Reflections on developing a SenseMaker framework to understand company culture

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Example SenseMaker triads

Two examples of SenseMaker triads for exploring company culture

We spent last week working on a new narrative research framework using SenseMaker® with a new client – a quick snapshot of the organisation ahead of a big leadership and organisational design event in a month’s time.

The week started with a workshop to explore the issue and the potential angles for the SenseMaker® triads, dyads, stones and questions to take. Thursday was boiling that down to a reasonable size and Friday making the always-difficult calls of what stays in and what gets cut out.  Over the weekend, SenseMaker-Designer-extraordinaire Richard Hare is building the SenseMaker® site, while in parallel paper tests on the framework are being carried out so we can start collecting data on Tuesday – six working days from when we started.

As always, some learning in the process.  Part of our workshop involves looking at elements of previous frameworks to select relevant pieces for this one – our experience is no two frameworks should ever be the same. Different context, different perspectives on the world, and different capabilities for taking action are all significant differences – and frameworks need adaptation for these.*

Two things, however, struck me:

  1. Exaptation of elements – something developed for one use gets repurposed for something completely different and in an entirely different field. The cross-fertilisation between government projects, UN agencies and our corporate customers is a real positive.
    This time around, a triad developed to understand how roof-builders working on Canadian building sites choose which tools to buy got used without changes to see how employees make project decisions. (Other triads that have been common in projects since our first SenseMaker project in 2008 have evolved over the years – the language getting easier, problematic triad corners getting resolved, etc)
  2. Triad questions matter. It’s easy to overlook the question you ask at the beginning of a triad, as so much attention needs to go into what your three corners are. This week we flipped one triad at the last minute – we’d been asking “In your example, what motivated people?” but have switched it around to “In your example, people felt they had …”.
    Our reasoning was that interpreting intention can be useful – it gives insight into what people think they want. That is always risky – our interpretations of our motivations/opinions/aspirations sometimes do not tally with our actions in the moment. Switching to what people actually got from an experience – and then looking at whether those experiences were seen as positive or negative – gives us a much clearer picture of what people actually value, rather than what they say they value.
    And I have no doubt that there will be times when we want to ask the motivation question instead.

After 10 years and approaching 100 different frameworks for narrative research, we’re still learning, still noticing how to improve, still spotting where it’s not quite working.

Signing off on the website today, and collection starts in earnest tomorrow.  By the time we get to the event, we’ll have a solid picture of the current culture – where it might go, where it probably won’t, along with examples to illustrate aspirations and frustrations.

Culture and complexity – helping you fix the next level problems – it’s what we do. Want to know more? Get in touch here.

*There are exceptions, of course. In this case, I’d suggest that a standardised framework is necessary if you’re doing academic research in different contexts and need to pre-define your common view of the world/model. It’s also visible in organisations like Gallup and other employee engagement surveys – but there, the driver is the ability to commoditise their product and force customers to see the world through the provider’s lens, rather than facilitate the client in expanding their own view of the organisation.