Collective Sensemaking

Collective Sensemaking is a conversational event where people intentionally come together for the purpose of using their varied perspectives and cognitive abilities to make sense of an issue or problem they are mutually facing.

Convening the Tough Conversations

"Working with Nancy, I've seen first-hand the power of collective sensemaking.  Bringing analytic tools to bear provided new insights into interdependent activities, overall system functioning, and leverage points.  Collective sensemaking helps teams work smarter." - Mike Silver, Senior Vice President of Corporate Operations, HealthInsight

The Singapore Armed Forces has a very useful two-part process.  When faced with a complex or difficult issue they meet together in an informal setting with the singular goal of trying to make sense of the issue. This meeting is not a time for persuasion or decision. Rather it is a time to put together, from their various perspectives, as clear a picture as possible of the situation.  Different events have different meanings to different people, and it is by exploring these different meanings that a fuller picture begins to form. This is the purpose of collective sensemaking.

The second part of the process for the Singapore Armed Forces is to meet again, at a later date, this time in a more formal setting, to make a decision. This meeting does involve the use of persuasion and argument. But as the group has already come to a mutually constructed understanding of the situation, they are able to make a decision about which of several courses of action would be best to take.    

It is not only Generals who are faced with increasingly complex issues that require new approaches.  Leaders of corporations and government agencies also face complexity growing out of globalization and technological change.  They face issues such as, merged organizations that must create a new and joint culture; hospital systems faced with an interminable nursing shortage; the anticipated retirement of thousands of workers in the government sector; and companies that, in order to survive, must change from selling products to service.

Faced with such issues a shift in thinking about leadership has been gradually emerging. It is the recognition that no one person has the sensemaking capacity needed to deal with truly complex issues. These leaders modify their role from problem solver to conversational architect in order to leverage the collective knowledge of the organization to truly comprehend the depth and breadth of the  issue. The conversational architect:

  • frames the conversation
  • identifies who needs to be in the conversation
  • designs highly interactive activities to fuel the conversation
  • configures the physical space to serve the conversation

Pascale, author of Surfing the Edge of Chaos says, “In such an environment, the task of leadership is to frame the challenge and characterize it in such a way that creates immediacy. Leadership must then draw the community that is affected into tackling the new challenge. By definition, leadership in these situations does not have ‘the answer’; it typically emerges piece by piece from the community as a whole.”

One of the most powerful tools a leader has is the power to convene the tough conversations that need to happen in an organization – to focus a group of people on an issue that matters. 
Common Knowledge Associates works with leaders to make this critical shift, helping both with the task of framing the issue and designing the interaction.

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"Working with Nancy, I've seen first-hand the power of collective sensemaking. Bringing analytic tools to bear provided new insights into interdependent activities, overall system functioning, and leverage points. Collective sensemaking helps teams work smarter."

Mike Silver
SVP of Corporate Operations, HealthInsight

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"Nancy pulled off a great feat at the US Army KM conference. She got the whole room talking, all 200 of them! It broke the mold of presentation after presentation. The feedback was overwhelmingly, "Let's do more of this at the next conference."

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Deputy Director, Center for Army Lessons Learned, Fort Leavenworth, KS

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Recent Client Successes

The US Army KM conference had a very traditional format, three or four speakers in a row, with a few minutes of Q&A then on to the next speaker. Working with the conference design committee, we introduced interaction opportunities spread throughout the conference that made a huge difference for participants...
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The Institute for Healthcare Improvement is a leading innovator in health and health care improvement worldwide. I have had the pleasure of consulting to IHI, particularly in the area of “spread” for over 10 years. But until recently IHI has not had a knowledge management program or staff...
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