What are we exploring?

‘An explorer can never know what he is exploring until it has been explored’  (Bateson, 1972, p. xvi).

Karl Weick in his paper Enacted Sensemaking in Crisis Situations says, ‘Crises are characterized by low probability/high consequence events that threaten the most fundamental goals of an organization. Because of their low probability, these events defy interpretations and impose severe demands on sensemaking.

The less adequate the sensemaking process directed at a crisis, the more likely it is that the crisis will get out of control. That straightforward proposition conceals a difficult dilemma because people think by acting. To sort out a crisis as it unfolds often requires action which simultaneously generates the raw material that is used for sensemaking and affects the unfolding crisis itself. There is a delicate trade-off between dangerous action which produces understanding and safe inaction which produces confusion.’  (Listen to a recent Talking About Organisations podcast in which Weick discusses ‘Disasters and Crisis Management’)

I’m noticing the increasing number of exchanges that seem to be around exploring and sensemaking in this current Covid-19 situation.  Some have been in conversations, others have dropped into my email in-box from colleagues.  This week the topics of exploration include:  psychological safety, journaling, physical and virtual worlds and trust. Here are some extracts from the email exchanges

Psychological safety

Email: ‘I am doing an online course on psychological safety and find the subject fascinating in relation to culture. I am keen to get the conversation going with leaders and managers with the support of a toolkit and resources.  Whilst I have found some material, are you aware of anything current on TED Talk or resources that I could draw on please?’

My response:  I guess your on-line course (whose is it?) mentions Amy Edmondson?  She’s done many articles – see HBR list here and TED talks – see this one on building a psychologically safe workplace.

I wonder if the Covid-19 context makes it even harder to feel psychologically safe?  See this NY Times article.  (Thanks to Asher Rickayzen for sending the link) and also another  Amy Edmondson piece, this time an audio interview on the impact of covid 19 on psychological safety,  and this info from Gartner on improving psychological safety in a time of coronavirus.

There’s another slant that argues that providing or seeking safety is not always a good thing.  See When Safety Proves Dangerous, which discusses the point that Not everything we do with the aim of making ourselves safer has that effect. Sometimes, knowing there are measures in place to protect us from harm can lead us to take greater risks and cancel out the benefits.’


Email: ‘I’ve been journaling throughout and kept a bit of a journey in the first few weeks, plotting behaviour and what I saw and heard. What I felt and others said they felt.  Quite interesting how as a nation we moved through panic buying to clearing out, then baking to fence painting. Current trends I see socially are boxes at the bottom of drives offering items free to take away – maybe a result of too much clearing out and no charity shops open?’

My response:  I too am journaling and your mentioning of it prompted me to ask myself when I started, which was when I was still living in Chiswick and I left there in 2003.   My initiation into journaling was through Julia Cameron’s book, the Artist’s Way, in which she talks about Morning Pages (writing 3 pages every single morning, which I’ve been doing since then).

Coincidentally Asher Rickayzen mentioned morning pages in a piece on Anxiety he wrote, saying,  ‘What I’m not seeing much of in my day-to-day work is organisational leaders consciously and reflectively discussing and debating these larger questions (about what the future could look like). What I’m seeing is a bias to action …  I’ve noticed … the lack of conversation about the anxiety we are feeling and I connect this with the bias to action. … This is a peculiar lesson I have learned for myself about anxiety through adopting the process of morning pages; anxiety is not necessarily easy to spot nor are the ways in which we try (often subconsciously) to free ourselves from the inner discomfort it brings.


Info:  ‘One of the things that strikes me in a number of organisations I work with is that the crisis has trumped underlying assumptions about trust; suddenly call centre staff who pre-crisis couldn’t be trusted if out of sight from their managers have been completely trusted to work from home. The question for me is whether this shift in trust is reversed in future.  I’m also interested in how do we build trust in the Zoom world?’

My response:  Your question is great.  Trust is, I think, particularly highlighted at this point in the covid-19 crisis.  There’s an excellent blog by Charles Green that seems right for now, too – To live outside the law you must be honest. You really need to read all of it to get the full argument he makes but this section gives a flavour,To live outside the law doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.  …  That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance.’

Jericho Chambers (a consultancy focused on purpose and trustworthiness) is running a series of webinars,  Business After the Virus,  each related to exploring aspects of trust and purpose, that I’m listening to.  They also do a podcast Trust Delusion.

Physical world and virtual world

Email: ‘These questions are on my mind:

  • What is the impact of lack of communal physical space going to have on our creativity and innovation?
  • How can we make the virtual world emulate the physical world in terms of community, serendipitous interaction, opportunity to read the social signals?
  • How can we make the physical world emulate the virtual world in terms of distancing and personal safety?’

My response:   I don’t have any answers to these questions.  Most of us are exploring and learning as we go, trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.   For example, I’m intrigued to see how supermarkets have adapted their physical layouts and customer processes so quickly.  And lots of guidance on this has been generated equally quickly .  See for example GMB’s (a trade union) Social Distancing Guidance for Retail Workers or the British Retail Consortium’s advice.  The guidance doesn’t however cover the changes social distancing in shops may make to cusomer/retail assistant interactions or buying patterns. (Though I think the move to on-line shopping will contine).

Many culture journalists/article writers are musing on your questions too.  I enjoyed a March piece in the NY Times, which ends optimistically ‘it’s also possible that after spending years using technologies that mostly seemed to push us apart, the coronavirus crisis is showing us that the internet is still capable of pulling us together.‘  And the business press is similarly investigating your questions – see an FT article ‘How is the world’s mass homeworking experiment going?’

Other topics I’ve been exploring with colleagues this week are, resourcefulness, learning organisation, time, employee values, delivery models.

What topics are you exploring and trying to make sense of?  What impact this have on the way you approach organisation design?  Let me know.


Image: Exploring the Comfort Zone, Peter Dorey.