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CHAPTER 3 Decision Making and Sensemaking

Richard J. Boland, Jr.
Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK

Decision making and sensemaking may at first seem to be an odd pair of terms to reconcile. The two have very different perspectives on quite dissimilar domains of human behavior. One quality that does unite them, however, is that decision making and sensemaking are intimately related to the human being as an actor. Decision making is concerned with evaluating alternative courses of action and making a choice among them. It is prior to and culminates in the action of a human being. Sensemaking, on the other hand, is concerned with making things that have already happened meaningful to us. It follows from, and is based on, the prior action of a human being. In this chapter we explore the different perspectives of these two traditions as they relate to the human action, and discuss the possibility of reconciling their divergent qualities with the emerging developments in design science. Keywords: Sensemaking; Decision making; Design; Design thinking; Design attitude



Decision making by a human actor is fraught with difficulty. Herbert Simon’s Noble laureate research explored the cognitive limits of the human capacity to calculate a choice among alternative courses of action. His conclusion pointed to the bounded rationality of the human decision maker, and to the inevitability of settling for good enough in our decision making, as opposed to finding an optimal choice (Simon 1947, 1957, 1960). Simon referred to this limitation in human decision behavior as our “bounded rationality” and to the less than optimal decisions it led to as satisficing. In addition to our cognitive limits, humans display predictable strategies in their decision making which further limits their capacity to compute best solutions. The behavioral research of Tversky and Kahneman (1971) has explored those strategies, such as anchoring and adjustment, for decades. But here we are not going to deal with the limitations of humans as decision makers, or with the bias inducing strategies they employ. Instead, we consider the relation of human decision making to our position as actors — our location in space and time — and contrast that with our position in space and time as we engage in sensemaking. First, we review the process of decision making, based primarily on

We can depict decision making on a time line as shown in Figure 1. which will be done sometime in the future. benefits that will or will not be gained. The method of decision making we consider is not really an issue for us here. or other techniques. 2 Decision Making Simon introduced a model of decision making based on an explicit analogy between the operation of the mind and the operation of a computer (Newell and Simon 1964). because of his generality. In fact. because any decision-making theory or technique will include the same basic features of Simon’s model: traversing a complex decision space. we review the process of sensemaking. or to take a trip — and you will see this basic decisionmaking process being played out in your own life. Jr. we explore some of the difficulties in bringing the two processes together in a single framework. The problem space is pictured as a landscape. multiple-criteria decision making. Finally. even if it takes place in the instant after deciding. Thinking during problem solving is pictured as movement from node to node in the problem space. Furthermore. so that we can stop our search? Here. searching for a solution (Simon 1957). . with different positions on the landscape corresponding to the various alternatives and actions open to the decision maker. and propose the act of designing and design thinking as a possible way of doing that. testing for improvement in a possible solution. The considerations will include events that may or may not happen. as well as opportunities that will be foregone. the work of Herbert Simon. Consider a significant decision you have recently made — to purchase a major item.56 Richard J. we use Simon’s concepts as a way of visualizing decision making. Then. conditions that may or may not hold. Our attention to the future in decision making is almost complete and without exception. All that matters is what will happen as we move forward from this point in time — the moment of decision making. he contended that decision making is an instance of a general problem-solving behavior we display. The question then becomes: how do we make moves in the problem space that get us closer to our goal of solving the problem or making the decision. searching for an alternative to select as our solution. We are urged to avoid considering money or effort already invested in an alternative we are considering — because they are sunk costs and not relevant in our calculations about the future. Boland. based primarily on the work of Karl Weick. and making a choice. Using that analogy. to change a job. and how do we recognize that a satisfactory solution has been found. costs that will or will not be incurred. everything I consider in making a decision has to do with some future time period. and that it takes place in a problem space. but we could just as easily use decision trees. I am choosing something now. we are instructed to avoid the fallacy of considering the past in making decisions. One overwhelming characteristic of decision making is its future orientation.

but is a fundamentally creative and original accomplishment. which our sensemaking faculty processes. buzzing confusion. Sensemaking pictures us as immersed in a flow of action. A sensemaking perspective emphasizes the continuous flow of action and interaction that constitutes human life. any one of which could understand a recent enactment quite differently. and we employ that meaning structure as an interpretive frame on the enactment. The act of talking is an act of thinking. and retention. Enactments in organizations are often highly equivocal. In this stream of interaction in which we engage. a “blooming. The doing always comes first as a raw experience of action. political struggles. selection. and follows from the phenomenological tradition in sociology of Alfred Schutz (1967). Sensemaking reduces the equivocality of enactments by applying a pattern of meaning onto the enactments and thereby making sense of them. and the ambiguous meaning of the fresh trace of action that we have just experienced. First. Decision making and time 3 Sensemaking Sensemaking has a similarly lopsided view of time. and are struggling to make sense of them. 1995). The problem for sensemaking is not to decide what to do.” as William James characterized it. Finally. Then. our enactments have particularly rich possibilities to be made meaningful in different ways. What we have just spoken or heard or done is an enactment — an unformed meaning. called our enactments. reaction. we are continuously confronted with what we have just done. our equivocal enactments continuously present us with variation that feeds the sensemaking process. but to understand what we have just done. A key phrase from Weick’s sensemaking perspective is: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” From this perspective. the act of talking is not a report summarizing what we have already thought and stored away as knowledge. because there are so many diverse interests. Weick portrays sensemaking as following a pattern of variation. Sensemaking was introduced to the organizational literature by Karl Weick (1979. we select from a repertoire of meaning structures that have been encountered or employed in the past. and interaction. Using an evolution-based image. positions. and stakeholders involved. In an organizational setting.Decision Making and Sensemaking 57 Figure 1. and only after having said something are those thoughts available to us to consider what they mean. or we generate a new meaning structure employing rules of construction that we have encountered or employed in the past. we retain the patterns .

e. 1984) provides us with a welldeveloped synthesis of traditions in social theory that is helpful for understanding the broader theoretical basis of sensemaking. decisions are occasionally taken (i. Sensemaking and time of interpretive structures that we have found useful. All the while. power. Giddens portrays the individual as monitoring his/her conduct in real time. he takes as a given that the only place we can find something close to a social or organizational structure is in the interaction of human beings as they initiate action. and employ them in subsequent sensemaking episodes. The sensemaking view begins with equivocal enactments that are encountered in the present moment. and looks backward through time to attribute meaning to them and reduce their equivocality. The sociologist Anthony Giddens (1979. In this case. These depictions of decision making and sensemaking seem to compli- . and it highlights the centrality of human agency in producing and reproducing social structures. respond to the action of another. we can depict sensemaking on a time line as shown in Figure 2. Like Weick. as in decision making. As with the decision-making perspective. Jr. The focus of theorizing for sensemaking is based on the present moment. and language in their organization or society to make meaningful the unfolding process of interaction in which they are enmeshed. Based on this brief discussion. but the attention to temporality is in the opposite direction. 4 Reconciling Decision Making and Sensemaking Let us consider together these two ways of understanding the moment of situated action. future-oriented way). and drawing on understanding of the norms. the slice of time and space that it does not attend to is dismissed as unimportant. Figure 2. the sensemaking perspective involves a very different attention to time and space from that of the decision-making perspective. it is the future and the possibility of making decisions about future actions (such as organizational strategies or plans) that are discounted and ignored. but they are relatively rare occurrences in comparison to the continuous process of sensemaking in human experience. Boland. in a forward-looking. As Weick explains. His synthesis is called structuration theory. and anticipate another’s reaction to their action.58 Richard J.. Thus.

Essentially. presents a series of lectures he delivered in Japan in which he set out a strong. For instance. objective activity is a tragedy we must work to overturn. as well as decision making. His classic work.Decision Making and Sensemaking 59 ment each other. Dewey argued that the tradition of the Greeks has been carried down to us in the form of certain presumptions about the world — both as to what it is comprised of. entitled Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). Western civilization has tended to denigrate those who act in and upon the world. as the pattern of inquiry that holds in both science and everyday common sense. Dewey further develops the connection between the concrete moment of action. is seen as being in closer communion with truth than the laborer. Their different assumptions about what constitutes the world and how we can know about it are. The clergy. Later. but we cannot easily combine them. and as to how we can know it. From this seemingly obvious observation about the relationship between instances and classes flows the unintended consequence of separating us from the immediacy of action when searching for the truth. critique of our modern concepts of truth. Their differences reflect the long history of social philosophical writing in Western civilization for which John Dewey provides us an excellent overview. or the laboratory-bound researcher who is seeking a pure form of knowledge. For example. incommensurable. Dewey emphasizes how action has constantly been devalued as a basis for truth. because it involves many unique. and the anticipation of creating more desirable conditions. apart from acting in the world. and replace with a sense of truth as flowing from an engagement with the world that is involved in design. while elevating those who separate themselves from acting in the world. the sense that action is leading to ambiguous outcomes. the philosopher. the physical reality of the growing oak tree before us is not a reliable source of what is true about the oak tree. or the manager. the craftsperson. and still relevant. we have to search for its ideal form as that which holds true in general about oak trees. Those who work with their hands shaping the world with their craft are seen as lower status and further away from truth than those who merely contemplate the world. We can see the lingering influence of the belief that the passive observer is closer to truth than the actor. For Dewey. in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938). because they have such different ontological and epistemological foundations. To know the real oak tree. the characterization of truth as a disinterested. Each considers the world to be composed of quite different sorts of being. idiosyncratic features. in favor of the belief in an ideal form that provides a basis for judging what is true. Throughout history. in a deep sense. Our understanding of and theorizing about decision making is very much embedded in the traditions that are criticized by Dewey. and each represents a very different way of knowing about the world. In this history of how we understand truth. and in the contrasting conceptions of decision making and sensemaking discussed above. where do the alternatives that a decision maker chooses among come from in the first place if not from the engaged search for the conditions of betterment by an actor? And does not the act of deciding itself .

We can see aspects related to the sensemaking view in existentialism. Any essence (or ideal form) that we associate with them is derived later. in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to “Philosophical Fragments” (1992) scorned the philosopher Hegel because he represented a high point in the tradition of seeing truth as an essence of the ideal. Alternatives are assumed to be a given — they are considered as a stable part of the presented decision problem. human beings exist — they persist against the void of non-being — and that is primary. not something to observe passively or to learn the essence of objectively. through inference. the life work of Wittgenstein. Each language game is played within a form of life. human beings do not reflect an ideal essence that pre-exists them. as seen in his Philosophical Investigations (1953). but his message is universal. This emphasis on action as a source of truth is a product of the last one or one and a half centuries. not the output of it. who. and the immersion in action as being the source of truth. Consider the early existentialist writer. as captured in Sartre’s bold assertion of its central tenet that existence precedes essence. subjective process of engagement in action. and in order to participate in the language game. Sensemaking. we cannot know with certainty through appeal to an essence. Similarly. we must participate in its form of life. involve a continuous reshaping of the alternatives being considered? Theories of decision making do not have much at all to say about the origin of alternatives. as presented in his Tractatus Logico Philisophicus (1933). “We know how to go on. In other words. As in the sensemaking perspective. could not be reliably translated into a single meaning to be manipulated with logical operators. As Wittgenstein put it. a leap of faith. rejected that early effort. one in which we change the rules as we go. Soren Kierkegaard. reflects a dramatic turning away from the hope of finding truth as an essence of the ideal. who many consider the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. pre-existing the moment of decision. on the other hand. His early work. is based on an alternative tradition that emphasizes the steam of action in its immediacy as being the real. . Kierkegaard wrote about the human being and the question of religious belief. which would require a knowledge of the infinite. Rather. so it is quite recent in comparison with the traditions of thought behind the decisionmaking view. and for good reasons. His later work.” It is a continuous. Because we are finite beings. Language is a game we play. They are the object of our contemplation. understanding a language game requires action within a form of life. attempted to demonstrate rigorously that what could be said with formal logic was true. even for the simplest of statements in language. and are part of the input to decision making. Jr. and we must therefore always rely on a subjective way of knowing. and declared that the inescapable multiplicity of meanings. The meaning of a word in our language is never single or stable.60 Richard J. Boland.

analytic. and most certainly when we act in organizational settings. and research that adopts a decision-making perspective does not discuss the sensemaking process involved in framing the decision.Decision Making and Sensemaking 61 5 Seeking a Metalevel Reconciliation in Design Thinking We see that the decision making and sensemaking perspectives of human action reflect deep-seated differences in the history of human thought. reward systems. budgets. our literature handles them in separate quarters. conflicts. in his classic Sciences of the Artificial (1969). and desiring to be seen as a logical. conscious of moving forward in time. responsible persons. new products. Being good at designing starts with being good at reading the design situation. Curiously enough. Each perspective is thus well supported in the traditions of Western thought. A manager is hardly ever able to design in a blank-slate situation. As a result. it was Herbert Simon. Research that adopts a sensemaking perspective does not include a planning or decision-making analysis. form-giving aspects of sensemaking. seemingly incommensurate aspects of an objective. decision-making discipline together with the subjective. methods. supporters. not through an integration. functionality. as well as in our everyday experience. Design is the giving of form to an idea. or sensemaking from the enactments that mark the current situation (Buchanan 1995). Assessing the design situation involves a sensemaking activity that brings an order to the behaviors (enactments) of the organization members in their environment. and is inevitably confronted with a preexisting set of stakeholders. histories. Each is rooted in major philosophical and social theoretical traditions. and each also reflects a familiar way that humans experience themselves as actors located in space and time. who pointed to design as the human activity that brings the diverse. and desiring to act as logical. and opponents. responsible person. or any of the myriad things that managers design as part of acting in organizations is one of the places where we can see the two domains of decision making and sensemaking being brought together in human action. and we would like to bring them together into a single way of understanding. At the same time. costs. Being good at designing also involves being good at decisionmaking. because each approach fundamentally contradicts the other. and design thinking is the unique mode of thought that accompanies the act of designing. but through the higher-order or metalevel constructs of design science and design thinking. we experience ourselves as historical beings. but they cannot be reconciled in that way. We experience this even when we walk casually down the street or go shopping. An emerging trend in organizational research may hold a key to bringing these two traditions for studying human action together. We experience ourselves as rational beings. conscious of leaving a defining trail of action behind us. Designing work processes. they cannot be integrated and presented in a synthesis. Decisions about materials. and processes .

Finally. is an exciting new horizon for organizational research. For instance. The possibilities of bringing these two traditions together. This combination of decision and sensemaking is characterized as a design attitude by Boland and Collopy (2004). Design tempers the potentially endless process of sensemaking by bringing project deadlines and decision requirements into the picture. 6 Conclusion Research activities in the emerging field of design science and design thinking are in a nascent stage. .” Because design thinking is always posing the challenge that things can be other than they are. Design balances that tendency against a commitment to seek new alternatives that have not yet been created. designing plays the closure of decision making off against the openness of sensemaking. It keeps both sensemaking and decision making alive in organizations because of its central underlying belief. not as an integration or a synthesis. Design plays these competing tendencies of openness and closure off on each other as a source of its energy and inventiveness. The design attitude opens the scholarship on management to an expansive set of research opportunities that link decision making and sensemaking in a rich appreciation of designing in situated action as a source of truth in managerial studies. are embedded within and necessary for a good design outcome. which then allows us to draw upon and benefit from their complementary strengths. as design thinking balances the desire for further exploration of new ways to make the situation meaningful with the need to complete the design project on time and within budget. design serves as a continuing source of challenge to our sensemaking and decision-making capabilities. Jr. Design also carries a higher-order cost-benefit dialogue with it. overarching framework of action. Design also helps balance the tendency of decision making to take an existing set of alternative choices as given. Design thinking enables us to bring the traditions of both sensemaking and decision making into a single. we struggle to make sense of our situation and to plan actions that transform it into a more desirable one. expressed by Herbert Simon as the belief that “things can be other than they are. A sensemaking process is always able to go further in surfacing new possibilities for meaning and invention in its rich field of organizational enactments.62 Richard J. but they promise a new invigoration of the fields of decision making and sensemaking that should be of great benefit to both. by always suspecting that our initial ideas are the default ideas that anyone would think of. but in a combination of interplay. Boland.

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