• Daniel Tarker, MFA, Ed.D.

Sensemaking, Cynefin, and COVID-19 Part 1

Remember January, 2020?


I recall being at a bar with some friends. There were murmurs about some virus spreading in places like China and Italy. But if any global issue was the topic of discussion at our table, it probably would have been the catastrophic fires in Australia.(Remember those?)


Whatever this COVID-19 thing was, it felt far away and unlikely to impact us. No deadly virus had ever swept through the United States in our lifetime, so it seemed unlikely that one would do so now. Plus, we managed to contain Ebola when it came to Texas for a visit.

This is an example of failed signal detection, a key component to the sensemaking process. Sensemaking is a method leaders use to figure out what the hell is going on so that they can respond - hopefully without making the situation worse - and ideally making the situation better.


And signal detection is where the sensemaking process begins. What are those things in the environment grabbing your attention? And are there signals out there in the information cloud surrounding us that you may be missing? Bits of information jumping up and down and yelling, “Hey, look at me!” while you drink a beer and dissect the latest episode of Succession with your friends?


Importance of Sensemaking


If the last two years since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world has taught us anything, it is that sensemaking should be the most important activity leaders are engaged in.

But in our increasingly complex, interconnected, information saturated world, what tools do we have to make sense of the situations that emerge around us. And what tools do we have to inform us about how to respond?


Enter David Snowden with the Cynefin sensemaking framework. It’s pronounced Kuh-NEV-in because it’s a Welsh word and the Welsh like to be difficult with their phonics. Snowden chose this word because it means habitat, underscoring the emphasis on interconnection and systems thinking within the framework.


Snowden developed the Cynefin framework while working as a researcher for IBM Global Services to help people make sense of the types of situations they were navigating and to recommend the best methods to approach them.


As the diagram of the Cynefin framework below shows, Snowden identified four situational domains: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.


My thumbnail sketch of each category.




Simple situations are easy to solve. You have the expertise to address them yourself.

Complicated situations are harder to figure out and require input from an expert - or worse - a group of experts. (The only thing more terrifying than a murder of crows is a group of experts.)

Complex situations are so ambiguous and murky you need to use safe to fail experiments to try to find your way out of the situation.

And chaotic situations are just plain out of control - think going to a circus on LSD. - you’ll have to come up with some novel ideas and engage in some crisis management get out of these situations.

At the center of the diagram is the disordered or unsure space, which describes those times when you’re scratching your head trying to figure out which of the domains you’re in - hoping you're not in the chaotic one because that could mean your pants are about to catch on fire.

And between each type of situational category is a liminal or transitional space, suggesting

that it’s easy for a situation to move from one category to the next. Snowden even emphasizes this by indicating that the liminal space between a simple situation and a chaotic situation unstable with that break in the liminal space at the bottom of the diagram.

So, if you misinterpret something as a simple situation when in fact it’s actually complex, it is very easy for that situation to spiral into chaos.

Here is an overly- oversimplified example that may or may not be based on personal experience

Your light goes out in your bathroom. So thinking it’s just a simple problem, you replace the old lightbulb with a new one - preferably LED because there’s cost savings and they turn fun colors with a remote control.. But sadly the lights still don’t come on. No fun colors for you.

Recognizing that this may be a more complicated problem, you decide to take the financial hit and call in an electrician because of their expertise. They check out the wiring in the bathroom, but everything looks good. The outlet just isn’t getting any power to light your pretty LED bulb.

Now the situation has moved to complex. There's some ambiguity. What is causing this situation? The electrician tries out a few things, talks with you about the history of the house, and identifies the root cause of the problem - a remodel of a different room - and an outlet in it - had cut off power to the bathroom.

Luckily, the situation never moved to the chaos level otherwise the house may have burned down.

Are You Able to Make Sense of This? (Pun intended.)

If not, David Snowden explains all this much better than me.


Cynefin & Leadership During COVID-19

So, using this framework to think about leadership and the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems many of the shortcomings around the response have to do with miscategorizing a complex problem as a simple one.

And that is a very human thing to do. It’s much less stressful to think the problem is just a burnt out lightbulb. An electrical issue with the wiring in the house is not only much more complex - it’s also time consuming and expensive.

We can see this impulse to treat the COVID-19 pandemic as a simple problem in multiple ways by leaders across the ideological, partisan, and organizational spectrum. But digging into that is for part two of this post on sensemaking and leadership. If you want to learn more about the Cynefin framework, you can order a copy of the book Cynefin: Weaving Sense Making into the Fabric of Our World by David Snowden and Friends. It’s a collection of short essays by leaders and consultants who have used this framework as a sensemaking tool across industries - from corporations to arts organizations.

Leadership Links

For this issue’s leadership links, I’m sharing some recent posts about leadership and sensemaking to keep with the theme - with some commentary of course.

Harvard Business School Says Sensemaking is the Top Leadership Skill Required in New Work Environment

Chaudhry and Rosenbloom are correct in their assessment that sensemaking needs to be a top skill for leaders moving forward. Our interconnectedness actually makes us more susceptible to the emergence of crisis events that spread across borders and every strata of society. The term they miss is the flip side of sensemaking - sensegiving. They speak to this of course by talking about reframing expectations and re- establishing commitment, but could have emphasized this often neglected part of the sensemaking process more. Leaders need to make sense of a situation so they can help others understand the situation and how to move forward through sensegiving.

Researchers Find Leadership Style and Sensemaking Approach of Govt. Heads of State Correlated with COVID-19 Infection Rates With such a small sample size (N=35) during a novel global health crisis, the findings of the researchers at UNO and UNH should be treated as the beginning of a strand of inquiry on leadership approach and health outcomes. It is interesting that the charismatic approach, often aligned with transformational leadership, correlated with higher infection rates while pragmatic approaches correlated with lower rates. This finding could also contribute to the idea that leadership is contextual, and not every leader is the right fit for every situation.

Sensemaking as a B2B Sales Tool Increases Conversions This study found B2B salespeople who used a sensemaking approach were more successful at converting leads than salespeople who just gave information. As with the previous article, I think a lot of what the writer is talking about is actually sensegiving. By selecting only the relevant information to provide and

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