By Ellen Powers
Social science researchers use the term "sensemaking" to describe a type of mindfulness— an intentional but non-judgmental awareness of one's own thoughts and of the actions taking place in the present moment—that combines rationality and appreciative behavior. Sensemaking enables a person to make sufficient sense out of an unorganized, even chaotic, flow of information and events to take action when no clear path or decision exists. Sensemaking is not about finding "the truth" or "getting it right," but means, according to highly cited organizational behavior theorist Karl Weick, "continually redrafting an emerging story so that it becomes more comprehensive, incorporates more of the observed data, and becomes more resilient in the face of criticism."
Sensemaking may be a contributing factor to allowing successful teams to function well in face of high uncertainty and stress. Teams that insist on finding "the right answer" may exhibit self-limiting behaviors, while teams that exhibit self-enabling behaviors are more likely to "stay in the flow" and make considerable progress despite time pressures, rapidly changing events, and the complex interactions among team members within the ongoing situation.
MITRE researchers used data from a government sponsored Red team/Blue team exercise, called Project Looking Glass (PLG), to examine whether sensemaking might help to explain why the teams that "played" Red consistently outperformed the Blue teams. To clarify terminology, the Red teams played the role of the adversary, while Blue played a joint analytical team.
Is the Difference Sensemaking?
Harvard University analyzed the results of a PLG exercise, held in January 2005, via an extensive self-reporting questionnaire and observers' ratings sheets. MITRE reviewed the results and repurposed key portions of the data to investigate whether sensemaking might serve as a differentiator between the performance of Red and Blue teams.
We developed a table of attributes based on principles reported in the sensemaking literature and further categorized each attribute as an enabler or inhibitor of sensemaking. We then used the table to identify questions in both the observers' daily rating sheets and the questionnaire that might indicate that the team members were contributing to or inhibiting sensemaking. The analysis, based on the table to the right, of the questionnaires showed that the Red teams scored higher in almost all sensemaking indicators than the Blue teams.
As a result of the analysis of the PLG exercise, MITRE developed two self-reporting instruments to assess sensemaking behavior. A pre-self-assessment was devised to measure sensemaking potential, that is, the sensemaking predisposition that individuals bring to the table before joining a team; and a post-self-assessment was devised to measure sensemaking perception, that is, how individuals perceived their own and the team’s sensemaking performance after the completion of the exercise. These instruments will be tested for validity and reliability using data gathered during several upcoming exercises.
Knowing the potential (pre-selfassessment), presence (observed), and perceived manifestations (post-self-assessment) of sensemaking could alert government sponsors to the role that sensemaking plays in team performance and encourage them to take sensemaking skills into account when building intelligence analysis teams. Furthermore, incorporating sensemaking skills in school curriculums could increase the available pool of analysts who can nimbly manage information when participating in joint analysis teams.
Although team composition (in
terms of subject matter expertise
and individual experience) will
make a difference in outcome,
composing teams of those with
sensemaking skills could tip
the scales in favor of enhanced
performance in the face of high
uncertainty. Sponsors could refine
measures of an individual's
sensemaking potential, like those
used in the pre-exercise selfassessments,
to match their needs.
An interesting future research
challenge could be to determine if
a certain critical mass of members
with sensemaking skill could tip
the balance in a team that also
includes those with limited or
little sensemaking skill.
For more information, please contact Ellen Powers using the employee directory.
Page last updated: October 9, 2008 | Top of page
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