Dave Snowden

Sorry David I don’t read anything apart from stories…

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I frequently rail against the over structured, over measured, over managed approaches to dealing with people and organisations. Most recently measurement some time ago Sick Stigma with many a side swipe in between. However there is another side to this, where people go so far to the other extreme that they make even Sick Stigma look attractive. I received a good example of this from Ralph Kerle CEO of the The Creative Leadership Forum in Australia. The discussion on sense-making in ActKM brought a seemingly innocent question from Ralph as to what was meant by the subject. An attempt to provide a serious response resulted in supercilious reply. a couple of exchanges later I suggested that Ralph might like to read some of the material supplied and got the one line answer which forms the title for this blog posting.

Now this worries me. You would expect the CEO of an organisation that purports to offer serious training and research in the areas of leadership to have progressed beyond such statements. OK there is probably a degree of posturing going on, an attempt to be clever for its own sake, but it is still worrying. It’s almost as if we have a terrible dichotomy between over structured approaches to management and a complete rejection of the same. Now I know a fair number of the people listed on the Creative leadership Forum Advisory Council, and they are serious people who certainly read (and in several cases write) far more than stories. So it is probably true to say that Ralph’s personal idiosyncrasies and, to my mind idiocy, is not reflected in the wider organisation. However it remains a concern that too much management science/practice is polarising into two inadequate extremes. The full exchange is repeated below for those interested.

7th June 0718 BST: Ralph asking a question

I am reading these email exchanges and suddenly realise I don’t fully understand what sense-making is. It is being bandied around all over the place as if everybody understands what it is and yet I can’t make sense of it. It is obviously the opposite of non-sense-making although I am sure there is a lot of nonsense in it but how can I know if sense making is nonsense or not.. What is sense-making?


7th June 0741 BST: My response

I define it as “How do we make sense of the world so we can act in it” which carries with it the concept of sufficiency (knowing enough to make a contextually appropriate decision). In that respect I am bring complexity science and narrative into sense-making as a discipline.

Klein has a more elaborate version “Sensemaking is the ability or attempt to make sense of an ambiguous situation. More exactly, sensemaking is the process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions. It is “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively”

The two main academic players are Karl Weick and Brenda Dervin both of whom are very readable. Weick I think tends to a more normative and organisational approach while Dervin looks more at individuals and communication.

Overall I think Klein is right to emphasis situational awareness and he and I carried out a series of controlled experiments in this area for the Singapore Army which demonstrated increased weak signal detection using narrative based sense-making techniques and also formal or ritual dissent.

Dervin and I have had several conversations and she is currently attempting to get Weick or one of his students to create a three way dialogue given the different perspectives (organisational, communication, complexity)

I hope that reduces the non-sense element for you


7th June 0756 BST: Ralph asking a question

Where does perception fit into this?


7th June 0811 BST: Dialogue continues

That is an interesting question and you will get different views.

My take is that human perception is formed by the patterns of past experience and narrative in humans individually and collectively. For that reason in sense-making we need to understand the nature of the patterns in play as they form filters, and we need to create methods that challenge entrained perspectives. The Singapore experiments I referenced went a long way to making that real.

I don’t think (in organisational sense-making) that we need to take a perspective on perception which is not “fluffy”. We can formalise processes and situational assessment techniques that can introduce a sufficient degree of objectivity. However that approach will be very different from current decision theory if you look at the average strategy handbook.

I also don’t think that you can “facilitate” people out of perception bias by the way


7th June 1123 BST: Ralph now in full flow

Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard College Professor of Psychology in Stumbling On Happiness talks about the triumvirate of cognition; memory (experience could perhaps be used interchangeably here) that is completely unreliable and tells lies all the time (I recall revisiting the Last Tango is Paris recently after 20 years only to be totally disappointed); imagination – an illusion in its own right because it only allows us to imagine in the now not in the future as it professes to do and – perception – the only form of cognition that is potentially reliable for a moment and that offers us some form of stabilisation whilst we stumble forward – again!! Perception for me is the only one of this triumvirate that makes sense – that offers me meaning and then purpose. Sense making for me is the explicit that forms out of my perceptions. Perception can never be captured – only observed in the moment and then expressed in some explicit way for the stumbling loop to begin again!!

So my perception does not allow me to make any sense of the following explicit statement…

“I carried out a series of controlled experiments in this area for the Singapore Army which demonstrated increased weak signal detection using narrative based sense-making techniques and also formal or ritual dissent.”

So I should use my imagination

David Snowden in military camouflage crouches down behind a bush on the edge of the deck of the main dining area of the Sentosa Beach Resort watching the Singapore Army launch a raid from Singapore Harbour on the local kiosk, rehearsing their planned moves in a future raid on the known hideout of the fugitive JI terrorist, his favourite laptop open on his knees. The look of the SWAT team scares the hell out of the rare bird species that are kept there as a tourist attraction. In fear of their lives, the screeching (read weak signal detection) birds who were attempting to convey their apprehension (narrative based sense-making techniques) flew off in all directions (formal and ritual dissent) as the hooded Swat team closed in on the habitat…(from here add what you might like as a climax – David still has his laptop open on his knees so he needs help…)

and I can’t make any sense out of this statement either

“I also don’t think that you can “facilitate” people out of perception bias by the way”

What I know is that simulation is a very good way of making sense whether you are in the simulation or outside of it. Live theatre is the best example of simulation in all its forms – pre-production, production and post production. Theatre creates a world in which all stakeholders attempt to make sense out of a world they have created. And usually it is made through text, dialogues and conversations around meaning – the meaning of the text, design, sound, light etc – the aesthetics of the simulation. A very specific, fragile yet tangible and highly governed world is created and then it makes sense for a moment – only a moment though – to the actors and the audience watching this creation unfold..

Gee, David, I am trying to fit the word “facilitation” in here, David and I can’t. Can you use your imagine to assist me……


7th June 1455 BST: I’m now getting irritated

Ralph I find it very difficult to take you seriously when you play to the gallery, very clever stuff, mildly amusing and shallow. I always feel that when you ask a question you are playing some game, but on an assumption of good faith I have generally responded as I did before and will again now.

– Perception comes from multiple fragmented memories and sensations. If you work at a low granularity level then you can get considerable insight in the patterns through which you are filtering data. That is what you need to sense-making, not perfect knowledge but a sufficiency.

– Klein and I conducted controlled experiments in which different battlefield command groups were fed data including multiple weak signals. Sense-making you might recall is about situational assessment. When the groups were given narrative techniques and dissent techniques a significant increase was detected in weak signal detection.

I suggest you pay some attention and respect to serious research in this field. Understanding how to make sense of the world and developing tools that can support it is critical for a world facing increasing levels of uncertainty.

With regret the controlled environment of the playhouse, and the linguistic skills of a playwright are better suited to entertainment than they are to enlightenment in this respect.


7th June 1123 BST Ralph trying to be serious

When the groups were given narrative techniques and dissent techniques a significant increase was detected in weak signal detection.

i seek to understand what this means..what was actually happening, occurring here ..was a script handed to the participants…I am at a complete loss to know what this means .. and this is said with openness…

Perception comes from multiple fragmented memories and sensations. If you work at a low granularity level then you can get considerable insight in the patterns through which you are filtering data. That is what you need to sense-making, not perfect knowledge but a sufficiency

This might be true of a “controllable” system like a computer (sorry this may sound naive – I am a humanist/artist/whatever not a technologist and I accept the criticism this could be construed as a lazy way of describing a complex system) …what happens though when the unknowable, the unpredictable occurs…..what happens to and where is our perception in those moments….


8th June 0537 BST: Responding in Kind

Proceeding on the assumption of good faith

The participants are given a current situation and are then fed data in real time while they do a situational assessment and determine their next actions. The original situational assessment and real time data feed contain “weak signals”. We can then check which of these are picked up in the participants assessment or action plans. Multiple runs with control and experimental groups using different methods allow us to measure which methods are the most effective. In more sophisticated versions the situation is not “real” but is displaced into a metaphorical setting. The method for this open source and can be found here:

The fragmented and patterned nature of the human brain comes from a range of cognitive science sources. Computer systems based on this principle provide decision support systems that are more capable of detecting weak signals, or of enabling decision makers to modify the “landscape of their interactions” to reduce the threat of the unexpected. Of course the completely unexpected will happen and no computer system can fully model a situation. Systems can help validate or create an evidence base for a range of options at this point. In terms of what happens to the human decision maker then the answer is “it depends”. Given that we make decisions based on a first fit pattern match with previous experience/narrative and do so on a partial datascan we may well dismiss the unexpected, making it fit the patterns that are already established. This is of course dangerous as the ultimate failure is catastrophic (plenty of examples of this in history). With the right stimulation we may do what is called “conceptual blending”, linking and connecting ideas and patterns in unexpected ways. Ritual dissent is one way to encourage that.


8th June 0200 BST: An ambiguous posting from Ralph

How does situational assessment work? What is situational assessment? It seems the more I read the term the more it contains no sense or perhaps, …it is common sense. I am assessing the situation. What framework should I use to assess a situation? What context am I in now and which is the correct situational assessment to use in this context? Look I’ll just contact those wise folks Weick, Klein or Dervin and if they’re not at home I’ll see if I can consult their mate, Snowdon to see if they have any sense (common or even academic) or a framework (with or without exclusions and inclusions) to offer in this situation. Help I’m in a rip and I’m drowning….I hope they’re available NOW….gurgle..gurgle..gurgle…


8th June 1023 BST: Still trying to assume good faith

At its heart Ralph a situational assessment is just what it says, it is determining what is happening, what might be the significance of certain data, what options are viable etc. etc. Some of it involves evaluating knowledge claims (I put that in for Joe). It can involve formal models but it can be a simple application of common sense or even a combination of both

In an organisation setting situational assessment has more formality than an individual one, and may require years of training (look at military training). This is also the field where tools may be deployed to support the process.

If you are in a rip tide and drowning I suggest prayer, on the other hand if you want try and avoid being in that situation, or if you want to help leaders develop the capability to avoid such situations for themselves and their organisations, then I would suggest study. The speed of response on this indicates that you have not read the supporting material I sent you to describe the process so that might be a starting point.


8th June 0618 BST: The final stupidity

Sorry David I don’t read anything apart from stories…

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