Sense-making: The Game-Changing Skill for Leaders in a Complex World

Sense is the compass that guides leaders through the complexities of uncertainty, while nonsense leaves them adrift in the turbulent seas of decision-making.

Hrishikesh Karekar
5 min readJul 31, 2023

As leaders, we live in a world of rapid changes, ambiguity, and unforeseen challenges. Our ability to navigate complexity and make effective decisions becomes paramount in such an environment. Among the myriad skills at our disposal, one stands out as a game-changer: sense-making. This cognitive and social process of extracting meaning from information and experiences empowers leaders to drive their organizations through turbulent waters with strategic clarity and foresight. In this blog, we explore how sense-making transforms the way we lead, making all the difference in a complex and ever-evolving world.

Understanding Sense-making

Sense-making is not a new skill, but its significance has grown exponentially in modern leadership’s complex and rapidly changing landscape. As leaders, we’ve always needed to make sense of information and make informed decisions. However, the speed at which data is generated, the intricacies of global markets, and the unpredictability of disruptive events have amplified the importance of sense-making in our leadership toolkit.

Sense-making has evolved from a foundational skill to a game-changer for leaders. It’s no longer just about collecting data; it’s about distilling meaningful insights from the vast sea of information. Leaders must navigate an overwhelming deluge of data, opinions, and conflicting views in today’s dynamic world. This is where sense-making becomes invaluable.

Embracing sense-making means acknowledging that our environment is not always straightforward, and cause-and-effect relationships may not be evident. Instead, it calls for a deep understanding of the interconnectedness and complexity of our challenges. It encourages us to see the bigger picture, recognize patterns, and anticipate emerging trends.

Moreover, sense-making is more than just a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires us to adapt our decision-making approaches based on the unique contexts we encounter. What worked yesterday might not be suitable for tomorrow’s challenges. This adaptability is what sets successful leaders apart in today’s ever-shifting landscape.

Embracing Complexity

Let us take a moment to reflect on the story of Deputy Chief Walter Gasior, a true exemplar of embracing complexity in leadership. In the aftermath of a tragic shooting in 1993 in Palatine, Chicago, Gasior juggled many responsibilities as a managerial official and police agent. He had to console grieving families, manage a busy police department, and navigate the relentless media attention flooding the town.

Gasior’s success in handling this complex situation hinged on his ability to adapt and tailor his responses to the unique demands of each challenge. Rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach, he embraced the reality that leadership is not a linear path but a dynamic and ever-changing journey. [Source:]

This poignant example reminds us that complexity is inherent in the leadership landscape. It challenges us to be open to each situation’s nuances and avoid the temptation of oversimplifying complex problems. This is especially critical in today’s AI-driven world, where things are changing really fast. Just as Gasior’s quick thinking and adaptability brought positive outcomes in the face of adversity, as leaders, we must be willing to embrace complexity and tailor our strategies to navigate the ever-changing tides of leadership effectively.

This navigation is where the Cynefin framework comes into play — a beacon to illuminate the path ahead.

Leveraging Sense-making

As leaders, utilizing sense-making within the four zones of the Cynefin framework enhances our decision-making prowess:

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  1. Simple Domain: Sense-making in this zone involves recognizing familiar patterns and applying established best practices. We can make efficient and confident decisions based on our prior knowledge and experience by quickly identifying cause-and-effect relationships.
  2. Complicated Domain: Sense-making empowers us to navigate the complex space by gathering relevant data and engaging in expert analysis. Understanding the intricacies of the situation enables us to devise effective strategies and make well-informed decisions that align with our organization’s goals.
  3. Complex Domain: Embracing sense-making in this zone means embracing uncertainty. We explore and experiment, allowing patterns to emerge organically. Through iterative probing and adaptive thinking, we uncover innovative solutions that adapt to the ever-changing environment.
  4. Chaotic Domain: Sense-making becomes our anchor in chaos, guiding our swift actions to stabilize the situation. Afterwards, we analyze the implications of our decisions, learn from the experience, and adjust our approach as needed.

In all four zones, sense-making becomes our trusted compass, enabling us to navigate the diverse terrains of leadership with clarity, agility, and a keen understanding of the unique challenges at hand.

Strategic Decision-making and Anticipating Change

In the competitive business arena, strategic decision-making is the compass that guides us towards success. Sense-making equips leaders with the tools to analyze vast datasets, evaluate potential outcomes, and strategically plan for the future. During the pandemic, several businesses used sense-making to proactively anticipate changes in consumer behaviour. By analyzing emerging trends and adapting their supply chain, they quickly shifted their focus to essential products, ensuring uninterrupted customer service and capturing untapped market opportunities. This adaptability gave a significant strategic advantage to these early adapters over others who needed to be more responsive to emerging situations.

Building a Culture of Learning

Leaders understand that the crew is pivotal in steering the ship towards greatness. By fostering a culture of learning empowered by sense-making, we enable our teams to become co-captains in the voyage to success. One company, known for its culture of continuous learning, encourages cross-functional collaboration and idea-sharing. Leaders conduct sense-making sessions where employees explore new perspectives, empowering them to identify innovative solutions and drive the organization forward.

Ethical Contemplations

Amid our journey, ethical dilemmas can emerge like treacherous whirlpools. Sense-making becomes the compass guiding us through these murky waters, ensuring we stay true to our moral north. Take the case of a pharmaceutical company that is often torn between profits and patient well-being. Through ethical sense-making, leaders could engage with stakeholders to understand the societal impact of their decisions. Balancing financial viability with affordable healthcare, they can forge a path of sustainable growth while staying aligned with their core values.

The Wrap

As leaders, sense-making is the North Star that illuminates our path in the vast ocean of uncertainty. With it, we gain the power to navigate complexity, make informed decisions, and build resilient organizations capable of thriving amidst change. Embracing sense-making transforms us into leaders who inspire innovation, adaptability, and visionary thinking. We talk more sense than nonsense. Armed with this game-changing skill, we confidently sail towards the horizon, charting a course for success in an ever-changing world.

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