Chapter 3
The Management of Ambiguity:
Organizations as Sensemaking Communities

(Selected Excerpts)


Today's organizations have their eyes fixed perpetually on the horizon, watching markets shift from day to day, firms jostle with one another for position, technological innovations open up new terrain, and government policies fold and refold boundaries. More than ever, organizations are keenly aware that their ability to survive and evolve is determined by their capacity to make sense of or influence their environments and to constantly renew meaning and purpose in the light of new conditions. Adaptability in a dynamic environment presents a two-fold challenge, for it requires organizations to be skilled at both sensing and making sense. Sensing, or noticing potentially important messages in the environment, is problematic because the organization is simultaneously immersed in multiple streams of interaction with many different parts of the environment, and because almost every part of the environment is interconnected with other parts in complex and unpredictable ways. Organizations scan the environment broadly in order to have sufficient information to recognize trends and developments that will impact the organization, and to identify significant issues that need to be analyzed further. A detailed analysis of the theory and practice of how organizations scan the environment concluded that scanning can be made more effective if it is systematic, thorough, participatory, and integrative (Choo 1995). The core process of scanning is information management -- casting a wide information net by involving as many participants as possible to act as sensors, and systematically processing and integrating the gathered information into a useable knowledge base.

Making sense, or constructing meaning from what has been sensed about the environment, is problematic because the information about the environment is ambivalent, and therefore subject to multiple interpretations. The selection of an appropriate interpretation is hard because each person sees different parts of the environment as interesting, depending on the individual's values, history and experience. Whereas sensing or scanning is gathering sufficient information to reduce environmental uncertainty, sensemaking involves choosing and agreeing on a set of meanings or interpretations to reduce ambiguity in environmental cues. Unlike scanning which can be designed as a systematic and structured activity, sensemaking is inherently a fluid, open, disorderly, social process. The basic mode of sensemaking is discourse, for it is through talk that organizational members find out what each other think, and it is through talk that people persuade, negotiate, and reshape their points of view. Sensemaking is further complicated by the possibility that the organization can or wishes to actively intrude into the environment (as in the example of the Californian wineries), in order to produce, influence, or modify parts of it. In a manner of speaking, the organization that enacts its environment is involved in giving rather than making sense, although the modified elements become absorbed into the overall environment that the organization then needs to comprehend and respond to.

Organizational sensemaking has been defined in various ways by different researchers. March and Olsen (1976) saw sensemaking as part of experiential learning in which "individuals and organizations make sense of their experience and modify behavior in terms of their interpretations." (p. 56) Starbuck and Milliken (1988) observed that "sensemaking has many distinct aspects -- comprehending, understanding, explaining, attributing, extrapolating, and predicting, at least. ... What is common to these processes is that they involve placing stimuli into frameworks (or schemata) that make sense of the stimuli." (p. 51) Sensemaking is sometimes thought of as belonging to a larger process of organizational adaptation that also includes scanning the environment, interpreting, and developing responses. In this vein, Thomas, Clark and Gioia (1993) write that sensemaking "involves the reciprocal interaction of information seeking, meaning ascription, and action" and that "each element of this sensemaking process is presumed to have some relationship to performance." (p. 240)

This chapter is divided into four sections. Section I explores the nature of organizational sensemaking, identifying the properties that distinguish sensemaking as a unique process. Section II describes the belief- and action-driven processes that result in sensemaking as well as the interlocking behaviors of enactment, selection, and retention that form the sensemaking recipe. Section III discusses the cognitive, cultural, and communication strategies that create shared meaning and consensus in organizations so that collective action is possible and purposeful. Section IV focuses on how information is acquired, processed and used in sensemaking in terms of cognitive, affective, and situational variables.


I. The Nature of Organizational Sensemaking

Drawing together the various discussions of sensemaking in the research literature, Weick (1995) identifies seven distinguishing properties of sensemaking as an organizational process. In his view:

Sensemaking is understood as a process that is

  1. Grounded in identity construction
  2. Retrospective
  3. Enactive of sensible environments
  4. Social
  5. Ongoing
  6. Focused on and by extracted cues
  7. Driven by plausibility rather than accuracy.
(Weick 1995, p. 17)
We paraphrase below Weick's explanations of each of these properties.

Sensemaking is grounded in identity construction. Sensemaking is necessary for the individual to maintain a consistent self conception, and is often initiated when the individual fails to confirm self identity. The environment is like a mirror into which people project themselves and observe the consequences in order to learn about their identities. This projection is not one-way nor passive, for people simultaneously try to shape and react to the environments they face -- even as they deduce their identity from the behavior of others towards them, they also try to influence this behavior. Thus, what the situation means is determined by the identity that the individual adopts in dealing with it.

Sensemaking is retrospective. The sensemaking individual attends to events that have already taken place. She does so from a specific point in time, so that what is occuring at that moment will affect what she is likely to notice as she casts this backward glance. Furthermore, because the event has already elapsed, the individual has to rely on a memory trace of the event, which may or may not be accurate. In retrospective sensemaking, the main problem is to select a plausible meaning from several alternative meanings in order to make sense of past events. For this, the individual needs values and priorities to clarify what is important and therefore meaningful in the elapsed experience.

Sensemaking is enactive. In sensemaking, people in organizations often produce part of the environment that they face. Weick calls this process enactment. One way people enact is by breaking up streams of experience into packets which they then label with categories. By bracketing experience, people endow objects and events with cognitive value in their minds, thus providing the raw material for sensemaking. Another way that organizations enact is to undertake actions that actually result in physical or structural changes in the environment that they are relating to, as in the case of the Californian wineries. Enactment implies that action is a precondition for sensemaking as for example, "when the action of saying makes it possible for people to then see what they think." (Weick 1995, p. 30)

Sensemaking is social. All sensemaking is done in social groups of more than one individual. Even when a person appears to be alone, her sensemaking will take into account the reactions of others not physically present but who will be affected or whose reactions will be important. More often than not, sensemaking occurs in groups of people engaged in talk, discourse and conversation which become the media for social construction.

Sensemaking is ongoing. Sensemaking never starts or stops, but is continuous in the flow of activities and projects that constitute organizational life. From this continuous stream, people isolate packets of experience for labelling and reflection, and the way they do this selection is based on the perceived salience induced by the particular activities or projects they are working on at the time. Although sensemaking does not stop, it can be interrupted. Interruptions invoke emotional responses which then influence the sensemaking process (see Section IV).

Sensemaking is focused on and by extracted cues. Extracted cues are "simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring." (Weick 1995, p. 50) They provide points of reference or starting nodes from which ideas may be linked and connected into networks of meaning. The extraction of cues is the result of scanning, search, or noticing. The interpretation of cues depends on the organizational context -- a context which can bind people to actions, determine the relevance of information, and impose norms and expectations on what explanations are acceptable (Salancik and Pfeffer 1978).

Sensemaking is driven by plausibility rather than accuracy. People behave pragmatically when sensemaking, favouring plausibility over accuracy when they construct accounts of what is going on. The reason is that "in an equivocal, postmodern world, infused with the politics of interpretation and conflicting interests and inhabited by people with multiple shifting identities, an obsession with accuracy seems fruitless, and not of much practical help, either." (Weick 1995, p. 61) Besides, whenever organizational action is time-constrained, managers would tend to trade off accuracy for speed.

As a terse summary, one may say that sensemaking is a continuous, social process in which individuals look at elapsed events, bracket packets of experience, and select particular points of reference to weave webs of meaning. The result of sensemaking is an enacted or meaningful environment which is a reasonable and socially credible rendering of what is taking place. The central problem in sensemaking is how to reduce or resolve ambiguity, and how to develop shared meanings so that the organization may act collectively.

There are general similarities between the organizational sensemaking described here and the sensemaking metaphor of Brenda Dervin that we discussed in the last chapter. Dervin (1992) sees the individual as continually making sense as she moves through time and space in an ongoing life-journey. From time to time, movement is blocked by a gap in the path she is travelling on when she is temporarily unable to make sense of her situation. Information is then sought and processed in a manner that is influenced by her perception of the gap and how she wants the information to help. Using the organizational sensemaking language, we may say that in Dervin's model, the individual encounters a break or gap in the flow of organizational experience which requires new sense to be made; the individual then constructs new meaning by selecting from the information she has available; that the information selected depends on her enactment or perception of the cognitive gap; that this is in turn influenced by her retrospective recall of past experience and by the particular conditions, or extracted cues that define the current gap; and that information use is pragmatic where the ability to continue on the journey is often sufficient or even more important than securing the most accurate information.

Over a period of three years, Isenberg (1984, 1986, 1987) studied the thinking processes of managers by analyzing data from many sources: managers' think-aloud protocols collected while they were at work, managers' and students' think-aloud protocols in solving a business case, in-depth interviews with managers, and on-the-job observations. Eighteen senior managers, including three chief executives and thirteen divisional general managers from ten corporations were studied in depth, with an additional number of senior managers participating in the interviews only. Overall, the studies led Isenberg (1986) to conclude that managers develop plausible, as opposed to necessarily accurate, models of their situations, and that managers develop and efficiently use knowledge structures that guide how they recognize, explain and plan. Plausible reasoning is a central thinking process for managers because they function in an environment of continuous change and uncertainty, and they are often required to act in order to ensure the ongoing viability of the organization. Isenberg gives an instance from his field observations:

For example, one general manager received a phone message from a product expediter in a sister division that purchased products from the general manager's own division. The general manager surmised that the expediter could have been calling for one of two reasons: to say something about either price or delivery time on a specific production run. The surmise was based on previous experience with the particular expediter, knowledge that the run was late, and the general manager's impression that he had never interacted with the expediter around any other issue. Before returning the call, the general manager walked by his marketing manager's office and asked a marketing person why he thought the expediter called. He received the answer "Price." The general manager then returned the call. Note that the reasoning process rapidly limited the number of hypotheses for the general manager to test and that although the answer constituted a weak test of his hypothesis, the answer considerably increased the manager's certainty with minimal effort and minimal risk. The increase in certainty was enough for him to go back and return the phone call with an idea already developed and for how to discuss price with the expediter. It is this latter point that is the critical one: plausible reasoning helps the manager increase his or her certainty to the point of feasible action.

(Isenberg 1986, p. 247)

Again, there are close similarities between the enactment process and the model of plausible reasoning developed by Isenberg (1986). Like Weick, Isenberg emphasizes that managerial thinking and action are not separate or sequential activities. Rather than thinking first before doing, many managers think while doing, so that thinking is inextricably tied to action in what Isenberg has called "thinking/acting cycles" (Isenberg 1984). This allows managers to act when information or understanding is incomplete, and furthermore, by reflecting on the results of their action, managers can often derive new insight and reduce uncertainty. Based on his field studies, Isenberg conceptualized the plausible reasoning process used by managers in planning and implementing action as a sequence of four steps:

  1. The manager needs to develop a different understanding of a phenomenon, often due to an experience of surprise.

  2. The manager tries to take advantage of the data he or she already has in order to speculate about the new situation. Each speculation is tested against data and assumptions that already exist, and the search for new data at this point is confined to search in long-term memory.

  3. A very selective external search for information is engaged in, particularly in order to confirm one or more of the speculations, although disconfirmation may also occur. The goal of the search at this point is to achieve a degree of certainty that will allow the manager to proceed to step four at minimal cost and minimal risk.

  4. The manager engages in action in the face of incomplete but tentative understanding of the situation and uses the feedback of his or her actions to complete the understanding.

(Isenberg 1986, p. 247-248)

As we shall see, these steps fit well with the enactment-selection framework proposed by Weick that we introduce next.


II Organizational Processes of Sensemaking

In this section, we describe the processes by which organizations make sense of their environments, their identities, and their actions. We begin with a discussion of the enactment process by which people in organizations bracket experience, select meanings, and retain sensible interpretations. We then illustrate the enactment process with a case study of the Scottish knitwear industry. The ensuing subsections discuss two other sets of organizational sensemaking processes that are complementary -- belief-driven processes and action-driven processes. Finally, we close this section with a look at how and to what extent meanings and beliefs are shared in organizations.

The Enactment Process

Weick (1979) encapsulates the main sensemaking recipe in the question: "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" (The quote is from Graham Wallas' The Art of Thought, in which the author wrote "The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said: 'How can I know what I think till I see what I say?'" (Wallas 1926, p. 106)) The recipe suggests that people in organizations are continually engaged in talk in order to find out what they are thinking and to construct interpretations of what they are doing. The recipe is executed in connected sequences of enactment --> selection --> retention. We briefly introduced these processes in Chapter 1, but because they constitute the main routines of sensemaking, we elaborate here on how they work and illustrate them with an example. We unpack each process by examining its inputs, transformation processes, and outputs (Table 3.1).

Table 3.1 The Sensemaking Recipe

Enactment is the process by which individuals in an organization actively create the environments which they face and which they then attend to. The enactment process begins as a result of noticing some change or discrepancies in the flow of experience. (Weick (1979) included another process that precedes enactment called "ecological change," which refers to breaks or changes in the flow of experience that provide the occasion for sensemaking.) Raw data about these environmental changes form the input to the process. Individuals isolate some of these changes for closer attention by bracketing and labelling portions of the experience, or by taking some action to create features of the environment to attend to. In this way, "managers construct, rearrange, single out, and demolish many 'objective' features of their surroundings. .. people, often alone, actively put things out there that they then perceive and negotiate about perceiving. It is that initial implanting of reality that is preserved by the word enactment." (Weick 1979, p. 164-165, italics in original). The output of enactment is a set of equivocal, uninterpreted raw data, that supply the base material for the other sensemaking processes.

Selection is the process by which people in an organization generate answers to the queston "What's going on here?" (Weick 1979) What the selection process chooses are the meanings that can be imposed on the equivocal data from the enactment process. Possible meanings come from meanings and interpretations that have proven sensible in the past, as well as from "patterns implicit in the enactments themselves." (Weick 1979, p. 175) Past interpretations are used as templates that are laid over current data in order to reveal plausible configurations. Selection, based on an assessment of the degree of fit, is necessary because many of the possible meanings would be inapplicable or inconsistent with the current data. The result of the selection process is an enacted environment that is meaningful in that it provides a cause-and-effect explanation of what is taking place.

Retention is the process by which the products of successful sensemaking, that is, enacted or meaningful environments, are stored so that they may be retrieved on future occasions as possible meanings to be imposed on new equivocal situations. Retained meanings are stored as enacted environments that are "a punctuated and connected summary of a previously equivocal display," (Weick 1979, p. 131) or as cause maps that identify and label variables, and connect the variables in causal relationships (p. 132)

We can now see how the sensemaking recipe of "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" is mirrored in the enactment-selection-retention sequence -- enactment may be compared with 'saying' or doing; selection with 'seeing'; and retention with 'thinking' or remembering. The three processes embrace each other in cycles where feedback between processes amplify or attenuate the salience of changes observed in the external environment, and accelerate or constrain the movement of information cues that influence the choice of meaningful interpretations and the retention of enacted meanings.

Sensemaking in the Scottish Knitwear Industry

In the mid-1980s, Scottish knitwear manufacturers accounted for nearly half of total British exports in knitted outerwear, and enjoyed significantly higher profitability levels than other British knitwear producers (Baden-Fuller et al 1987). The Scottish knitwear manufacturers included companies such as Ballantyne, Cooper & Rowe, Dalkeith/Jaeger, Lyle & Scott, and Pringle, which produced knitted outerwear under their own brand names using high quality Scottish or cashmere yarn. They manufactured knitwear by combining various coloured yarns into a garment whose size and shape were determined on the knitting machine. This labor-intensive technique produced 'fully-fashioned' knitwear and was quite different from the 'cut-and-sew' technique which allowed larger scales of production but resulted in lower quality products and more unused yarn so that it was unsuitable for the expensive cashmere material. The 1980s saw all the companies greatly extending their product ranges, with most producers each manufacturing thousands of varieties of sweaters. Although a few of the larger firms had small internal design departments, all the firms hired outside design consultants to help create new products. Independent agents who received commissions brokered the sale of the finished garments to retail stores all over the world. These agents were contractually barred from representing other competing brands of knitwear. Retail stores were typically large department stores and specialty boutiques which sold classic, expensive clothing to the carriage trade. Through extensive interviews with top managers from more than a third of the Scottish knitwear manufacturers located in the Border region of Scotland, Porac, Thomas and Baden-Fuller (1989) were able to uncover some core beliefs underlying the mental models used by the top managers to understand their firms' competitive environment. One set of beliefs concerned how the firms established their own distinctive market identity, another set determined how they dealt with other parties in the transactional network (the producers, agents, retailers, and consumers).

Making sense of market identity. Sensemaking was the process by which the firms studied, discovered or invented their self-identities, their collective identity, and the perceived identities of their customers and competitors. The firms defined their business as the production of top quality cashmere pullover and cardigan sweaters, and perceived that their customers were individuals in the top 2-5 percent income bracket of any given country (Porac et al 1989). Three managing directors expressed this belief thus (quoted in Porac et al 1989, p. 406):

We're top-end. We're not interested in Marks & Spencer's or anybody other than the top 2 per cent in any country.

If people are looking for knitwear, the top 5 per cent, we are the segment they will look to.

We are in the market where customers imply want the best. Pure and simple. People must want the best.

This emphasis on exclusiveness and high-quality also colors their perception of the competition (quoted in Porac et al 1989, p. 407):

Quite honestly, there is not a lot of competition. The Italian industry is a different industry from ours. The Asian industry is a different industry from ours. ... Basically it's pullovers and cardigans. It's classic type garments. In my opinion, it is quite clearly defined that people expect to buy the best cashmere pullovers from Scotland.

The majority of our competitors are either within our own group, or within our own town. ... We don't try to be high fashion like the Italians. We call ourselves 'classical elegance.'

The collective market identity shared by the group of knitwear manufacturers was therefore based on the following core beliefs: that they made the best cashmere knitwear in the world, that their customers were high income earners who bought premium quality, and that they had no significant competition from outside the group because of their unique capabilities. Their collective competitive strategy was to focus narrowly on a small segment of the market that wanted established quality and classical appeal. This strategy was evolved rather than the result of deliberate planning or detailed market research, as we shall see.

Enacting the transactional network. The transactional network consists of the producers, agents, retailers, and customers who make up the value-chain of the knitwear business. The highly interdependent and mutually reinforcing relationships between these groups constrained the generation and flow of information as well as the exploration of meanings and choices. As a result, the transactional network also became an enactment network through which participants created and confirmed a shared interpretation of their competitive position. The Scottish knitwear producers secure contracts with retail shops through agents. Agents are selected because their non-knitwear product representations fit in well with the 'classical elegance' image that the Scottish manufacturers wish to project. Selected agents then negotiate with retail shops that sell classically-designed clothing. These retail shops are in turn patronized by customers whose tastes are inclined toward traditional knitwear products. Notice how the participants in this transactional network preselect each other as compatible business partners, and by doing so mutully reinforce and sustain the collective belief that the Scottish knitwear manufacturers sell garments of classical elegance. The self-defining and self-reinforcing interactions of the network clearly illustrate the dynamics of the enactment-selection-retention sequence of the sensemaking recipe:

The self-definition as a producer of 'high quality fully-fashioned knitwear' leads to the selection of agents selling classically designed clothes, who are suppliers of shops merchandising classic garments to consumers with a limited range of preferences for 'classical elegance.' Market cues from consumers are filtered back through informal network channels and provide the Scottish firms with information primarily about preferences for variations on classically designed garments. Such filtered information is assimilated into the existing business definition, and focuses the attention of managers on a limited set of possible product offerings. In doing so, both the business definition and the competitive space it implies are reinforced, and the Scottish firms use their finite psychological and material resources to compete with each other in the fully-fashioned classic knitwear sector.

(Porac et al 1989, p. 409)

Enactment takes place as the producers, agents, retailers and customers act and think together to bracket, label, and influence their environment and experience. Labels used to bracket salient experience included phrases used by the managers such as "friendly competition," "Scottish quality," "classical elegance," "crowd in Hong Kong that manufactures for Ralph Lauren," and so on. Enactment is ongoing as it feeds on filtered information generated by like-minded others in the transaction network. Selection takes place when the participants choose and maintain the interpretation that has been sensible for that industry for many years -- that they are in the business of selling high-quality knitted outerwear to discerning high-income customers. Retention takes place as the participants continue to store, retrieve and re-apply interpretations that they have enacted to make sense of any changes in their business enironment. For example, the Scottish manufacturers have historically used the traditional but labor-intensive methods of hand finishing, partly because they produced high quality sweaters, but also because the manufacturers had available a pool of workers skilled in hand finishing. Unfortunately, hand finishing was not as efficient as the more modern manufacturing techniques that were increasingly being adopted by many domestic and foreign competitors to produce lower-cost garments. In deciding to continue with the use of the less-efficient method of hand finishing, the Scottish manufacturers were re-selecting and retaining their enacted interpretation that they were producers of high-quality knitwear that were sold to customers wanting premium quality garments. The sensemaking cycle invoked here shows that enactment is the result of the simultaneous blending of action making and meaning making.


Belief- and Action-driven Processes

The enactment-selection-retention sequence begins as a personal routine by which people in organizations create or isolate portions of their experience in order to construct meaning. Given that each individual sees different parts of the environment as interesting, and overlays different interpretations on that data, the question now is how do people in organizational groups grow and link their thoughts and perceptions together so that some form of collective action is possible. Weick (1995) suggests that organizations achieve this through belief-driven processes and action-driven processes:

Sensemaking can begin with beliefs and take the form of arguing and expecting. Or sensemaking can begin with actions and take the form of committing or manipulating. In all four cases, people make do with whatever beliefs or actions they start with. Sensemaking is an effort to tie beliefs and actions more closely together as when arguments lead to consensus on action, clarified expectations pave the way for confirming actions, committed actions uncover acceptable justifications for their occurrence, or bold actions simplify the world and make it clearer what is going on and what it means. In each of these cases, sensemaking involves taking whatever is clearer, whether it be a belief or an action, and linking it with that which is less clear. These are fundamental operations of sensemaking. Two elements, a belief and an action, are related. The activities of relating are the sensemaking process. The outcome of such a process is a unit of meaning, two connected elements. And the connected elements are beliefs and actions tied together by socially acceptable implications.

(Weick 1995, p. 135)

Belief-driven processes.

Belief-driven processes are those in which groups of people spin webs of meaning around an initial set of sufficiently clear and plausible cues and predispositions by connecting more and more small pieces of information into larger structures of meaning (Table 3.2). When cues appear 'similar' in their fit with each other and with existing frames of reference, the process is likely to be one based on 'expecting.' When cues and beliefs are contradictory, the process may be based on 'arguing.' Arguing is a process by which people move from one initial idea to the selection of another, through reasoned discourse that involves drawing inferences from existing beliefs, and justifying those inferences in the face of other competing claims (Brockeriede 1974). This process of developing, presenting, comparing, and evaluating explanations in a group often leads members to discover new explanations or to deepen their insights on existing ones. Arguing provides people with a socially acceptable procedure to debate the ambivalence and contradiction that is inherent in most issues. Arguing as reasoned debate does not imply flaring tempers and pounding fists, the occurrence of which would in fact undermine discussion. The most common forum for the work of arguing is in meetings. Schwartzman (1987, 1989) views meetings as 'sense makers' that define and represent the social entities and relationships that establish meaning and identity for its participants. Arguing as sensemaking allows people in organizations to resolve or reduce ambiguity, discover new goals, enhance the quality of available information, and clarify new ideas.

Expecting is the other belief-driven process by which people in organizations apply beliefs as expectations to guide and constrain the selection of salient information and the choice of plausible interpretations. Whereas arguments typically are tentative proposals that need to be elaborated or tested with others, expectations are often more strongly held than arguments, and people tend to be more interested in confirming than in contradicting them. In many cases, expectations can have a powerful effect on the way individuals filter information and interpretations, so much so that self-fulfilling prohecies become a fundamental act of sensemaking (Weick 1995). Initially, prophecies provide the minimal structures around which new information can coalesce. People then actively connect data with their prophecies based on the beliefs that they hold. In doing so, people tend to seek out confirmatory evidence, ignore or devalue contradictory news, and cling on as far as possible to their initial hypotheses. Expecting and expectations thus provide people with a sense of stability and social order, and with a set of cognitive structures within which they can find and construct meaning.

Action-driven Processes.

Action-driven processes are those in which groups of people grow webs of meaning around their actions, commitments or manipulations by creating or modifying cognitive structures that give significance to these behaviors (Table 3.2). Two kinds of action can drive sensemaking --'committing' actions for which a person or group is responsible, and 'manipulating' actions taken by a person or group that make an actual change in the environment (Weick 1995). Committing becomes important if, in situations when behaviors and beliefs contradict each other, it is easier to change the beliefs than the behaviors. Behavior becomes binding and hard to change when the behavior is explicit (evidence exists that the act took place), public (witnesses saw the act), and irrevocable (act is irreversible) (Kiesler 1971). Furthermore, if the person was also seen have to performed the action deliberately, with substantial effort and few external demands, then the act occurred because the person chose to do it, and is therefore responsible for it. Commitments form a convenient framework for organizing information and perceptions. An instinctive reaction is to pigeonhole incoming information according to whether it supports the committed action, opposes it, or is irrelevant to it. In this way, committing influences sensemaking by directing attention, noticing new features, and selecting data.

Manipulating is the other action-driven process by which people in the organization take actions that lead to changes in the environment that in turn become some of the constraints for their own sensemaking. Common methods of manipulation include constructing desirable niches, negotiating domains, forming coalitions, educating clients and employees, advertising to potential clients and customers, and resolving conflicts (Hedberg, Nystrom and Starbuck 1976). Manipulating brings clarity to sensemaking, since by making things happen, people can latch on to these created events and explain them as a way to make better sense of what is taking place. Whereas committing makes new sense by justifying the action itself, manipulating does the same by explaining the meanings of the consequences of the action taken.

The belief- and action-driven processes of sensemaking are compared in Table 3.2 below. Arguing is a belief-driven process that grows meaning by connecting and resolving contradictory information and perceptions. Expecting also uses beliefs embedded in anticipations or prophecies to grow meaning by connecting and selecting information that is compatible with expectations. Committing is an action-driven process that creates meaning through justifying actions that have been taken which are deliberate, visible, and hard to reverse. Manipulating creates meaning by explaining the consequences of actively intruding into and changing the environment. It is clear that both beliefs and actions can serve as reference points for meaning generation, and that once again the essence of sensemaking is in the blending together of cognitive structures and active choices to construct reality.

Table 3.2 Organizational Sensemaking Processes