michigan, means making sense of the context in which we work. It involves structuring the unknown so that we can step into action and understanding what is "out there" in a changing world while moving to adapt to it.

There are several key steps involved in sensemaking:

  1. Be Open: Be open to change and new information rather than stuck in old ways of acting and thinking.

  2. Explore the Wider System: Talk to others outside of your organization to learn from successes and failures. Seek different kinds of data, from new trends to employee ideas, letting go of stereotypes and seeing what is emerging.

  3. Map the System: After collecting data, sit down with others to decipher it. What are the patterns and themes? What is new and different? What are the implications for your organization?

  4. Run Experiments: Test ideas about potential new solutions to problems by trying new things and seeing what happens. This will help to further your sensemaking as you better understand what will work and what will not.

A good example of a leader's ability to engage in sensemaking is Satya Nadella, who became CEO of Microsoft in 2014. Even though he had been with the company for many years, Nadella sought out new perspectives when he became CEO.

After spending a year listening and learning from others inside and outside of the company, he found a rigid culture where politics and self-protection...

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