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  • Writer's pictureDaniel 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.






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.

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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