“What are you learning?” is the question at play in all the work we do.

How? I see at least two distinct paths:

  • Unique job experiences
  • Unique approaches to common job experiences

Learning is as natural as breathing, and nearly as necessary.

We need to move beyond defining learning, especially at work, as just the process of gaining new skills and knowledge. Learning is work and it’s because everything, as it always has, is always changing.

When doing the work is also understood as learning, every project at work has (at least) three available questions:

  • What do you desire to learn?
  • What can you learn?
  • What should you learn?

My favorite sensemaking question is “What’s the story?”

For three reasons:

  1. It defines what sensemaking is right there in the question: identifying the story of what’s going on in any context
  2. It speaks to the natural way we make sense of our world, whether at work or outside of it: by creating stories about what is happening
  3. It reveals an analogy for how to do sensemaking: The job of a journalist and reporting a story

Reporting a story—more classic sensemaking—requires (broadly) three activities:

  1. Doing research
  2. Talking to sources
  3. Thinking to connect the dots

It’s the same for sensemaking at work:

  1. Doing the work to learn what’s really going on
  2. Connecting with others and sharing knowledge 
  3. Thinking to connect the dots

Better sensemaking: you gotta think, you gotta talk to others, and you gotta do. It’s easy to miss the connection between doing and learning, but that’s how experience happens.

Here are a few ways to be a more effective at sensemaking (inspired by this Deborah Ancona writing):

  • Seek multiple sources of data; define data broadly, it’s not just something in a spreadsheet or on a dashboard
  • Involve people in your sensemaking; diverse perspectives will bring diverse mental models to sensemaking
  • Skip the stereotypes and seek out nuance; the complexity we work in ensures that every situation is going to be different
  • Remember the employees doing the work have the most information about the work
  • Create mental models, or maps, that emerge from the activity of sensemaking; it’s easy to overlay what we think we already know onto a new situation; communicate the model or map with images, analogies, metaphors, and stories
  • Attempt to change the system (system is broadly defined) to learn from it
  • Be aware your behavior influences the environment in which you are working; people create their own environments and can be constrained by them

The things to know about sensemaking—gosh, it’s a funny word—are that it a) is always happening, b) is as natural as breathing, and c) is something we should do more deliberately, at least at work.

Think back to when you started the job you’re in now: how did you figure out what you were responsible for, or what you were supposed to be doing, or who you should meet, or where the political lines were drawn? Classic sensemaking.

More sensemaking: Unless you started yesterday, what you understood your job to be the week you started compared to what it is today … is different because the context changed … and continues to change.

“The importance of sensemaking,” writes Deborah Ancona in summarizing the idea of a trio of researchers, “is that it enables us to act when the world as we knew it seems to have shifted.”

And since our work worlds are constantly shifting (COVID? New boss? New priority? New regulation?), becoming aware of sensemaking as a skill—one that can be practiced and improved—is important given the challenge of acting in changing contexts.

There are many definitions of sensemaking—from the simple to the transcendent—which speaks to the richness of the concept and, to me, the challenge in its approachability so this one from Kenneth Mikkelsen resonated as it crosses boundaries:

Making sense is about gathering impressions, holding them up against familiar experiences, course correction, being open, and not least surrounding ourself with talented people who have big ears and eyes. Those who are able to forage, be critical, and convey meaning. We all do it. Some are just better at it than others.

So here are two good sensemaking questions worth asking more often, even in those moments when it doesn’t seem necessary:

  • What’s the story? 
  • What’s going on? 

And three more questions from Alan Arnett for group settings, because sensemaking is a valuable social activity, too:

  • What are we solving?
  • Where are we heading?
  • How might we get there?

And then an idea from me on how to get started: Better work right away this morning.

The organization-wide employee engagement effort is missing a critical element: Enrollment.

Enrollment is the decision to come along, to participate, to care. It requires effort on the part of the boss and the organization to make the journey worthy of participation.

That work, the work of enrollment, must happen before engagement will.

Yet in many organizations the “work” of employee engagement comes after a survey is conducted. Problems are identified. Plans are made. Actions exclusively targeted at improving employee engagement are taken.

Those actions address the problems identified by the survey but they rarely do anything to make the journey worthy of enrollment.

If employees answer yes to questions like:

  • “Is this worth it?,”
  • “Are we going somewhere worth going?,”
  • “Is this something I want to do?,”
  • “Do I want to get out of bed this morning and go to work?,”  
  • and however else they might ask the enrollment question

… that makes the work worthy of engaging in because they’ve enrolled in a collective vision for where the group is going.

Engagement is an outcome of enrollment.

There are two types of people at work according to Douglas McGregor.

Those who dislike and avoid the work, who must be forced or bribed to make the right effort, who must be told what to do, who are motivated by money and fear, and who never have ideas on how to improve the work. McGregor labeled them Theory X people.

Then there are Theory Y people: those who are generally interested and engaged in the work, who are able to direct themselves toward a target, who seek responsibility, who are motivated by the idea of fulfilling their own potential, and always have ideas on how to improve the work.

Which are you: Theory Y or Theory X?

What about the people who work in your organization? What percentage of those people are Theory X?

Well they’re all trick questions. McGregor never said there are two types of people at work. In fact he found no evidence whatsoever that Theory X people exist anywhere.

We’re all Theory Y people.

But we work for organizations that believe in Theory X.

Those responsible (you?) for the rules, procedures, processes, requirements, systems, structures, guidelines, precedents, social norms, trainings, et al. assume they’re the only Theory Y people working in the organization. Everyone else? Theory X.

It is that Theory X assumption which creates Theory X people.

It’s a destructive assumption. It’s wasteful. And it’s wrong! Theory X people don’t even exist! Yet it’s the assumption at the core of how we organize and manage work.

Entropy is a useful mental model for understanding why there’s always more work to do.

Entropy happens to everything: sand castles, friendships, abandoned buildings, your team meeting, a project that won’t seem to launch … Entropy is the process of natural systems losing order and falling apart.

It’s our effort—our work—that in many instances, but not all, pushes back and overcomes entropy to maintain order.

Yet entropy never stops. The rate of decline in a natural system never decreases. And the effort required to overcome entropy—again, the work we do—must at least match the system’s rate of decline.

In other words, every natural system in your organization (of which there are many) requires management, in the broadest definition of the term. That’s the work we do. That’s the work other people do.

So the consideration should be: Is this (new program, existing process, etc.) a good use of the limited management resources any of us have available (time, energy, motivation, etc.)?

And for those in positions that create work for others to do: Will this be considered valuable by the people required to manage it?

There are (at least) three windows for viewing management work.

Window One: Yourself. How can you improve how you work?

Window Two: The Team and Their Work. How can you create the conditions for your team to learn, grow, and do their best work?

Window Three: The Business. How can you and your team help the organization achieve its objectives?

Everyone should do more wondering about work, at work, while we work.

Is this the best way to do this? Are we asking the right questions? Is this accomplishing anything?

Instead, “productive employees” run from meeting to meeting*, to do list in hand, never wondering about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

Perhaps they don’t have the permission.

Why not?

*Alternatively: task to task, project to project, patient to patient, day to day … you get the point.

What if leadership development became a way of working rather than a program to be completed?

What happens?

Among other positive developments:

Leadership development becomes something for everyone and not the chosen. 

Work is reframed as the systematic learning it actually is.

Leadership becomes a responsibility of the group rather than an accountability of an individual.

Creating the conditions allowing for great work to emerge becomes the focus. 

Diversity, rather than conformity, is embraced in all its forms.

We could rid ourselves of that nasty belief in hero leaders—a destructive idea at the core of many (all?) of your organization’s challenges.

Thoughts from others

“Our primary method of developing leaders is antithetical to the type of leadership we need.” Deborah Rowland

“Complex behaviours and skills are reduced to simple geometric diagrams, a pyramid here, an interlocking circle here, a four quadrant typology there. Leadership training became a byword for contradictory theories and over-simplification. A few choice quotes are thrown in, preferably from historically famous leaders, some interactive exercises, straight out of traditional management courses and you’re off.” Donald Clark

“Because we have these monstrous notions of what leaders are supposed to do, all based on this old model. We need a whole new concept of what a leader does, what leadership is, and get rid of all this command and control.” Ed Schein

“leadership today is helping your network, community, and team get smarter and able to make better decisions” Harold Jarche

“Leadership. More than ever, it really isn’t about a formal position. It’s about human connections. Our relationships with each other; sharing our vulnerabilities, & building trust. Listening to each other’s feelings & thoughts; valuing differences. Together, with purpose.” Brigid Russell