Imagine that you are suddenly transported and standing on a street in Topeka, KS for the first time. What is one of the first things you do (other than cry because you are in Topeka, KS)? You look at a map to see where you are relative to everything else. And what do you do if your map leads you astray, appearing more and more incorrect as you use it to navigate? You start confirming places by your own walking around, ask people for directions, show the map to locals to validate it, and then finally toss it, redraw it, or get a new one. If you don't have a map, you'll still go through the same steps to create one and validate it.
One of the most important skills in product/project management (and any management) is learning how to make sense of your environment and map the situation.. “Sensemaking” is what I consider the first skill for a leader - Karl Weick describes it as organizing the unknown so we can act upon it. It’s an absolutely necessary skill in a complex world where things are in constant flux - what used to work no longer does due to new technology, market shift, etc. Sensemakers do not "shoot from the hip". They do fact-finding, gather as much input as possible, involve others in getting the "big picture" and watchful for changes. As Stephen Covey said, "Seek first to understand, then be understood".
One person whom I greatly admire and had the privilege to work for was Jim Garrison, the former CEO of Instron. Jim was CEO of H&R 1871, a manufacturer of shotguns and rifles, and became CEO of Instron, a high tech company and manufacturer of test instruments. It’s hard to see the connection between guns and test equipment. One of the first things that Jim did was travel to meet with sales, service, employees, and customers worldwide. Nothing drastic as a start – just intensive data gathering without bias. Colleagues worldwide called me with amazement that the new CEO was actually listening and actively soliciting their opinions. Departments were actually excitedly waiting for their opportunity to share their thoughts and observations. Generally, higher-ups tend to sit together at lunch. Jim made a conscious effort to sit with everyone (and it was noticed by all). Jim even reached out to the retired founder of the company! Only after fully getting the "big picture" did Jim Garrison take steps to change and improve the organization. Instron grew under his leadership with huge improvements in quality, processes, and customer satisfaction.
I learned from Jim when I took over “Dynatup”, a small impact instruments business unit that my company acquired. Two previous managers came and left. I knew nothing about Dynatup, impact testing, the products, customers, or people. So the first thing that I did was keep my mouth shut to hide my ignorance and embarked on sensemaking to create a map.
How to Sensemake and Map:
1. Seek out as many different types of data and sources as possible. I spoke with every possible person who could provide information so that I could make some sense of what we had and where we were – the upper management who acquired the new business, past and present customers, and every person who was working in the acquired buiness – including the manufacturing staff, sales, service, as well as external research, e.g. external professional groups, competitors, etc. No one can give you a better perspective on quality than the people assembling, servicing, and supporting the product.
You can get some very conflicting information but the different perspectives are real. For example, one existing product had a controller on an articulated arm which swung in and out. It was very difficult and expensive to manufacture, but advertised as a unique feature. Every existing user bluntly told me that they hated that articulating arm – it constantly got in their way!
2. Put aside your own prejudices and beliefs. Be totally open...no blinders. Practicing empathic listening, learn to understand the perspectives of others, why they feel the way they feel, and also what’s important to them. I learned that the employees had tremendous pride in their history and products but felt aliened like a foster child – they also wanted a manager who was committed and would stay. There will also be some very negative and downbeat data from "naysayers" that should still be accepted at face value until you can validate and sort things out.
3. Think like a shrink - ask alot of questions (especially open ended questions). "What do you think of x?" "What do you think we should be doing?" "What can we improve to make your life easier?" The people on the "front lines" see and hear things that we would never know. Once people realize that you are genuine in your interest and really care about them and the topic, they tend to open up and give you information that you wouldn’t have even thought of asking.
4. Involve others as you go through the exercise. Practice humility. No man (or woman) is an island so I constantly went back to my sources to confirm what I thought I heard and understood.
Why? 1) I sometimes misunderstood or filtered information, 2) I was able to validate and refine my slowly forming map of the situation, 3) I had conflicting data which needed to be resolved or understood, and 4) I gained trust from others by demonstrating that I listened and respected their opinions and perspectives.
5. Create the Map! Make the map as you get your questions answered and information starts falling into place. You have to see the forest, not the trees to get the big picture. Then go back to #4. Look for common trends and patterns. What I learned from all my information was that we had acquired a niche business which meant operating in an entirely different manner. The conventional structure and processes could not be universally applied. We re-organized our unit to operate like a niche.
6. Walk the Talk. Validate your map by experimenting. At some point, you start taking action. Otherwise, you will be forever gathering and drowning in data and you will frustrate everyone for wasting their time, (How many of your customers or staff get turned off and negative because you constantly ask them for input but never follow up? Don't ask if you are not going to do anything about it.)
Start slow. Christopher Columbus would have fallen off the world if it was indeed flat...so Spain was smart to send just 3 ships with an Italian to test that map. See how accurate your map is and where the boundaries are. Going back to our Topeka, KS example, you walk a block and then see if you are in the right place on the map - you don't run down 10 streets and then check. So experiment before you bet the farm, e.g. if you think that your market can bear a price increase, start with one region or product. Nail it, then scale it (up).
7. Continually sensemake and refine your map. People have driven into buildings because their GPS maps were out of date! Keep an open mind as you use your map. Markets, customers, competitors, technology change so you always ask questions and seek input with a fresh set of eyes. IBM was able to sense that selling only mainframes and hardware was a losing proposition and have successfully transformed into a service business. Dell may not see the new map that PCs are turning into a commodity business with some very strong Asian competition. Your maps will constantly chnage in a dynamic world.
Credit belongs to Dr. Debbie Ancona at MIT Sloan for introducing me to Sensemaking. A link to a detailed article is linked here.