Sensemaking, Foresight and Risk Management

I love the power of Karl Weick’s future-oriented sensemaking – thinking in the future perfect tense – for supplying us a framework to imagine the future as if it has already occurred. We do not spend enough time being forward-looking and shaping the interpretation of future events. But when you think about it quality is essentially all about using existing knowledge of the past to project a desired future.

This making sense of uncertainty – which should be a part of every manager’s daily routine – is another name for foresight. Foresight can be used as a discipline to help our organizations look into the future with the aim of understanding and analyzing possible future developments and challenges and supporting actors to actively shape the future.

Sensemaking is mostly used as a retrospective process – we look back at action that has already taken place, Weick himself acknowledged that people’s actions may be guided by future-oriented thoughts, he nevertheless asserted that the understanding that derives from sensemaking occurs only after the fact, foregrounding the retrospective quality of sensemaking even when imagining the future.

“When one imagines the steps in a history that will realize an outcome, then there is more likelihood that one or more of these steps will have been performed before and will evoke past experiences that are similar to the experience that is imagined in the future perfect tense.”

R.B. MacKay went further in a fascinating way by considering the role that counterfactual and prefactual processes play in future-oriented sensemaking processes. He finds that sensemaking processes can be prospective when they include prefactual “whatifs” about the past and the future. There is a whole line of thought stemming from this that looks at the meaning of the past as never static but always in a state of change.

Foresight concerns interpretation and understanding, while simultaneously being a process of thinking the future in order to improve preparedness. Though seeking to understand uncertainty, reduce unknown unknowns and drive a future state it is all about knowledge management fueling risk management.

Do Not Ignore Metaphor

A powerful tool in this reasoning, imagining and planning the future, is metaphor. Now I’m a huge fan of metaphor, though some may argue I make up horrible ones – I think my entire team is sick of the milk truck metaphor by now – but this underutilized tool can be incredibly powerful as we build stories of how it will be.

Think about phrases such as “had gone through”, “had been through” and “up to that point” as commonly used metaphors of emotional experiences as a physical movement or a journey from one point to another. And how much that set of journey metaphors shape much of our thinking about process improvement.

Entire careers have been built on questioning the heavy use of sport or war metaphors in business thought and how it shapes us. I don’t even watch sports and I find myself constantly using it as short hand.

To make sense of the future find a plausible answer to the question ‘what is the story?’, this brings a balance between thinking and acting, and allows us to see the future more clearly.

Bibliography

  • Cornelissen, J.P. (2012), “Sensemaking under pressure: the influence of professional roles and social accountability on the creation of sense”, Organization Science, Vol. 23 No. 1, pp. 118-137, doi: 10. 1287/orsc.1100.0640.
  • Greenberg, D. (1995), “Blue versus gray: a metaphor constraining sensemaking around a restructuring”, Group and Organization Management, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 183-209, available at: http://doi-org.esc-web.lib.cbs.dk:8443/10.1177/1059601195202007
  • Luscher, L.S. and Lewis, M.W. (2008), “Organizational change and managerial sensemaking: working through paradox”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 51 No. 2, pp. 221-240, doi: 10.2307/20159506.
  • MacKay, R.B. (2009), “Strategic foresight: counterfactual and prospective sensemaking in enacted environments”, in Costanzo, L.A. and MacKay, R.B. (Eds), Handbook of Research on Strategy and Foresight, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp. 90-112, doi: 10.4337/9781848447271.00011
  • Tapinos, E. and Pyper, N. (2018), “Forward looking analysis: investigating how individuals “do” foresight and make sense of the future”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 126 No. 1, pp. 292-302, doi: 10.1016/j.techfore.2017.04.025.
  • Weick, K.E. (1979), The Social Psychology of Organizing, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.
  • Weick, K.E. (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.