Stop Chasing Your Tail, Make New Sense of What’s Happening

The Great Disruption

How do you make change happen?

I'm not talking about setting out for the big transformative change or the stuff of revolutions. That's also important. But, in the here and now of your life, how do you keep things moving forward?

Another way of asking the same question: how do you get unstuck? Out from autopilot and into creative thinking. Or, facing a crisis, how do you keep anxiety at bay to do what you need to do to keep calm and stay safe?

There's a simple tool you can use to get more of what you want. It can get you clarity, answers and next steps. That tool is asking questions to engage in conversation.

Why too many decisions spoil the day

Have you ever found yourself in front of your office building, or a store with no recollection of how you got there? Are you the kind of person who can buy groceries while on the phone? I won't probe about texting and driving… it's not a good thing. But you get the idea.

Every day, we make hundreds and thousands of decisions, mostly without batting an eyelid. Because we don't even realize we're making so many. What happens is that some decisions you programmed into habits, some you estimate using rules of thumb.

A shopping list, taking a specific route to work, putting the keys in the same place, you may even pick clothes for that important client meeting the night before. On a good day, when things are fairly ordinary, there's only a limited number of situations where you need to make conscious decisions. Some people are really good at focusing on what's important.

Being in autopilot is a fairly common way to operate. Culture influences decision-making to some degree—directly, and indirectly. How you go about doing things (your personal style) and how you see yourself (your identity) include social pressure.

We're not as original as we'd like to think. Yet that can be a good thing. It helps us conserve energy for what's important. But if you want to get better at taking control of your decisions, a good place to begin is to look at the range of possible outcomes.

Your decision-making landscape could have changed drastically by now. Some fundamental things have changed (temporarily). How do you make sense of the world when you're (likely) called to make more new kinds of decisions and are (maybe) anxious about the future?

Humans are sensing machines

The process you and I use to give meaning to our collective experiences is called sensemaking. People are constantly doing things while figuring out what's happening and what it means. This is one reason why companies that organize their messages in a way that follows these natural inclinations get a slice of attention.

Let's think about attention a little further. When we're in unfamiliar environments, some (or many) things change, and we have a chance to make a fresh start. People say this is a reason they love to travel: certain aspects or degrees of their experience change.

Travel is a temporary part of experience, it's like a simulation. You get to test-drive a different life for a period of time. Exposed to another context and culture, you renegotiate your identity based on who you meet and what you work out.

Normally, you and I protect our attention and energy with autopilot to be able to get through the day. Being very tired or feeling a bit listless is probably an indication that your brain was working extra hard in manual mode. That circumstances have changed many parts of your normal routines.

A pandemic or other catastrophic situations require a sustained manual mode. This is why many of the people I've talked to for Not Everyday Life said they felt exhausted, especially in the beginning of the lockdown.

Behaviors, habits and attitudes shift as you deal with new information. Families had to renegotiate roles, routines varied, and the normal flow of information, including social media, went up exponentially. People were trying to get to critical data while the situation was developing. All while trying to keep safe.

Leaders had to make decisions with impact to the people in their spheres of influence—family, employees, partners, collaborators, etc.—and consequences beyond the immediate future. That's a lot of deciding in a short time span. Think of the complexity of knowing what to do and communicating it clearly at the same time. Then there's the messages out there: ads, marketing programs, deals, etc.

Because we're not really good at predicting the future, deciding who to trust and what things to take at face value are also forms of decision making. This is where we try to take shortcuts and go on autopilot to save energy.

Yet, a well-developed ability to make sound decisions has impact on the future. Which is why, on a personal level, it's a good idea to have a system to get back to basics on how to choose for oneself. Whether the choice is a source, or a course of action.

What do you do when something doesn't make sense?

If you're human, you do one of three things. You either (1) ignore it, if you think it doesn't matter. Maybe you get back to it later if it looked interesting, but not relevant to what you're doing now.

(2) You estimate what you think it means. Or, if you've got time and you're not too busy, you (3) try and work out in detail what something actually means. Since this happens hundreds of times a day, this is where your autopilot helps. 

We get really good at deciding which ones of the three to pick from past experience. But this breaks when we face something new. Then, it becomes risky to figure things out on your own. Go down the wrong path, and you're facing a bigger problem.

Alan Arnett is an engineer who became fascinated with how we make decisions and what we do when things don't make sense#. He says we actually split into two functions. The part who ought to know what to do, the grown up part that gets paid loads of money and is trying to get things done.

Then, slightly in the background, is the part that is constantly checking and trying to figure out if we're doing the right thing by comparing what we're doing now with what we've done before.

But with decisions, it's not just you. You've got the situation you're dealing with, the other people involved with you, plus the way you see and deal with things—all happening at the same time. Noticing your reactions and dealing with them is very important to everything you do.

It can go either way. You're checking things and see a problem, you then start arguing with others and trying to avoid it. If you're optimistic and think things will go well, you could go in too fast and still find a stumbling block later on.

This way of thinking is from the mind of an engineer. And I really appreciate it, because it looks at the process and tries to understand where it goes wrong. If you have teenagers at home, avoiding and arguing are familiar reactions.

You can get good at avoiding and arguing, but you don't make as much progress on the thing you'd like to move forward. There's another way of looking at differences that is more constructive—Arnett calls it colliding and creating.

Some things already make sense. They're the things for which we use patterns to figure out what's happening. This is where we store the stories we tell ourselves, the habits we form with our routines, riding a bike, walking down the street, these are all activities that use patterns we already formed.

But there are also situations where we need to make new sense.

This is when we're called to explore the specifics of a meeting, a question or circumstance. Often, we get so caught up on the pattern-seeking side of sensemaking, that we overlook what's different in the thing right in front of our nose.

Trying to solve a problem in one context using what worked in another is a common example of this.

Can I fix it?

Back in the late '80s early '90s I worked with someone who had used this same thought process in the neurological field. Glenn Doman was a physiotherapist who noticed the need for making new sense to rehabilitate people who had lost physical and/or mental function.

Instead of fixing the limb, where the symptom was, he found a way to collide his knowledge with that of a brain surgeon to see what was happening in the brain. He then set out to study how normal development happens to see what what missing and how it could be retrieved or rewritten.

He created a method to connect the two data points. He came up with a developmental profile. What needs to happen on the input side to get the type of output that makes you function as a human being. The key functions.

It's a long story that helped get thousands of brain-injured children better by creating the environmental conditions that would program new patterns in the brain. Working with him changed the way I look at problems.

Doman asked the three fundamental questions Arnott proposes:

  1. What are we solving?
  2. Where are we heading?
  3. How might we get there?

This is the shortcut a medical professional and and engineer have used for over fifty and twenty five years respectively to make new sense of things. I've been using a similar process to break down complex situations and strategize new directions with clients. 

If you're in the middle of something and getting very frustrated and stressed or excited and eager to jump in front of a fast-moving train of thought, you can use questions to slow yourself down and make new sense.

Questions create space. Questions have the power to get you energized or calm and get other people engaged.

What are you hoping to accomplish?

Mike Wagner works with leaders. He's helping them make sense of what we've come to see as the great disruption. The image above is from a webinar he's done recently. Mike uses conversation as a discovery tool to observe what's going on and get people to engage in making new sense.

For example, to help a company understand why they were having more product returns, he listened to dozens of customer service calls. He noted three main types of company representatives' behaviors: those who dominate the conversation, those who believe the client right off the bat, and those who get quickly to a next step.

That seems an obvious range of behaviors. But what's not so obvious is how you help people see what they're doing and how it holds the company back. If you don't know what you're solving, if you can't see the evidence and how reachable it is, you won't get aligned on getting there.

Mike labeled the behaviors. Because it's important to have shared words for understanding what's happening. With new categories, you can create mental models around who says what and what change would look like.

Once you make new sense of a situation, you can figure out how to transition people out of automatic mental patterns and into new mental models. Mike told me he created a program for the reps to practice leading a guided conversation.

Imagine a call starting with: what are you hoping to accomplish? 

Is it confirmatory or exploratory?

Siamack Salari is a leading expert in ethnographic research. For more than twenty five years, he's been pioneering development in qualitative research. He's also the founding contributor of Not Everyday Life.

Our collaboration in steering the 1,000 plus crowdsourced project to make new sense of what's happening is reinforcing the importance of reframing when exploring specifics of a situation.

The job of a researcher and strategist is to help see things through a new lens. If this is your work, what you do is literally to: learn what's a desirable endpoint for the client (the brief), observe what's there (reality) and make new sense of things.

It's critical to set the right expectations throughout. That includes for the role you play.

Siamack says he's been lucky in his career, most if not all the work he's done has been exploratory. That means making new sense to understand a situation. That's where you can ground a program.

It can be tricky if you forget to figure out the main question: is this confirmatory (i.e. validation) or exploratory? Your direct client usually has a bigger client in her/his company. Even when you work with the CEO, the private equity company or the board of directors could be the ultimate client. Yep, that works even in government and media. Direct and indirect interests could collide.

Here are some examples of reframing in brand strategy.

1. Pirelli comes to you and says I want people to buy more tires. You help them by reframing the goal from the point of view of their potential customers: drive around more.

2. Rai3, which is the national education channel in Italy, comes to you and says viewers are complaining, this is proof they need to change programming. You help them reframe the context from the point of view of the audience they want to attract: people who like to think deeply.

3. Illy caffe' says people are saying their coffee is more expensive compared to drip coffee. After you inwardly swallow a cup of amazing espresso, you help them reframe product positioning. Illy is inexpensive compared to Starbucks.

Reframing is about looking at the question differently and asking a better question.

Making new sense to help you move forward

The point is that our pattern-seeking brains can keep us stuck in first gear when we're facing a new situation. Avoiding and arguing can be a career-ending proposition. In a riskier situation, they can get you into dicey spots.

I've spent a lot of time inside companies working on re-imagining brands to revitalize businesses and getting people to believe in them again. I've been involved in responding to major crises. I've also been on the other side of the fence as a consultant and coach to help businesses with digital. 

Engineers and technical people get very excited about the stack. Business people get energized thinking about the business results. Then you've got to think of customers and everyone else in the company. The technology changes, but it's getting people to talk to one another that matters most to success.

A certain amount of friction is useful to create traction, so colliding is favorable to creating. Generations don't matter as much as we think. It really is about being human and figuring out: why are we here? Where are we trying to go?

Back to the original question: How do you keep things moving forward? Which is a more personal way of asking how to make change happen—from stasis or stuck to forward motion.

You can borrow from the tools that work for many disciplines:

  • notice—critical in research and structural thinking.
  • breathe—critical in meditation, athletics and other kinds of artistic performance but also in life. Even better if you train yourself to do this every time you wash your hands, which now is very frequently.
  • question—valuable in strategic work for many disciplines. Asking questions is a way to bypass our pattern-seeking brains and make new sense.
  • explore—how to reframe situations from different perspectives. Essential in development work.
  • practice—what everyone is here to do. When you do it with intention and the intent to define direction, more practice makes progress.

I came across two essays recently that have reinforced the same sense of fragility we face as humans I have felt during personal and family difficulties: lessons in perspective. The more we are willing to make new sense, the more sense we make.

I'd like to thank Mike and Siamack for prompting this conversation on sensemaking, where grounding outstrips groundbreaking.


I've been sharing ideas and perspectives about business and culture in my weekly email to nearly 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize issues by theme to minimize overwhelm. Subscribe here, if you'd like to join our growing community of sensemakers.

[image courtesy Mike Wagner, White Rabbit Group; here's a link to Mike's video conversation on How to Lead During the Great Disruption]

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