30 July 2009

EMD XIV: Sense-Making is the New Decision-Making

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.
We start from where we are. There’s a history. There’s a present. And, there is, I think, versions of futures that we then have to decide among. But it is based on our history, and our present.
A participant from what I think is the archetype UCaPP organization – at least the archetype so far – provided that excerpt from my research conversations. It was taken from an exchange during which we spoke about the process through which her organization decides on appropriate courses of action: decision-making, it is called in many organizational contexts. Decision-making seems to be among the distinguishing factors between those that are considered to be good and effective leaders, and those who aren’t. Merely considering oneself “The Decider” is not sufficient – it is vitally important to be conscious of the process, sufficiently conscious to be able to clearly articulate that process, and question it as well. As another participant (also from a more-UCaPP organization) puts it, “If you’re not constantly willing to doubt that you have the right answer, if you’re not willing to ask yourself every day, is there a different answer that I haven’t though about … [you’re] going to require a different perspective around you.

For a UCaPP organization, the recipe for sense-making is fairly straight-forward: begin with context. Juxtapose diverse information sources that each can contribute a distinct version of the future. Allow the relationships among the issues to connect via the relationships among the organization’s members. Create a space and place (basho) for the sense-making processes to emerge over time. Some might say that this is very similar, if not identical to decision-making processes that occur time and again in many conventional and traditional organizations. They’re right. It is similar – but not the same. There seem to be two subtle but key differences.

Decision-making is all about choosing among a number of alternatives which are usually courses of action meant to accomplish a specific objective or attain a particular goal. Most often, each alternative will have one or more proponents who argue for the benefits and advantages of their favoured approach, and defend its weaknesses against detractors and opponents. A person with legitimated hierarchical power in an organization often has an advantage in gaining approval for their desired outcome, even if it takes some convincing to accomplish – getting the naysayer “into the set of shoes I need them to be in,” according to one of my more-BAH participants.

In contrast, a UCaPP organization decides through achieving consensus, a common understanding. This is not imposing one among many alternatives on the membership, nor is it so-called democratic voting. As a UCaPP participant explains, “that consensus isn’t just revealing whether it exists; it’s actually building it.” Decisions are not taken simply by calling for people to either willingly or under some form of coercion to give up their positions. Rather, it’s all about common sense.

Aristotle understood the “common sense” as that process of internal integration which assimilates and makes sense of the perceptions of the five outer senses. In an analogous fashion, UCaPP organizations take their collective perceptions of contexts, histories, processes, and anticipated and desired effects, and make sense of them in a complex environment of mutual understanding and common volition to action. Simply put, organization-ba is common sense.

Decision-making in conventional BAH organizations endeavours to have people see and appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of ways and means to achieve specific goals, objectives, and missions. Sense-making in UCaPP organizations endeavours to have members understand and appreciate the complex integration of contexts, processes, and effects among various undertakings. The former is instrumental; the latter, environmental. When appropriate sense is made of a situation in relation to its environmental context, that is, environmental sensing, the appropriate decision – the shared volition to action characteristic of organization-ba – becomes clear. Nothing more than common sense.

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