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.