03 December 2014

Doesn't It Just Make Sense?

How does such a big organization like the Army expect small groups of young men and women to figure out how to act in the face of complex and changing problems?

As the right side of this blog indicates (you have to scroll down a bit), I have written some four dozen posts that can loosely be regarded as having to do with organizational theory.

It’s a fancy term (“organizational theory,” that is) that deals with how a group organizes itself to serve a function. Now, there might be better phrases to encompass all the academic work that has gone into the enterprise, but I have yet to stumble upon one. So “organizational theory” it is.

Still, it’s a big topic. Here is a small sliver that resonates with me, and I think it might with you, if you have ever spent any time in any type of organizations.

It’s called “sensemaking,” and it answers the question posed above. It also explains how many organizations behave. That is, it describes the behavior of you or your colleagues in your organization.

Sensemaking views the organization and the product of a bunch of actors who try to tell the story of what's going on around them, and act in according with what they think that story will turn out to be. For example, what does it mean to be a Soldier in Afghanistan, and how does one act in a given situation? I act on my presumptions about how I should act. After all, “organization is an attempt to order the intrinsic flux of human action.”

No group can plan for every eventuality, and at any rate, plans assume that everyone in the organization knows them and interprets them similarly.

Here is where it gets pretty insightful. What sensemaking tells us is that members figure things out after they do them.

One scholar formulates it by saying “people think by acting,” and, “action focuses cognition.”

So while the Army expects small groups of young men and women to figure out how to act in the face of complex and changing problems by reading up on all the doctrine and remembering everything the sergeant major said, that’s just not what happens. Instead, people take in as much information around them and make a guess, hoping for the best. Once they act, they retrospectively make sense of it. 

Volumes have been written about this, and I plan to add a volume and a half to them in the form of my dissertation. As exciting as I think it is, I'll spare you the tome, though, and leave you with this instead. 

The idea that people in an organization try to make sense of things is, well, sensible. It’s a bit more radical to declare that the sensemaking creates a story about their action and the organization that then feeds future events. 

But it’s not as radical to think that a young Soldier uses his own actions to justify what he thinks about an event. Those thoughts influence options to further actions, which result in reflection. So action precedes thought, and creates a cycle. 

It’s not the most exciting post, but we’re talking organizational theory here. It’ll be super exciting when you read my dissertation. 

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