Sensemaking starts with noticing

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 6, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

Whistler's Chelsea WharfOscar Wilde once remarked, “there was no fog in London before Whistler painted it.” Wilde was referring to Whistler’s, Chelsea Wharf, and making the point that we can easily fail to see what’s staring us in the face until something or some experience brings it into sharp focus. This happened to me just the other week. I was reading Steve Denning’s The Leaders Guide to Storytelling in preparation for the teleconference call John Smith had organised with Steve and CPSquare members. I was reading the section on introducing yourself using a story when I got side-tracked (see my post on Yak shaving to see what being side-tracked is really like) and began to look for a reference to dead metaphors. I remembered that George Orwell had written on this topic and thought it was in his essay, Why I Write. So I re-read the essay, which I’d read a few times before, and noticed that his first few paragraphs were a series of anecdotes aimed at introducing himself just like Steve suggested in his book. Wow, never seen it before. Just shows you the power of context in influencing what people are able to see and take in.

Karl Weick says that seeing and noticing are the pre-requisites to sensemaking. Brenda Dervin has a similar perspective. So our challenge in business is to create situations where new patterns are discernible. We’ve talked about how stories help us see new patterns but what else can we do? Here is my list of perspective lenses I think we can apply:

  • New eyes—introduce people with different background and way of seeing the world and new patterns become evident. For example, the Victorian Department of Primary Industries has introduced an agent provocateur program as part of their innovation initiatives.
  • New frameworks—a powerful new framework will help you see the world differently. I remember the first time I saw they Cynefin framework and from that day on I could see ‘complex’ phenomena.
  • New experiences—people can talk about how something works but until you experience it the effects are typically limited.
  • New combinations—Darwin famously envisaged a model of evolution via natural selection by combining Malthusian economics and countless observation made on the Beagle.

After reading Alain de Botton’s short essay On the Pleasures of Sadness I was reminded that New Surroundings provides another excellent lens. de Botton has a fondness for train travel when he’s in search for new ideas because,

“Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought: the views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, they move fast enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects.”

So when we want our business leaders to see new patterns let’s get them away from the familiar day-to-day environment and run our workshops and meetings in new and surprising locations. This doesn’t have to be extravagant, just different.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Somethig nI wrote a few years ago at my other blog captures this: See the post here

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