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You don’t need to be a chess GrandMaster to have heard about the hullabaloo that kicked off last week – at the Champions Chess Tour – between the world chess champion, Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen and 19-year-old Hans Niemann.

I listened to another chess GrandMaster make sense of it. And in this episode I explore what this means for the way we make sense of other issues.

Leadership Sensemaking

You don’t need to be a chess GrandMaster to have heard about the hullabaloo that kicked off last week – at the Champions Chess Tour – between the world chess champion, Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen and 19-year-old Hans Niemann.

Magnus shocked the chess world when we firstly withdrew from a tournament and then resigned another game on only the second move – in protest that his opponent in each case, Hans Niemann, was cheating.

I heard about it on the Today programme getting ready the other morning. It struck me as interesting, but I was off and into my day without giving it any more thought.

But on a journey back from Perthshire last weekend, I decided to listen to a podcast episode on the Jim Rutt Show where Jonathan Rawson – himself a Chess Grandmaster and public a philosopher (who’s work I’m interested in) – shared his insider perspective.

Rawson examined what happened using a Baysian statistical analysis on the rapid development of 19 year-old Niemann’s game – and the likelihood that he could beat the world champion. He does a beautiful job of moving between what’s known about the characters involved, what can be inferred from statistical analysis and then his own hunches of what’s reasonable or possible – given his deep knowledge of the game. It was – honestly – riveting and I’d highly recommend the episode.

I timed my journey perfectly. Just as I arrived home and was reversing my car up the drive, they were finishing up. Jim Rutt said something that confirmed what was starting to form in my own mind, that the episode allowed for a laboratory for sense-making. Which it was. But with one major caveat.

The podcast about the chess drama resonated so much because earlier that week, I had spent time with my colleague Sarah Ballantyne, Waldencroft’s Director of Operations, alongside a client in an exercise in dialogue – in collective sense-making.

You see, the evening before, we’d all attended a dinner, hosted by our client in which Quitin Oliver, Chair of the Consultation Institute in Northern Ireland was our after-dinner speaker. We’d set up a session with the leaders the next day for us to reflect on what we’d heard. And we heard a LOT. Quentin had played an important role in the Northern Ireland peace process and had hugely insightful – and entertaining – stories about, to mention to few, Mo Mowlem and her famous throwing her wig on the table moment, a late night in Brussels with Peter Mandelson and even taking Martin McGuiness to Iraq!

And he told these stories with such humility and sincerity.

On the way back to the hotel after the dinner, Sarah and I had what we now realise was a fairly superficial conversation about Quitin’s talk. We realised this the next day.

As we invited the leaders who had attended the evening before to reflect on Quitin’s talk –  in an open hearted and non judgemental way – it was clear that we’d each taken different things from it. Listening to the considered responses that we all had brought into sharp relief how superficial mine and Sarah’s initial take on it had been.

What the group did – which was as profound as it was simple – was expand our perspective on talk through collective sense-making. No one in the room could lay claim to a ‘better’ or more valid perspective than anyone else – and in that atmosphere – we were able to all deepen our understanding of what we’d heard and what it meant for leadership.

What do I mean by sense-making? Don’t we all just make sense of the world all the time?

Well, yes and no.

Researcher Richard Cordes says that the act of sense-making is “organising sense data until the environment ‘becomes sensible’. After good sense-making has occurred – the information environment is organised, sensible, understood and reasonable.

What the next day’s conversation with the whole group – and the amazing insights what we produced  highlighted for me – was to be suspicious of my own thinking. The conversation that Sarah and I had the night before – and in fairness, I was driving and we were both tired – showed how superficial our initial thoughts on an issue could be. If we hadn’t had the chance to go deeper with the group the next morning I’m not sure we’d have gotten any of the richness from it. The moment would have passed and we’d have been getting on with our busy day.

Sense-making therefore allows us to slow down our thinking, it’s a chance for us to observe our judgments and see the ways our own ego gets caught up in our opinion of things. Collective sense-making invites all the participants to examine their own assumptions – which then ultimately shapes the conclusions we reach and the decisions we make.

But there is an important distinction to be made between sense-making and decision taking. Yet they’re often conflated.

When there’s a gnarly problem that a leadership team has to settle – there’s tendency is to move to how the issue gets resolved – it creates a bias for action. In many cases, a bias for action is a great, but when you’re confronted with a complex problem, there are critical steps to be taken before action.

You know there’s a bias for action in a team when you hear members say things like: we need to make a decision on how to solve x. – There’s a chain of actions before something is ready for a decision. Identifying the problem is a crucial first step – then there’s sense-making, developing options then appraising them — all before a decision can be taken. Of these, sense-making is the least understood and cultivated in the upper echelons of organisations.

Why is this?

In one executive team I worked with, we explored the barriers to them stepping into the kind of executive leadership that they knew would have the biggest impact on the company. They realised that they had a fear that if other parts of the organisation observed them ‘sitting about and talking’ they’d wonder what value the exec were adding and what it was they actually DO.

The fear that this team had was real – and it didn’t sound far-fetched that an executive team that takes time to do adequate sense-making might be perceived as a talking-shop in culture’s where fast, fast, fast is valued.

When Sarah and I were with the team the day after the dinner, we followed our collective sense-making of Quitin’s talk with an exercise in deep listening. Listening, not as we typically do, to construct an answer, but to lean-in and  fully HEAR what’s being said and what’s being inferred. It was a profound exercise and everyone in the room was able to see the impact that that sort of listening would have if we were to practice it more in organisations.

As the context that leaders operate in becomes more complex and more turbulent, the greater the need for executive teams – not just individual executive leaders – but executive teams – do engage in collective sense-making.

You see, what Jonathan Rawson did on the podcast episode about the chess cheating scandal, was a personal analysis of the chess situation. It was sense-making, but it was an individual sense-making. And my point is that collective sense-making has a profoundly different energy to it.

I believe that collective sense-making is the most important skill an executive team can cultivate if they operate in a complex and disrupted world.

Sometimes, this will involve Baysian probability, making sense of large amounts of data and inferring meaning from this.

But at other times, the ‘data’ that leaders are working with is of an altogether a different kind. It’s based on stories, on supposition, on weak signals and hunches. When working with this sort of data – what’s required is for a team to cultivate the collective capacity to listen and attune to each other. It’s about not-knowing – together  – long enough to come to a different kind of understanding. It’s a rare skill indeed.

If an executive team isn’t capable of working with and making sense of different sorts of data and scenarios, I believe it isn’t fit for purpose. If an executive team is engaged properly and responsibility and appropriately in their enterprise leadership, then they set aside sufficient time to have these sorts of conversations. Which is best had in a comfortable chair, preferably around a fire – not at a desk, not in a board room.

I don’t know what will come of the chess cheating scandal. It seems to be escalating. But like every gnarly problem, it needs time and space to explore it – to fully make sense of it.

Jonathan Rawson finishes the podcast episode by making the distinction between knowing something and suspecting it – and how much it matters morally. Sense-making calms people down long enough to see an issue for what it is.

Maybe this is what the chess community need most now.

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.