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Sensemaking in culture transformations

Organizational culture has been defined in numerous ways. Over the last few decades culture is seen as a competitive edge for different organization. Deloitte reports that a vast majority of companies are using culture as a lever to drive strategy, transform operations and become market leaders and industry benchmarks.  “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (ref: Peter Drucker) is more true today than ever before. It is no longer an HR initiative. Culture is a business issue, a business essential.

Simply defined, culture “is the way we do things around here”. It is mainly driven by leadership by creating values, behaviors, artifacts, norms, ground rules, reward systems and beliefs that influence the daily activities of an organization. Over time it becomes the espoused beliefs of the organization and spreads in somewhat uncontrolled ways throughout the organization’s ecosystem, especially as organizations grow big through M&A across geographies. Our personal beliefs are shaped first by our upbringing, then by the societal norms and beliefs and finally by the broader media that influence us. We then bring these beliefs into our organizations. Most likely they match the general culture of the organization. Eventually the culture of an organization gets embedded in deep rooted into its tenets – it can be observed and felt as a person touches any aspect of the company, be it online, talking to its leaders or even walking through the doors.

If companies “do the things they do” due to their culture, especially in organizations where culture is strong (good or bad) and they get deep rooted, across geographies, it becomes really difficult to change that culture. Should companies change their culture? The answer would depend on the state of the industry, the markets, the competitive forces, the macro political, economic and legal environments of such industries and markets and other forces that impact the existence and growth of such companies. To stay relevant organizations will reach a state where status quo is no longer an option. Companies then undertake transformative initiatives. When these transformation efforts change the “way the we do things around here” they will challenge the very core and belief of its foundation – almost every time.

Numerous journals, studies, articles and frameworks have been developed to categorize and measure organizational culture – just search Google for organizational culture frameworks. Whatever be the culture of an organization and whatever transformation efforts are – if they require a dramatic change of culture – from hierarchical to decentralized, from centralized to distributed, from leaderless to dictatorial etc – the intended results may or may not fall where it was envisioned. The challenge becomes manifold in larger organizations with deep-rooted history, over multiple locations and social norms. How can such organizations get off the block and structure their culture transformation?

One way this can be achieved early-on is through sensemaking. “Sensemaking is the way in which people give a shared meaning to their collective experiences” (Wikipedia). It veers away from traditional decision-engines and planning-models and makes way for dialog and narratives. There are numerous psychological sources about sensemaking and the complexities in such studies need not be understood to realize its importance in the early stages of a culture transformation. If culture is the “way we do things around here” and really difficult to pinpoint, then changing it will require large groups of people across different geographies, societies and communities to agree at any given point on “what is that way”. There could be generic, high level answers, but the devil is in the details here – to change the “way we do things around here” – for example to move to an Agile culture from a traditional waterfall culture requires going against the very grain of every brick and process of an organization. In such situations leaders can bring calm and structure to the culture transformation by focusing on the narrative through sensemaking. By giving a shared meaning to the collective experiences of a large group of people, leaders can bring fears, anxiety, egos, insecurity, excitement and chaos to the middle of the giant organizational table from where change can actually start to happen. It is probably the hardest thing an organization has to do, if it has to do it.

Here are some excellent sources on sensemaking



I am a transformation consultant and have found that early on in transformation initiatives, applying sensemaking brings agility and structure to organizations. Would love to hear more thoughts on this, if you found this of any value.

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