Does Enacted Sensemaking Make Sense?

“Enacted sensemaking” is a term I’ve seen thrown around by a few individuals here and there. I wonder how many of those folks understand what that concept as first published by Karl Weick really means. You have to admit that it sounds cool and yet burdensomely academic at the same time.

Let’s take it in 2 chunks: enacted and sensemaking.

Both terms sound great, don’t they? We all want to make sense of a situation in front of us. That’s the sensemaking part. We all also want to take action. That’s the enacted part.

What’s tricky here is that the concept of “enacted sensemaking” does not mean “acting to make sense of the situation.” That would be a direct way to talk about what we want to happen.

What “enacted sensemaking” means, properly understood and as first written by Weick, is that our actions undertaken to make sense of a situation create and shape the situation itself.

Say what?

That’s right, Spartans, there are shades of philosophy and quantum physics with this one.

It is almost idealist, in the philosophical sense of reality created by ideas in the mind. The idealist school of thought is that what is real are our thoughts. We create the reality around us with our thoughts. Somewhat like Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” here it’s “I think it, therefore it is.”

That’s not entirely what “enacted sensemaking” is proposing. The situation does exist, in some form we have yet to perceive and comprehend. But we act to perceive it and to gain comprehension. Here’s where we get into the quantum physics part.

Subatomic particles exist in a “probability cloud”. You can’t be sure simultaneously where they are exactly and how exactly they’re moving.

It is a fact that at the subatomic level our acts of observation perturb and change the things we are trying to observe. With subatomic particles, you can have perfectly precise (and accurate) knowledge of a particle’s position or velocity, but you cannot know both. The act of determining its position changes its velocity, and the act of determining its velocity changes its position. Without God’s omniscience, you physically cannot determine both. You could know something of both its position and velocity with varying degrees of precision and accuracy – you’re just working on a sliding scale. The better you know one, the less you know the other.

Understanding is facilitated by action, but action affects events and can make things worse. – Karl Weick

What the term “enacted sensemaking” is really getting at is this: “our actions to understand a situation create and change it in unpredictable ways.”

Making Sense of What’s Going On

At a purely theoretical level, this may be the case, but so what?

Outside the controlled conditions of a laboratory, that has little significance on what we do to prepare and respond to emergencies, crises, and other urgent situations.

Just as the quantum realities of subatomic particle position and velocity are of no relevance when we’re crossing the street and quickly determining the position & velocity of oncoming vehicles, that our efforts to perceive and assess a situation changes it in an absolute sense has no relevance for us.

People who act in organizations often produce structures, constraints, and opportunities that were not there before they took action. – Karl Weick

Our entire raison d’être in an urgent situation is to change the situation, to impose our will upon it and direct the outcome towards what we desire. We want to change the situation. We act to change the situation.

The O In The Middle

I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the future, but a far more useful concept to keep in mind is the OODA Loop.

You may have heard of this in other articles and sources. It’s a model of cognition and performance that a particular Colonel Boyd developed, clarified, and promoted in prior decades.

He was a very skilled and intelligent fighter pilot in the US Air Force and developed this model initially to account for 1v1 air combat engagements. However, he soon realized that this model was applicable to all realms of response to situations – with particular value to realms of adversarial or urgent response.

OODA = Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

Individuals, teams, and organizations go through the OODA Loop repeatedly. It’s not a one-time thing, as I’ve seen folks explain. The OODA Loop is an iterative model describing and dividing the steps involved in assessing and resolving a situation.

You first Observe what’s going on. Conceptually, this is passive and is the first part of sensemaking.

Then you Orient yourself based on what you see. Here is where the meat of the sensemaking concept happens. Here, you take what you have observed about the situation and assess what are the key factors, what are developments you need to consider action (or inaction) upon, and conversely what you can ignore at the current time.

Then you Decide what you will do on those factors you’ve assessed as salient. Based on your action, you then observe for changes in the situation. Did you change the situation in your favor or not?

Repeat again and again.

In an adversarial situation (for instance with an attack on your computer systems or when you are tackling a public relations crisis with hostile media) both sides are going through OODA Loops. Both sides act, observe, orient, decide, act again. However, the side that does this better and faster will soon wrest the initiative from the adversary and nullify or defeat them.

Where the situation involves unthinking factors with no malicious intent or ability to respond, you have the inherent advantage. You no longer compete against another party’s OODA process, but you are competing against time since the situation will most likely devolve – perhaps catastrophically – unless you take successful action to prevent it. How well and how quickly you can go through each iteration of the OODA Loop still matters.

Asking Can You Do It Is The Wrong Question

The OODA Loop recognizes that the situation will change whether you act or not. It recognizes and expects that when you act, you will perturb or change the situation. Those actions include your early actions undertaken to determine what is the current situation.

The concept of enacted sensemaking has some conceptual validity to it. We are never neutral observers of a system. We are part of the system that is reality, and what we do will shape the objective situation, our perceptions of the situation, and others’ perceptions of the situation. That is the reality in this universe in all circumstances, not just emergency or urgent situations.

Enacted Sensemaking sounds fancy. That partly explains why 30 years after Weick first published his paper Enacted Sensemaking in Crisis Situations, the term still comes up when I am helping teams and organizations to improve their response capability.

However, the concept is an academic red herring.

First, it doesn’t mean what many people think it means: “acting to make sense of the situation.”

Second, the actual meaning provides no help on how to respond to an evolving situation. It tells you what you ought to know already: “everything you do will shape the situation, including trying to understand it.”

Making sense of a situation – when you first encounter it, and as you progress through it – is critical. We can only take correct or productive action when our understanding of the current situation is accurate enough. It’ll never be perfect with infinite precision. As long as what you perceive to be the situation is close enough to what it objectively is, you have the potential to act that will move the situation closer to positive resolution.

Can you act to make sense of a situation? You have to, and you will naturally do so.

Fretting about how one’s actions might “produce structures and constraints that were not there before” does nothing productive. It is far more productive to recognize that everything we do will shape the situation, shape our perception, and shape others’ perceptions.

What we need to do is work within that reality so that:

  • We observe as accurately as possible
  • We orient as rapidly and correctly as possible
  • We decide as rapidly and correctly as possible
  • We act as quickly and effectively as possible

The OODA Loop is a productive concept to assess, shape, and improve our processes and abilities. “Enacted sensemaking” is not.

Education + Training + Culture

You may have heard the phrase “getting inside their OODA Loop.” This comes from an adversarial context where one of the intermediate objectives is to proceed through one’s OODA Loop faster than the opponent can go through his. After a few iterations, you will then operate at an advantage, able to dictate circumstances to an opponent who is increasingly out of touch, confused, and ineffective.

The idea here is to be able to go through your OODA Loop quickly. Implicit in this is also to do this effectively, not in a fast but sloppy manner.

How do we do that? Colonel Boyd noted it right in his model: through education, training, and culture.

We speed up our sensemaking abilities, our decision-making abilities, and action/response abilities through education and training developed with these outcomes in mind. We do so by also developing and entrenching a culture that enables rapid and effective sensemaking, decision making and action taking.

Better tools and toys provide linear improvements.

Changing ourselves through education, training and culture provides exponential improvements.

Not only does each individual perform faster and better, but the mutual understanding that builds up helps us to perform faster and better collectively.

Integrating Into The OODA Loop

Asking how to make sense of a situation better – be it your initial size-up or “sensemaking” – is an incomplete question. The better question to ask is how to rapidly and continuously understand a situation while acting to advantageously shape the situation.

Rather than thinking of situational perception and assessment as a one-time activity at the start of a response, it is far more productive & effective to recognize that situational perception and assessment are ongoing, integral parts of the process of response.

Perception and assessment is part of the OODA Loop we all go through as individuals, teams, and organizations.

Fancy terms abound in any field, and the fields of emergency management, business continuity, disaster recovery and crisis management do no escape from this pattern. Some specialized jargon, however, serves little purpose beyond sounding fancy. “Sensemaking”, particularly “enacted sensemaking”, surely belongs in this category.

OODA is not of academic origin. An observant and highly intelligent practitioner who obsessed over enabling his peers in the US Air Force, and then the whole US military, to perform better than any adversary noted it down and developed the model.

While many of the situations we plan and prepare for are not against thinking adversaries, we struggle against the clock and against the friction of uncertainty, incomplete information & miscommunication. The same principles of individual and collective effectiveness apply whether we face an intelligent adversary or an inanimate one, particularly those involving complex systems.

OODA is a functional, effective model that helps us to improve our preparation, practice, and response. We’ll get more into that in future posts.

Stress Is Not Stress Is Not Stress – There Are Differences in Performance

Stress enhances performance. Only up to a point though, then it degrades and destroys performance after it peaks.

If you have experience in any competitive endeavors or regular exposure to situations where there are meaningful stakes on the line, you have experienced this first-hand.

Most people understand stress as something purely negative. It is bad, end of story. However, that’s not the end of the story. Stress, in terms of our experience of it and its effect on us, can be good or bad. What is bad for us – for our performance, our physiological and psychological well-being, everything good we want – is chronic, unabated stress.

This is where it’s important to make distinctions. Words matter. Our terminology matters.

Physiologically and psychologically, stress is really arousal. Your body and your mind experience different states of arousal.

When certain factors are present – external stimuli or self-generated stimuli – your body and your mind prepare for action.

When that arousal enhances your performance, we can call that eustress.

When that arousal degrades or destroys your performance, we can call that distress.

There is value in differentiating between positive stress – eustress – and negative stress – distress. We want to take advantage of one and avoid the other as much as possible.

Perceived Threat, Physical or Psychological

Our bodies and our minds react to perceived threats. You’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response – or more accurately, the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response – and that is the most obvious manifestation of whole-body response to a perceived threat.

When you perceive that something threatens what you hold dear – be it your life, the lives of others, your career, your reputation, your money, the integrity of your body, any number of things – your brain sets off a cascade of biochemical and physiological changes.

This isn’t like turning a light bulb on or off. There are gradations, depending on the seriousness and immediacy of the perceived threat. It’s like a light bulb with a dimmer switch.

When arousal increases, your body prepares for action. Heart rate goes up to pump oxygenated blood to your muscles and brain. Blood vessels in your voluntary muscles dilate, surface blood vessels and those serving your core organs constrict to direct oxygenated blood to where it’s needed immediately. Your perceptive processes speed up, your sensory centers actively process more of the stimuli you perceive – especially with your visual cortex and what you see. Your body releases cortisol and adrenaline to enhance immediate performance.

You might get a little of this. You might get a lot of this.

It might be eustress. It might be distress.

It all depends on the perceived severity and immediacy of the threat.

An unstable person shouting and screaming on the street half a block away rates a slight uptick in arousal. An unstable person shouting and screaming in your face rates a significantly greater increase in arousal.

Stress is Good, Then Bad

Your body and mind’s responses to perceived threats prime you for action. The stronger the arousal response, the more your body and mind are set to defend your life with focused attention and powerful gross motor movements.

That, however, is often not what we want for the kinds of situations we are responding to professionally. Constricted attention – actual and psychological tunnel vision – is usually undesirable even when we have a life-or-death situation to resolve. Preparation for powerful gross motor movements at the expense of fine motor control is also usually undesirable.

In many studies on the relationship between arousal and performance, we use heart rate as the proxy measurement for level of arousal. The higher heart rate, the higher level of arousal. It makes sense, and it’s a good enough proxy.

Here’s what the arousal to performance relationship looks like visually:

There is a color-based nomenclature made popular by Jeff Cooper from the security & armed defense world:

White = Relaxed, base level arousal as when you’re at home relaxing in front of the television or perusing social media.

Yellow = Low-level arousal, alert and ready. Much like your car when slowly cruising down a quiet residential road with the engine at low RPM

Red = High arousal level, body primed and ready for, or during, strong response to a threatening situation. You know you are feeling pressure and that your body is responding to the perceived threat, and you are highly effective for the most part. You get peak alertness, speed and strength here, but like all peaks you have to be careful you don’t fall off the other side.

Black = Super-high arousal where you’ve fallen off the other side of the peak. You are so amped up it degrades your mental and physical capabilities.

Gray = A slim zone of very high arousal for stress-inoculated individuals, an area that would normally already be in the Black Zone for others. This is an extension of the Red Zone made possible through rigorous, disciplined, methodical training.

Training Delays Black Zone Onset

While we typically apply these zones to personal life-and-death situations, they are transferable to other domains where responders are under high stress.

The general pattern – which most of us have experienced playing sports, in our school studies, presenting on stage, or other endeavors – is that a bit of stress sharpens the mind and body. Eustress. Keep increasing the stress and the mind and body fall off the back side of the edge and you under-perform. Distress.

The human mind and body can become acclimated to many conditions. The internal physiological environment consistent with high levels of acute stress – with its particular neural, hormonal, and cardiovascular conditions – are no exception.

We can acclimate ourselves and our teams to the acute stresses that would otherwise degrade our performance at precisely the times when peak performances are most needed.

Just as an Olympic athlete’s body becomes accustomed to the physical stresses particular to their sport, responders can become accustomed to the range of psychological & physiological stresses particular to their realm.

We can acclimatize to particular stresses. To take a public health analogy, we can inoculate ourselves to the stresses we expect.

Yes, training and practice to develop, sharpen and hone our skills is part of it. The other part is that we become able to function well even under the extreme stress that would otherwise inhibit us. The inoculation of training under stress enables us to perform even when our hearts are racing and adrenaline has dumped into our system.

We extend our zone of competence and ability.

We extend our zone of eustress.

We delay the onset of distress.

We develop a “grey zone”. Physiological measures show we should be in the Black, but yet our performance says otherwise.

However, just as an Olympic athlete’s acclimatization to the stresses particular to their sport may or may not transfer to other sports, so it is with responders to emergencies, crises and urgent situations.

Stress inoculation under one set of conditions may or may not transfer to other sets of conditions.

Inoculate Your People

I’ve written before about incorporating uncertainty and surprises into training and exercises. They accustom our folks – and ourselves – to consider a wide range of variables, not just the obvious routine ones.

There is an immense benefit to deliberately incorporating stress into this our training and exercises. To be sure, it’s for advanced teams. Novices are under sufficient stress just by partaking in the activity. For advanced teams, there is no way to develop and reinforce the ability to operate at enhanced levels under conditions that are literally degrading other than to introduce similar stress into training.

How to do so safely is the challenge we as leaders and trainers must face.

A team that has not previously faced the significant stress they will face in the real deal is an untested team. You won’t know what will happen until it’s too late.

Failing to test your plans, processes, and people under stress means leaving only real responses to reveal deficiencies and potentially provide stress inoculation. That is far from ideal.

Controlled, deliberate circumstances are practical and more effective for developing capabilities.

We gain immunity after surviving real disease. It’s far better to achieve that immunity under controlled conditions with vaccines.

Let us maximize our future performance by incorporating surprises and progressively building in stressors into our training and practice. Let us inoculate ourselves and our people to the physiological and psychological stresses we will face in the scenarios we will respond to. Let us extend the range at which these stresses are for us eustress and delay when they become distress.

It’s the smart thing to do. It’s the Spartan thing to do.

Chess Masters & Pattern Recognition

Chess masters’ brains work differently from the supercomputers specifically designed to beat them. Or, if you play the Asian game of weiqi, same thing. Pattern recognition is the defining product of experience for a human expert.

Knowledge and experience enable you to make better decisions faster. Given the complexity of the real world, we can never make the perfect decision but experience allows us to quickly assess a situation, determine the options available, then decide on a course of action.

Experience allows us to do these things faster and consider factors that have proven to be key in the past because we recognize the patterns at play. You don’t have to consider everything and step through all the logical consequences step by laborious step.

Chess masters play quickly and play well because with one look at the board, the recognize what the current situation is and what is coming. Their minds don’t see the pieces independently. Their minds see the board as a complete whole, and they pay attention to what is missing or what is there that should not be. It is by experience they are able recognize, at a glance, what is going on and what actions are worth considering.

Their experience allows them to quickly decide between those options, with experience telling them the odds of each course panning out as planned. It allows them to recognize within the next move or two whether everything is going as intended or if they need a change of plans. It is their experience that allows them to do this on multiple games at the same time.

Experience Enables Chunking

The experienced mind takes in an entire scene and makes sense of it through the process of chunking.

Let’s use vision as an analogy. When you look at a scene or an image, your eyes receive millions of inputs, from individual photons reflecting off the scene or image and hitting your sensory cells in the retina of your eye. Your eyes process this information. Oh, I see a line here or a line there. So instead of sending you millions of individual “data points”, it sends you something less – let’s say hundreds of thousands for the sake of argument. When this information gets to your brain, your brain recognizes certain combinations of lines as discrete, separate objects. There’s a circle there. Those lines make a square. Those lines angling away tell me there is depth to the object or image. All of that happens subconsciously and let’s say you’re left with thousands of individual elements to make sense of.

Then your brain holistically assesses what the eyes see and says, “I know what all those lines and objects mean. That’s a motorcycle coming down the road headed right for me.” Millions of individual inputs gets translated to that one salient point. All those photons entering your eyes and you automatically figure out what it all means.

What makes an “expert” isn’t so much being brighter or quicker than everyone else, but rather having more experience in an area. An expert knows what he is looking at and, because he has seen similar situations so many times before, he can quickly & effectively respond. – LTC David Grossman

That’s what experience has enabled you to do from what you see every day.

That’s what experience does for you with responding to urgent situations.

Experience enables you to look at a complicated scene and quickly assess what it all means.

Grooming Pattern Recognition Reduces Blind Spots

This summarizing or “chunking” of input into a single, holistic perception of what’s going on isn’t perfect. Our brains trade speed for absolute accuracy.

This is how optical illusions work. Optical illusions play off the way our brains sequentially and subconsciously summarize high volumes of low-level detail into a much smaller, ideally single, summary of what’s going on. Optical illusions use the cues that usually mean one thing – and accurately so – but use it to hide, show, or manipulate what you see so that what you see isn’t what’s really there. They fool you so you see what isn’t so.

That’s a danger that also exists when we assess an emergency situation. We take in all the information presented to us, and through the fast & automatic process of chunking, our brains come to particular conclusions. Those conclusions are usually correct. But sometimes things will throw us off, the conceptual equivalent of optical illusions, and our conclusions are drastically incorrect.

There are mental blind spots and mental tendencies that con artists and unscrupulous marketers take advantage of to sucker us into actions we might not otherwise take.

The same thing can happen in “natural” situations that have occurred on their own without malicious manipulation.

If every time you have seen a combination of elements – ABCDE, let’s say – it has always meant X then the next tie you see ABCDE you will conclude you’re looking at X. But what if that’s because you haven’t noticed and considered FGH and I? Then one day you see ABCDE and it means Y instead of X. They will throw you for a loop either until either someone points out and explains to you that all along you haven’t paid attention to FGHI and that’s what makes the difference… or you figure that out all by yourself.

Give Your People Experience!

I’ve talked before about how powerful it can be to incorporate surprises into the training and exercises you give your team. That’s how you get them to look not only at ABCDE but also at FGHI.

You expand the breadth from which their minds chunk and assess information so they can continue to decide quickly, but in doing so they will avoid nasty surprises because they’ve already chunked and incorporated the subtle warnings.

Let’s take driving, for example.

One of the main reasons new drivers can be dangerous is that they don’t have the experience to anticipate and avoid bad situations. Experienced drivers have seen many other drivers on the road behaving and misbehaving. They can make better assessments & decisions in the same short amount of time.

Experienced drivers, looking at the same information outside the windshield, chunk the information differently. They make different assessments, make different decisions and take different actions. That’s how experienced drivers avoid collisions and situations that might ensnare inexperienced drivers by surprise.

Taking this everyday example into the realm in which our teams work – where lives and businesses are on the line – experience is a key enabler of high performance. Yet, it’s not just repeating the same thing again and again that counts. Someone who has driven the only one short route every day for 20 years isn’t an experienced driver. You need to give your teams a breadth of experience, with surprises thrown in to expand their understanding of the underlying dynamics and expanding their skill.

Performing Smart Requires Training Smart

We don’t become chess masters by playing against the same opponent repeatedly. We become chess masters by playing against different opponents who plan, act, and react differently. Experience with a wide range of situations, combined with reflection and discipline, leads to the ability to make rapid, accurate assessments & decisions.

The best way for us to enable that in ourselves and our teams is through training that develops not just motor memory and greases the mental pathways, but also expands perception and builds the ability to chunk and incorporate a wider range of cues that are often subtle.

The typical training exercise that tests either the knowledge or the ability to follow set procedures and plans is only a starting point. That’s equivalent to driving from Point A to Point B on an empty road in good weather. That’s the beginner level of chess where you know the rules and some classic openings and gambits.

To truly excel, we have to train our teams methodically to perceive quickly and accurately. We have to train the ability to chunk information broadly & deeply, and to do it mostly subconsciously. That takes thought, effort, and dedication from leaders, trainers, and trainees.

If we want to go from Point A to Point B no matter what the roads are like, what other drivers are doing, what the driving conditions are like, we have to train for it.

If we want to perform like chess masters playing and winning multiple games in parallel, we have to train for it.

Performing smart requires training smart – especially when the stakes are more than just titles in the world of competitive chess.

The Challenge of Business Continuity Awareness

Business continuity usually only gets serious executive attention when something bad has happened. Executives pay attention when business services are disrupted or come close to having been disrupted. We need to get creative to break through that natural human tendency to treat that which is low-probability as no-probability.

Emergency Preparedness Week is primarily aimed at generating awareness and education for personal, individual preparation for emergencies. That is important. Yet EP Week is also an opportunity to reinforce the need to prepare the business for emergencies. EP Week is a prime opportunity to exercise creativity to generate business continuity awareness.

That’s where the video below comes in. I created this video for a client to distribute to an executive audience, who will likely then share it with their unit managers. It’s a short, simple video that simply generates some awareness of what business continuity entails, why it’s relevant for management, and how it ties into the theme of emergency preparedness.

Video is now one of the primary vehicles by which marketers engage target audiences. Studies show time and again that memory recall from brief video-based content is extremely high. The same principles at work for marketing apparel, electronics, or the hot new restaurant should also be applied to our internal marketing efforts. Video is an effective and indispensable part of a complete communication toolkit.

Business Continuity Awareness Video


You Can Do Something Similar

Generating a video like this isn’t particularly difficult. It just takes a bit of time.

Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss how you can make something like this yourself, or if you’d like to use this video in your own organization.


Effective teamwork is part of the foundation of performing when it counts.

This is Part 2 of 2 presentations that I delivered on May the Fourth, otherwise known as Star Wars Day. Hence the Star Wars theme in the title and closing.

They are presentations on teamwork in general, not specific to urgent responses, emergency management or business continuity. However, the content based on Harvard Business Review articles are broadly applicable. There are some details that I verbally presented that are not presented in the visuals, but the presentations as they are remain useful.

This one is playfully subtitled – Episode V. If you haven’t seen Episode IV yet, check it out first.

Lead your people and train #smartspartan!


Effective teamwork is part of the foundation of performing when it counts.

This is Part 1 of 2 presentations that I delivered on May the Fourth, otherwise known as Star Wars Day. Hence the Star Wars theme in the title and closing.

They are presentations on teamwork in general, not specific to urgent responses, emergency management or business continuity. However, the content based on Harvard Business Review articles are broadly applicable. There are some details that I verbally presented that are not presented in the visuals, but the presentations as they are remain useful.

This one is playfully subtitled – Episode IV. If you know the Star Wars movies, that ought to make you curious what Episode V will say!

Lead your people and train #smartspartan!