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Sensemaking is the process through which people work to understand issues or events that are novel, ambiguous, confusing, or in some other way violate expectations. As an activity central to organizing, sensemaking has been the subject of considerable research which has intensified over the last decade. We begin this review with a historical overview of the field, and develop a definition of sensemaking rooted in recurrent themes from the literature. We then review and integrate existing theory and research, focusing on two key bodies of work. The first explores how sensemaking is accomplished, unpacking the sensemaking process by examining how events become triggers for sensemaking, how intersubjective meaning is created, and the role of action in sensemaking. The second body considers how sensemaking enables the accomplishment of other key organizational processes, such organizational change, learning, and creativity and innovation. The final part of the chapter draws on areas of difference and debate highlighted throughout the review to discuss the implications of key tensions in the sensemaking literature, and identifies important theoretical and methodological opportunities for the field.
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Sensemaking in Organizations:
Taking Stock and Moving Forward
Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia
Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
Sensemaking is the process through which people work to understand issues or
events that are novel, ambiguous, confusing, or in some other way violate
expectations. As an activity central to organi zing, sensemaking has been the
subject of considerable research which has intensified over the last decade.
We begin this review with a historical overview of the field, and develop a defi-
nition of sensemaking rooted in recurrent themes from the literature. We then
review and integrate existing theory and research, focusing on two key bodies
of work. The first explores how sensemaking is accomplished, unpacking the
sensemaking process by examining how events become triggers for sensemak-
ing, how intersubjective meaning is created, and the role of action in sensemak-
ing. The second body considers how sensemaking enables the accomplishment
of other key organizational processes, such organizational change, learning,
and creativity and innovation. The final part of the chapter draws on areas
Corresponding author. Email:
The Academy of Management Annals, 2014
Vol. 8, No. 1, 57125,
# 2014 Academy of Management
of difference and debate highlighted throughout the review to discuss the
implications of key tensions in the sensemaking literature, and identifies
important theoretical and methodological opportunities for the field.
Sensemaking—the process through which individuals work to underst and
novel, unexpected, or confusing events—has become a critically important
topic in the study of organizations. When organizational members encounter
moments of ambiguity or uncertainty, they seek to clarify what is going on by
extracting and interpreting cues from their environment, using these as the
basis for a plausible account that provides order and “makes sense” of what
has occurred, and through which they continue to enact the environment
(Brown, 2000; Maitlis, 2005; Weick, 1995; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld,
2005). Sensemaking goes beyond interpretation
and involves the active
authoring of events and frameworks for understanding, as people play a role
in constructing the very situations they attempt to comprehend (Sutcliffe,
2013; Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005). Within the organizational literature,
there is a rapidly growing body of research on sensemaking, examining how
sense is made in organizations (Clark & Geppert, 2011; Cornelissen, 2012;
Hernes & Maitlis, 2010a; Monin, Noorderhaven, Vaara, & Kroon, 2013;
Navis & Glynn, 2011; Rudolph, Morrison, & Carroll, 2009; Sonenshein,
2007; Whiteman & Cooper, 2011), as well the impact of sensemaking on a
variety of key organizational processes, including strategic change and
decision-making (Gioia & Thomas, 1996; Rerup & Feldman, 2011; Sonenshein,
2010), innovation and creativity (Drazin, Glynn, & Kazanjian, 1999; Hill &
Levenhagen, 1995), and organizational learning (Christianson, Farkas, Sut-
cliffe, & Weick, 2009; Catino & Patriotta, 2013; Gephart, 1993; Weick, 1988,
1990, 1993). Sensemakin g is thus a central activity in organizations, and one
that lies at the very core of organizing.
Since the publication of Weick’s ( 1995) classic text, Sensemaking in Organ-
izations, empirical sensemaking research has burgeoned, conducted in varied
contexts, and in methodologically rigorous and diverse ways. Despite, or
perhaps because of, this extensive study, the literature on sensemaking has
become fragmented. While scholars mostly agree on what prompts sensemak-
ing, they diverge on several points, including what sensemaking encompasses,
how it is accomplished, its temporal orientation, and the degree to which it is
shared. For instance, some portray sensemaking as a more individual, cognitive
process (Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006; Louis, 1980; Starbuck & Milliken,
1988), whereas others depict it as inherently social and discursive (Maitlis,
2005; Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005). Most writing casts sensemaking as ret-
rospective (Weick, 1995), but some believe it can also be a prospective process
(Gephart, Topal, & Zhang, 2010). Such variations in how sensemaking is con-
ceptualized are reflected in a range of definitions for sensemaking. In addition,
The Academy of Management Annals
there is often little dialogue across streams of research that draw upon sense-
making, despite common interests and questions. Resulting from these fre-
quently unarticulated differences and disconnected conversations is
confusion about the sensemaking literature and a lack of clarity about where
future research on sensemaking should be directed.
This chapter is organized into the following sections. First, we build a foun-
dation for our discussion of sensemaking: we provide a brief historical over-
view of the field, present and discuss various definitions of sensemaking
(and sensemaking-related constructs), and develop the definition of sensemak-
ing we will use in this chapter. Second, we take stock of the current sensemak-
ing literature. We review and integrate existing theory and research, with a
particular focus on empirical work over the last two decades, to identify
important themes and findings in two key bodies of research. The first
focuses on the process of sensemaking—that is, how sensemaking is accom-
plished—and the second, on other key organizational processes that are
accomplished through sensemaking. Research on how sensemaking is accom-
plished highlights three main “sensemaking moves” related to noticing or per-
ceiving cues, creating interpretations, and taking action (Daft & Weick, 1984;
Rudolph et al., 2009; Thomas, Clark, & Gioia, 1993; Weber & Glynn, 2006). In
keeping with this framework, we examine how sensemaking is accomplished
by focusing on (1) how events become triggers for sensemaking, (2) how inter-
subjective meaning
is created, and (3) the role of action in sensemaking. To
examine what organizational member sensemaking helps to accomplish, we
explore sensemaking as an explanatory mechanism for other important organ-
izational processes, such as strategic or organi zational change (Gioia & Chit-
tipeddi, 1991), learning (Christianson et al., 2009), and creativity and
innovation (Drazin et al., 1999). Third, we look forward, highlighting the
implications for research of key ontological differences in the sensemaking lit-
erature, and identifying several theoretical and methodological opportunities
for the field.
Given the breadth and depth of the literature related to sensemaking, we
begin by clarifying the limits of our review. Organizational life is full of
moments of ambiguity and uncertainty and the notion of sensemaking has
gained widespread traction not only in organizational behavior but also
related literatures, such as organization communication (Christensen & Cor-
nelissen, 2011; Taylor & Van Every, 2000), education (Coburn, 2001, 2005;
Smerek, 2009), and health care (Anderson & McDaniel, 2000; Jordan et al.,
2009). Sensemaking offers a useful theoretical construct for many types of
scholars but, given this vast reach, we restrict our discus sion in this
chapter to the field of organi zational studies. Furthermore, our primary
focus is on sensemaking in organizations and so we draw most heavily
upon research on collective sensemaking as it is carried out by multiple
actors in organizations.
Sensemaking in Organizations
In addition, we recognize but do not review the considerable body of organ-
izational research that uses the notion of sensema king broadly, often as synon-
ymous with “trying to understand”, “thinking about”, or “socially
constructing” issues or situations. While such work can valuably contribute
to our understanding of a range of phenomena in organizations, the more col-
loquial use of the sensemaking term also confuses efforts to theorize sensemak-
ing as a construct and to understand its forms and effects in organi zations. We,
therefore, bound our discussion here by focusing on research that uses a nar-
rower definition of sensemaking, consistent with the one that we adopt in this
chapter, and with the core sensemaking literature. Furthermore, our emphasis
is on the Weickian perspective on sensemaking (1969, 1979, 1995), although
we recognize, and later briefly discuss, the ethnomethodological approach to
sensemaking (Garfinkel, 1967; Gephart, 1993).
Foundations for Discussion
History of Sensemaking
The roots of sensemaking in the organizational literature can be traced back to
the beginning of the twentieth century (Dewey, 1922; James, 1890) but sense-
making did not begin to emerge as a distinct topic of study until the late 1960s
(Garfinkel, 1967; Weick, 1969). In the more than 40 years since sensemaking
entered the organizational literature, scholars have approached its study in
various ways. Below, we provide a brief summary of themes by decade, high-
lighting key trends in sensemaking research.
Sensemaking language was introduced into the literature by scholars who
study how meaning is constructed and transmitted. Garfinkel (1967) used
the term “sense making” in his introduction of ethnomethodology as a way
of studying the everyday practices of actors as they interact and interpret
and account for their experience of reality. Polanyi (1967) also used related
terms of “sensegiving” and “sense-reading” to describe how people endow
speech with meaning and make sense of speech. The first published mention
of sensemaking in the organizational context is in Weick’s (1969) book, The
Social Psychology of Organizing, during a discussion of the process through
which ecological changes in the organizational environment create discontinu-
ities or variations that engage the attention of organizational actors, prompting
recursive cycles of enactment, selection, and retention, meant to reduce
Various streams of research in the 1960s and 1970s provided a fertile
ground for sensemaking-related research, particularly work that challenged
notions of an objective reality and instead emphasized the social construction
of reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Scholars were also making methodologi-
cal advances and refining methods for studying how actors made sense of their
The Academy of Management Annals
lived experience (Cicourel, 1974; Heap, 1976). Psychologists extended Festin-
ger’s research (1957) on cognitive dissonance and examined how people
made sense of conflicting beliefs and reconciled (or failed to reconcile) their
expectations with their experienced reality (Bugental, Tannenbaum, &
Bobele, 1968; Manis, 1978; Staw & Ross, 1978; Weick, 1967). Organizational
scholars also explored how acting on beliefs could constrain future choices
and possible action (Salancik, 1977a, 1977b)
By the 1980s, research in organizational behavior and strategic management
had taken a more cognitive turn (Walsh, 1995). This trend was reflected in sen-
semaking research as scholars began to examine the cognitive underpinnings of
sensemaking, such as how violated expectations triggered sensemaking (Louis,
1980), how stimuli from the environment were noticed, interpreted, and incor-
porated (Kiesler & Sproull, 1982), and why some cues received more attenti on
than others (Daft & Weick, 1984; Starbuck & Milliken, 1988). But sensemaking
research was also concerned with the consequences of actions taken as people
made sense of their environment, showing that such actions could alter the
very environment under consideration (Porac, Thomas, & Baden-Fuller,
1989) and even alter the trajectory of events or precipitate crises (Abolafia &
Kilduff, 1988; Weick, 1988).
In the 1990s, sub-streams of the literature on various aspects of sensemak-
ing became more developed and sensemaking research deepened and broad-
ened. One of the most important advances in sensemaking in the 1990s was
Weick’s (1995) seminal book, Sensemaking in Organizations, which summar-
ized the state of sensemaking research up to that point and derived a theoretical
framework for understanding core aspects of sensemaking. Scholars drew on
case studies of critical events to deepen our understanding of how sensemaking
was accomplished in the midst of crises (Weick, 1990, 1993) and how sense-
making was used in the aftermath of crises to explain them (Gephart, 1993;
Gephart, Steier, & Lawrence, 1990). The role of language as a building block
of sensemaking also became a topic of study (Boyce, 1995; Hill & Levenhagen,
1995). Research on sensemaking broadened to include more conventional con-
texts and began to link sensemaking to important organizational outcomes,
such as culture (Drazin et al., 1999), social influence (Ibarra & Andrews,
1993) and strategic change (Barr, 1998; Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Gioia &
Thomas, 1996; Thomas et al., 1993).
From 2000 onwards, there has been an increasing focus on the social pro-
cesses through which sensemaking is accomplished (Maitlis, 2005). Research
on the relationship between sensemaking and language (Cornelissen, 2012;
O’Leary & Chia,
2007), narrative (Brown & Humphreys, 2003; Dunford &
Jones, 2000; Patriotta, 2003; Sonenshein, 2010), and discursive practices
(Balogun, 2003; Balogun & Johnson, 2004, 2005; Rouleau, 2005; Rouleau &
Balogun, 2011) continue to grow. Weick et al. (2005) reviewed current
trends in sensemaking, highlighting power and emotions as important
Sensemaking in Organizations
influences on sensemaking that required further study. Research on sensemak-
ing has continued to broaden to include increasingly diverse settings (Anand &
Peterson, 2000; Colville, Pye, & Carter, 2013;Lu
scher & Lewis, 2008), to bridge
levels of analysis (Weber & Glynn, 2006), and to explore the embodied and
sociomaterial nature of what had previously been treated as a largely cognitive
and discursive process (Cunliffe & Coupland, 2012; Stigliani & Ravasi, 2012;
Whiteman & Cooper, 2011).
Defining Sensemaking
The depth and breadth of the sensemaking literature poses definitional chal-
lenges. Although the idea of sensemaking has pervaded much of the organiz-
ational literature, there is considerable variation in how it is used. While some
scholars make reference to “sensemaking theory” (Holt & Cornelissen, 2013;
Jensen, Kjaergaard, & Svejvig, 2009; Stein, 2004), there is no single theory of
sensemaking. Indeed, consistent with many other writers (Drazin et al.,
1999; Hsieh, Rai, & Xin Xu, 2011; Schultz & Hernes, 2013), Weick talks of a
“sensemaking perspective”, describing his seminal 1995 book as “a developing
set of ideas with explanatory possibilities” (Weick, 1995, p. ix) and observing,
“There is no such thing as a theory of organizations that is characteristic of the
sensemaking paradigm” (Weick, 1995, p. 69). Others refer to a “sensemaking
lens” (Sonenshein, 2009; Stensaker & Falkenberg, 2007; Vough, 2012), while
still others (Helms Mills, Weatherbee, & Colwell, 2006; Mikkels en, 2013)
write of Weick’s “sensemaking framework”, often referring to the seven prop-
erties of sensemaking (Weick, 1995). In this chapter, we discuss sensemaking as
a process, and as a scholarly literature that helps us better understand that
Sensemaking is often invoked as a general notion, without an associated
definition. Even when sensemaking is defined (Table 1), it is given a variety
of meanings. These definitional differe nces reveal important underlying onto-
logical assumptions about what sensemaking involves, which in turn have
important consequences for developing theory. One key ontological difference
that is reflected in various definitions concerns whether sensemaking takes
place within or between individuals. Some definitions frame sensemaking as
a more cognitive process, focused on appraisal and interpretation, which is
described in terms of developing frameworks, schemata, or mental models.
For example, Starbuck and Milliken ( 1988 , p. 51) “Sensemaking has many dis-
tinct aspects—comprehending, understanding, explaining, attributing, extra-
polating, and predicting [ ... ] What is common to these processes is that
they involve putting stimuli into frameworks (or schemata) that make sense
of the stimuli.” Likewise, Hill and Levenhagen (1995, p. 1057) describe sense-
making in terms of how people “develop a ‘vision’ or mental model of how the
environment works”. Elsbach, Barr, and Hargadon (2005) explicitly link
The Academy of Management Annals
Table 1 Selected Definitions of Sensemaking
Author Definition
Louis (1980) “[S]ense making can be viewed as a recurring cycle comprised of a sequence of events occurring over time. The cycle
begins as individuals form unconscious and conscious anticipations and assumptions, which serve as predictions about
future events. Subsequently, individuals experience events that may be discrepant from predictions. Discrepant events,
or surprises, trigger a need for explanation, or post-diction, and, correspondingly, for a process through which
interpretations of discrepancies are developed. Interpretation, or meaning, is attributed to surprises. Based on the
attributed meanings, any necessary behavioral responses to the immediate situation are selected. Also based on
attributed meanings, understandings of actors, actions, and settings are updated and predictions about future
experiences in the setting are revised. The updated anticipations and revised assumptions are analogous to alterations
in cognitive scripts.” (p. 241)
Starbuck and Milliken
“Sensemaking has many distinct aspects—comprehending, understanding, explaining, attributing, extrapolating, and
predicting, at least. For example, understanding seems to precede explaining and to require less input; predicting may
occur without either understanding or explaining; attributing is a form of explanation that assigns causes.[ ... ]What
is common to these processes is that they involve placing stimuli into frameworks (or schemata) that make sense of the
stimuli (Goleman, 1985).” (p. 51)
Gephart (1993) “Sensemaking has been defined as the discursive process of constructing and interpreting the social world”. (p. 1485)
Hill and Levenhagen (1995) “To cope with these uncertainties, the entrepreneur must develop a ‘vision’ or mental model of how the environment
works (sensemaking) and then be able to communicate to others and gain their support (sensegiving).” (p. 1057)
Weick (1995) “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.” (p. 17)
Taylor and Van Every (2000) “[S]ensemaking is a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action.” (p. 275)
Balogun and Johnson ( 2004) “Sensemaking is a conversational and narrative process through which people create and maintain an intersubjective
world (Brown, 2000; Gephart, 1993, 1997, Watson & Bargiela-Chiappini, 1998).” (p. 524)
Sensemaking in Organizations 63
Table 1 (Continued)
Author Definition
Balogun and Johnson ( 2005) “Sensemaking is primarily a conversational and narrative process (Brown, 2000; Gephart, 1993, 1997) involving a
variety of communication genre (Watson & Bargiela-Chiappini, 1998), both spoken and written, and formal and
informal. However, more specifically, sensemaking involves ‘conversational and social practices’ (Gephart, 1993:
1469). It occurs through both verbal and non-verbal means (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Gioia et al., 1994). Individuals
engage in gossip and negotiations, exchange stories, rumours and past experiences, seek information, and take note of
physical representations, or non-verbal signs and signals, like behaviours and actions, to infer and give meaning
(Isabella, 1990; Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Gioia et al., 1994; Gioia & Thomas, 1996; Poole et al., 1989; Labianca et al.,
2000). Change comes about through shifts in conversations and language (Barrett et al., 1995; Brown & Humphreys,
2003; Ford & Ford, 1995; Heracleous & Barrett, 2001).” (p. 1576)
Maitlis (2005) “Sensemaking occurs in organizations when members confront events, issues, and actions that are somehow surprising
or confusing (Gioia & Thomas, 1996; Weick, 1993, 1995). As Weick argued, ‘The basic idea of sensemaking is that
reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what
occurs’ (1993: 635). Thus, sensemaking is a process of social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1967) in which
individuals attempt to interpret and explain sets of cues from their environments. This happens through the
production of ‘accounts’—discursive constructions of reality that interpret or explain (Antaki, 1994)—or through the
‘activation’ of existing accounts (Gioia & Thomas, 1996; Volkema, Farquhar, & Bergmann, 1997). In either case,
sensemaking allows people to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity by creating rational accounts of the world that
enable action. Sensemaking thus both precedes decision making and follows it: sensemaking provides the ‘clear
questions and clear answers’ (Weick, 1993: 636) that feed decision making, and decision making often stimulates the
surprises and confusion that create occasions for sensemaking. Organizational sensemaking is a fundamentally social
process: organization members interpret their environment in and through interactions with others, constructing
accounts that allow them to comprehend the world and act collectively (Isabella, 1990; Sackmann, 1991; Sandelands &
Stablein, 1987; Starbuck & Milliken, 1988; Weick & Roberts, 1993).” (p. 21)
64 The Academy of Management Annals
Table 1 (Continued)
Author Definition
Rouleau (2005) “Sensemaking has to do with the way managers understand, interpret, and create sense for themselves based on the
information surrounding the strategic change. Sensegiving is concerned with their attempts to influence the outcome,
to communicate their thoughts about the change to others, and to gain their support. Although these processes appear
to be conceptually different, the boundaries of each are permeated by the other. As discourse and action, sensemaking
and sensegiving are less distinct domains (Hopkinson, 2001) than two sides of the same coin—one implies the other
and cannot exist without it.” (p. 1415)
Weick et al. (2005) “[S]ensemaking unfolds as a sequence in which people concerned with identity in the social context of other actors
engage ongoing circumstances from which they extract cues and make plausible sense retrospectively, while enacting
more or less order into those ongoing circumstances.” (p. 409)
Klein et al. (2006) “Sensemaking is a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and
events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively.” (p. 71)
Gephart, Topal, and Zhang
“Sensemaking is an ongoing process that creates an intersubjective sense of shared meaning through conversation and
non-verbal behavior in face to face settings where people seek to produce, negotiate, and sustain a shared sense of
meaning.” (pp. 284 285)
Sonenshein (2010) “For Weick (1995), sensemaking involves individuals engaging in retrospective and prospective thinking in order to
construct an interpretation of reality. ‘Sensegiving’ is a related process by which individuals attempt to influence the
sensemaking of others (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Maitlis & Lawrence, 2007). Both sensemaking and sensegiving are
closely related to narratives. In fact, many scholars have treated sensemaking/ sensegiving as interchangeable with
constructing narratives (Currie & Brown, 2003; Dunford & Jones, 2000; Gabriel, 2004).” (p. 479)
Cornelissen (2012) “Sensemaking refers to processes of meaning construction whereby people interpret events and issues within and
outside of their organizations that are somehow surprising, complex, or confusing to them.” (p. 118)
Sensemaking in Organizations 65
sensemaking with situated cognition and describe how the cognitive process of
sensemaking connects existing schemas and organizational contexts.
In contrast, other definitions position sensemaking as a social process that
occurs between people, as meaning is negotiated, contested, and mutually co-
constructed. “Social” is one of Weick’s (1995) seven key properties of sense-
making. Weick et al. (2005, p. 409) elaborate that sensemaking unfolds “in a
social context of other actors” and Maitlis (2005, p. 21) describes organiz-
ational sensemaking as “a fundamentally social process” in which “organiz-
ation members interpret their environment in and through interactions with
each other, constructing accounts that allow them to comprehend the world
and act collectively”. This stance sees sensemaking as the “discursive processes
of constructing and interpreting the social world” (Gephart, 1993, p. 1485).
Consistent with scholars who emphasize the collective nature of sensemaking,
our focus in this chapter is on the social dynamics of sensemaking in organiz-
ations, rather than on individuals’ interpretive acts.
Deriving an integrated definition. Despite these notable differences, there
are also several recurrent themes across definitions of sensemaking. First, sen-
semaking is widely understood as dynamic, concerned with transience rather
than constancy, such that meaning is made “in an ongoing present in which
past experience is projected upon possible futures” (Hernes & Maitlis, 2010b,
p. 27). This is captured in descriptions of sensemaking as a “process”
(Balogun & Johnson, 2004; Cornelissen, 2012; Gephart et al., 2010; Sonenshein,
2010; Weick, 1995), a “recurring cycle” (Louis, 1980), or something that
“unfolds as a sequence” (Weick et al., 2005). Second, cues—often in the
form of violated expectations—play a central role in sensemaking. Sensemak-
ing is triggered when “members confront events, issues, and actions that are
somehow surprising or confusing” (Maitlis, 2005, p. 21) and when “[d]iscre-
pant events, or surprises, trigger a need for explanation” (Louis, 1980 ,
p. 241). Cues also shape sensemaking as it unfolds, since sensemaking is
“focused on and by extracted cues” (Weick, 1995, p. 49), in a process in
which individuals “interpret and explain set of cues from their environments
(Maitlis, 2005, p. 21).
Third, despite ontological differences, sensemaking is generally regarded as
social because even individuals making sense on their own are embedded in a
sociomaterial context where their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influ-
enced by the “actual, imagined, or implied presence of others” (Allport, 1985,
p. 3, cited in Weick, 1995, p. 39). Many scholars also see sensemak ing as the
process through which “people create and maintain an intersubjective world”
(Balogun & Johnson 2004, p. 524), and “produce, negotiate, and sustain a
shared sense of meaning” (Gephart et al., 2010, p. 285). Here, we should note
that “shared” or “intersubjective” meaning need not indicate a completely over-
lapping, agreed-upon understanding, but rather understandings that are close
The Academy of Management Annals
enough, or equivalent, in ways that allow coordinated action (Donnellon, Gray,
& Bougon, 1986; Gray, Bougon, & Donnellon, 1985).
A critical fourth feature of sensemaking concerns the action that people take
to make sense of a situation which, in turn, enacts the environment that they
seek to understand. Thus, it has been argued that sensemaking creates “rational
accounts of the world that enable action” (Maitlis, 2005, p. 21), is “a continuous
effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and
events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively” (Klein
et al., 2006), and is “enactive of sensible environments” (Wei ck, 1995, p. 30).
These action-meaning cycles occur repeatedly as people construct provisional
understandings that they continuously enact and modify. We thus define
sensemaking as:
a process, prompted by violated expectations, that involves attending to
and bracketing cues in the environment, creating intersubjective
meaning through cycles of interpretation and action, and thereby enact-
ing a more ordered environment from which further cues can be drawn.
Forms of Sensemaking and Sensemaking-Related Constructs
The sensemaking literature includes an ever-increasing number of specialized
forms of sensemaking (Table 2) and sensemaking-related constructs (Table 3).
Some of the specialized forms of sensemaking are applications of sensemaking
to a particular context (e.g. ecological or market sensemaking), and others refer
to the nature of the cues or content of the sense made (e.g. intercultural, inter-
personal, or prosocial sensemaking). However, some forms of specialized sen-
semaking, such as prospective and future-oriented sensemaking, challenge key
ontological assumptions: the temporal orientation of sensemaking is important
to our understanding of what sensemaking is, and is a topic of ongoing debate.
We return to a more detailed discussion of temporality and sensemaking later
in the paper.
While there has been something of a proliferation of sensemaking-related
constructs in recent years, two have gained traction and make a significant con-
tribution to our understanding of how sensemaking is accomplished. The first
of these is sensegiving, “the process of attempting to influence the sensemaking
and meaning construction of others toward a preferred redefinition of organ-
izational reality” (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991, p. 442). Sensegiving is often
studied in the context of how organizational leaders or manager s strategically
shape the sensemaking of organizational members through the use of symbols,
images, and other influence techniques (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Maitlis &
Lawrence, 2007; Rouleau, 2005). Sensegiving is not simply a top-down
process, however, as those receiving sensegiving have their own interpretations
and can actively resist efforts from leaders to influence strategic change
Sensemaking in Organizations
Table 2 Examples of Specific Forms of Sensemaking
Form of sensemaking Definition
“the process by which an arbiter renders an assignment of blame, guided not only by the arbiter’s professional standards and
rational analysis but also by his or her own biases and the anticipation of his or her constituents’ biases.” (Wiesenfeld,
Wurthmann, & Hambrick, 2008, p. 235)
Cultural sensemaking “how entrepreneurs or communities make sense of venture failures.” (Cardon, Stevens, & Potter, 2011, p. 79)
Ecological sensemaking “the process used to make sense of material landscapes and ecological processes.” (Whiteman & Cooper, 2011, p. 889)
“how actors notice and bracket ecologically material cues from a stream of experience and build connections and causal
networks between various cues and with past enacted environments.” (Whiteman & Cooper, 2011, pp. 890891)
Environmental sensemaking “actors make sense not only of the event itself, but of the broader organizational field.” (Nigam & Ocasio, 2010, p. 826)
Future-oriented sensemaking “sensemaking that seeks to construct intersubjective meanings, images, and schemes in conversation where these meanings
and interpretations create or project images of future objects and phenomena.” (Gephart et al., 2010, p. 285)
Intercultural sensemaking “the process involving the selection of scripts that reflect individuals’ cultural values and cultural history.” (Fisher & Hutchings,
2013, p. 796)
... can lead to various outcomes such as schema development and a higher level of cultural understanding.” (Fisher &
Hutchings, 2013, p. 796)
Interpersonal sensemaking “the role of interpersonal cues from others in helping employees make meaning from their jobs, roles, and selves at work.”
(Wrzesniewski, Dutton, & Debebe, 2003, p. 102)
Market sensemaking “a macro version of Weick’s approach to meaning construction in organizations.” (Kennedy, 2008 , p. 272).
Political sensemaking “how powerful social actors construct the relationship between multinational enterprises (MNEs) and their multiple local
contexts.” (Clark & Geppert, 2011, p. 395)
Prosocial sensemaking “process in which employees interpret personal and company actions and identities as caring.” (Grant, Dutton, & Rosso, 2008,
p. 898)
Prospective sensemaking “the conscious and intentional consideration of the probable future impact of certain actions, and especially nonactions, on the
meaning construction processes of themselves and others.” (Gioia, Thomas, Clark, & Chittipeddi, 1994, p. 378)
Resourceful sensemaking “the ability to appreciate the perspectives of others and use this understanding to enact horizon-expanding discourse.”
(Wright, Manning, Farmer, & Gilbreath, 2000 , p. 807)
68 The Academy of Management Annals
(Sonenshein, 2010). Furthermore, actors at any level of an organization, or
outside its boundaries, may engage in sensegiving with others (Maitlis & Lawr-
ence, 2007).
The second construct is sensebreaking, defined as “the destruction or break-
ing down of meaning” (Pratt, 2000, p. 464). While there is less research on sen-
sebreaking, it captures an important part of processes involving sensemaking
and sensegiving. Sensebreaking can motivate people to re-consider the sense
that they have already made, to question their underlying assumptions, and
to re-examine their course of action (Lawrence & Maitlis, 2014). It is often a
prelude to sensegiving, in which leaders or organizations fill the meaning
void created through sensebreaking with new meaning (Pratt, 2000).
Both sensegiving and sensebreaking have primarily been explored as activi-
ties carried out by leaders or managers (Mantere, Schildt, & Sillince, 2012;
Pratt, 2000), but there is increasing interest in understanding how they are
also used by others (Vlaar et al., 2008). In this chapter, we focus primarily
on sensemaking research but discuss sensegiving and sensebreak ing when
they play a role in broader sensemaking processes.
Table 3 Examples of Specific Sensemaking-Related Constructs
construct Definition
Sensebreaking “the destruction or breaking down of meaning.” (Pratt, 2000,
p. 464)
Sensedemanding “strenuous efforts to acquire and process information so as to
establish ‘a workable level of uncertainty’ and equivocality
(Weick 1969, p. 40).” (Vlaar, van Fenema, & Tiwari, 2008,
p. 240)
Sense-exchanging “different conceptions of organization are negotiated to socially
construct the identity of an organization.” (Ran & Golden,
2011, p. 421)
Sensegiving “attempting to influence the sensemaking and meaning
construction of others toward a preferred redefinition of
organizational reality.” (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991 , p. 442)
Sensehiding “discourse can be mobilizing in terms of promoting a specific
kind of thinking and action or manipulative in terms of hiding
particular ideas.” (Vaara & Monin, 2010,p.6)
“silencing alternative senses of integration or marginalization of
particular voices.” (Monin et al., 2013, p. 262)
Sense specification “specification of explicit or implicit norms ... . coining of
principles, exemplary decisions and actions, symbolization, and
quantification.” (Monin et al., 2013, p. 262)
Sensemaking in Organizations 69
Taking Stock of Sensemaking
Our review of the sensemaking literature has two parts: first, exploring how
sensemaking is accomplished and, second, examining the other organizational
activities that sensemaking helps to accomplish. We organize the first section
around three questions, each addressing a core aspect of sensemaking: (1)
how do events become triggers for sensemaking? (2) how is intersubjective
meaning constructed? and (3) what is the role of action in sensemaking? In
the second section of the review, we examine sensemaking as an explanatory
mechanism for other important organizational processes, focusing on how sen-
semaking contributes to change, learning, and creativity and innovation.
How is Sensemaking Accomplished?
How do events become triggers for sensemaking? Sensemaking is triggered
by cues—such as issues, events, or situations—for which the meaning is ambig-
uous and/or outcomes uncertain. Such occurrences, when noticed, interrupt
people’s ongoing flow, disrupting their understanding of the world and creat-
ing uncertainty about how to act. This happens when there are discrepancies
between expectations and reality—either an unexpected event, such as an
unprecedented strike by doctors (Meyer, 1982), or the non-occurrence of an
expected event, such as an organization reneging on promises made to its
employees (Robinson & Morrison, 2000). These violations of expectations
can vary greatly in magnitude, ranging, for example, from the “leemers” experi-
enced by aviators, feelings “that something is not quite right, but you can’t put
your finger on it” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007, p. 31), to “cosmology episodes”
which occur “when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no
longer a rational, orderly system” (Weick, 1993, p. 633). Unexpected events
do not necessarily trigger sensemaking; it occurs when the discrepancy
between what one expects and what one experiences is great enough, and
important enough, to cause individuals or groups to ask what is going on,
and what they should do next. This experience of a discrepancy, or violation,
is subjective, and how significant it feels will be influenced by a variety of
factors, including its impact on individual, social, or organizational identity
(Corley & Gioia, 2004; Pratt, Rockmann, & Kaufmann, 2006) and personal
or strategic goals (Balogun & Johnson, 2004; Maitlis, Vogus, & Lawrence,
2013). Even when discrepant cues significantly disrupt identity or goals,
however, they may still not trigger sensemaking if group norms or the organ-
izational culture mitigate against it. Indeed, the literature offers many examples
of situations in which people accommodate, explain away, or normalize discre-
pant cues (Dunbar & Garud, 2009; Vaughan, 1996; Watzlawick, 1976; Weick,
1988), often because they are part of systems, routines, and cultures that inad-
vertently reduce mindfulness (Levinthal & Rerup, 2006; Weick & Sutcliffe,
The Academy of Management Annals
2006) or encourage accommodation in service of production targets (Vaughan,
Studies of sensemaking in organizations have explored a variety of different
contexts in which the surprise or confusion caused by violated expectations
trigger sensemaking. These include environmental jolts (Meyer, 1982; Milliken,
1990) and organizational crises (Brown & Jones, 2000; Weick, 1988, 1993;
Wicks, 2001), threats to organizational identity (Dutton & Dukerich, 1991;
Elsbach & Kramer, 1996), and planned organizational change initiatives
(Balogun & Johnson, 2004; Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). We selectively review
each of these areas of research, identifying the sorts of issues or events that
have been found to trigger sensemaking in each situation. Some scholars
(Hoffman & Ocasio, 2001; Nigam & Ocasio, 2010; Ocasio, 2011) have noted
that an event must first catch our attention in order to trigger sensemaking
and a separate stream of work, largely outside of the sensemaking literature,
has developed that examines what it takes for an event to become noticed
(Bouquet & Birkinshaw, 2008; Hoffman & Ocasio, 2001 ; Rerup, 2009). We
return to this point later.
i) Environmental jolts and organizational crises. Some of the earliest
research on sensemaking examined it as a response to environmental jolts and
other significant exogenous changes. This work was among the first to high-
light organizations as interpretive systems, triggered to engage in sensemaking
by perceived shifts in the external environment (Daft & Weick, 1984; Meyer,
1982; Milliken, 1990). For example, Meyer ( 1982) showed how an unprece-
dented doctors’ strike disrupted hospital administrators’ abilities to operate
as normal, engendering sensemaking that produced different interpretations
of the strike and its implications for their hospitals. In Milliken’s (1990)
study of university administrators, a change in student population demo-
graphics provided the prompt for sensemaking about different aspects of
environmental uncertainty. Focusing on large-scale environmental changes
of longer duration, Bogner and Barr (2000) showed how “hypercompetition”
completely undermined executives’ assumptions about competitors, custo-
mers, and other aspects of the industry structure. Sensemaking triggers
included major technological advances, government regulatory changes, and
other changes that created an environment so dynamic and unpredictable
that existing frameworks for achieving competitive advantage repeatedly lost
their meaning.
While environmental jolts present challenges to organizational routines,
crises can have a more diffuse impact, disrupting a wide range of existing
understandings and driving an intense and urgent search for explanations
and appropriate courses of action (Pearson & Clair, 1998; Turner, 1976;
Weick, 1993). As a “low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the via-
bility of the organization and is characteriz ed by ambiguity of cause, effect, and
Sensemaking in Organizations
means of resolution” (Pearson & Clair, 1998, p. 60), a crisis provides powerful
sensemaking triggers. Studies of individuals experiencing the loss of a child or a
life-threatening illness (Keesee, Currier, & Neimeyer, 2008; Sears, Stanton, &
Danoff-Burg, 2003) reveal how crises shatter fundamental assumptions
(Janoff-Bulman, 1992) and trigger sensemaking about the event, the self, and
often the world at large (Park, 2010). At the organizational and societal
levels, scholars have examined crisis-triggered sensemaking as it occurs
during an unfolding crisis (Christianson et al., 2009; Weick, 1988), as well as
in the public domain after a crisis. These latter analyses include examinations
of public inquiries into malpractice in medical, governmental, and private
sector organizations (Brown, 2000, 2005; Brown & Jones, 2000), a deadly
heat wave (Boudes & Laroche, 2009), and environmental disasters (Gephart,
1984, 1993, 2007), showing how crises trigger sensemaking about responsibility
and blame in ways that often legitimize the social institutions under
Looking at sensemaking triggered in the course of an evolving crisis, Chris-
tianson et al. (2009) examine the collapse of the roof at the B&O Museum,
which crushed many valuable artifacts and endangered those that remained.
This disaster not only disrupted plans for a major fair to celebrate American
railroading but also fundamentally challenged organizational members’ under-
standings of what, if anything, the museum could be in the future. Sensemaking
was thus triggered about whether the roof collapse should be understood as an
institution-ending disaster, or a temporary setback that could spawn further
action and enable renewal.
Other research focuses on crisis situations that trigger repeated efforts to
understand as equivocal cues portending disaster are noticed, and variously
acted upon and ignored. For example, employees at the Union Carbide plant
in Bhopal first discounted the discrepant cues they encountered in the form
of a distinctive smell and an unexpected reading on a pressure gauge
(Weick, 1988, 2010). With the accumulation of strange cues (the increasingly
pervasive odor, further high gauge readings, throbbing from the tank, and a
vaporizing leak) sensemaking was triggered once again as those on the scene
tried to connect these cues in the context of the strong belief they held, that
a massive chemical reaction could not occur in a plant that had been closed
for six weeks (Lapierre & Moro, 2002; Weick, 2010). This research shows
how sensemaking can be triggered at several points in an unfolding crisis, as
actors first consider the significance of disparate cues—often in the context
of sticky frames that drive them to discount them—and subsequently encoun-
ter further cues, frequently generated through their own actions (and inaction),
that prompt them to ask again what is going on. Similar elements are seen in
Weick’s (1993) famous Mann Gulch analysis.
It is instructive to compare organizational or societal cultures that enable dis-
crepant cues to trigger sensemaking and those that inadvertently impede it. For
The Academy of Management Annals
example, at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), shut-
tles were found to shed foam on almost every flight (Dunbar & Garud, 2009).
NASA had documented the potential dangers of foam shedding, but its cause
remained unclear. Despite this, foam shedding was reclassified over time
from an “in-flight anomaly” to an “accepted risk” that was “not a safety-of-
flight issue”. It thus became something to be expected, and, as such, unlikely
to trigger sensemaking. This “normalization of deviance”, when people notice
but quickly normalize anomalous cues that become assimilated into an existing
account (Vaughan, 1996), resulted in disaster for the Columbia mission.
At the societal level, Cerulo (2006, p. 6) discusses the effect of Americans’
“positive asymmetry”, “a way of seeing that foregrounds or underscores only
the best characteristics and potentials of people, places, objects, and events”.
This way of seeing, she argues, is reinforced by cultural practices such as
making the worst invisible, and recasting the worst as something positive,
that together prevent people from anticipating a wide range of crises.
Through a sensemaking lens, positive asymmetry, a cognitive tendency that
is institutionalized through cultural practices and organizational structures,
reduces the chance that cues auguring a crisis will trigger sensemaking and
action that could prevent its occurrence or minimize its impact.
These examples contrast with studies that reveal how high reliability organ-
izations (HROs) can avoid catastrophes despite operating in environments that
lend themselves to disaster. They do this significa ntly through practices such as
having a “preoccupation with failure”, a “reluctance to simplify”, and a “sensi-
tivity to operations” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007) that enable members to catch
problems early, noticing and acting upon weak cues. Such practices thus
form part of an organizational culture that encourages sensemaking, and are
especially important because of the prevalence and potential impac t of contra-
dictions and ambiguities in HROs, where sensemaking may be triggered
repeatedly, almost on a continuous basis.
ii) Threats to identity. Identity threat is a powerful prompt for sen-
semaking. As Weick (1995, p. 23) observed, “Sensemaking is triggered by a
failure to confirm one’s self”. Individuals construct their identity in ways
that meet human needs for self-enhancement, self-efficacy, and self-consist-
ency (Erez & Earley, 1993). When one or more of these comes under threat,
people are triggered to engage in sensema king around the sources of threat,
acting so as to restore their identity.
Although trauma and loss researchers have addressed the individual sense-
making that follows such major challenges to self (Janof f-Bulman, 1992; Nei-
meyer, Prigerson, & Davies, 2002), less is known about this process in a
work or organizational context. Some research has examined the sensemaking
that is triggered by an experience or event that undermines people’s ability to
do work that is central to their identity. One example is Maitlis’ (2009) analysis
Sensemaking in Organizations
of sensemaking in professional musicians following an injury that prevented
them from playing, severely disrupting their understa ndings of who they
were. In a similar vein, Wainwright and Turner (2004) describe “epiphanies
of identity” in ballet dancers dealing with injury and aging—conditions that
deeply challenge their identities as dancers, and prompt sensemaking about
who they might become. Petriglieri (2011) highlights different kinds of sense-
making triggered by an identity threat, arguing that when the identity is newly
acquired (for example, when embarking on a new profession), individuals are
prompted to change the mea ning of the new identity. To wit, Pratt et al. (2006)
found that sensemaking was triggered for medical residents by the discrepancy
between their new identity as “physician” and their experience of the many
menial tasks their work demanded. In contrast, when a long-established iden-
tity is threatened, sensemaking is more likely to focus on the importance of that
identity, often revising it downwards to reduce the impact of the threat (Petri-
glieri, 2011).
More common than research on individual identity threat in organizations
are examinations of sensemaking triggered by an organizational identity threat.
Several studies have explored the impact on sensemaking of events that threa-
ten an organization’s identity by creating a discrepancy between the organiz-
ation’s identity and its image. Dutton and Dukerich’s (1991) study of the
Port Authority revealed how the deterioration of the organization’s image
associated with its response to the issue of homelessness deeply threatened
the Port Authority’s identity, triggering member sensemaking about the kind
of organization it was and how it wanted to be seen. Similarly, in an analysis
of Bang and Olufsen’s responses to identity threats over a 25-year period,
Ravasi and Schulz (2006) show how shifts in the competitive environment
prompted managers on three separate occasions to engage in sensemaking to
answer questions such as “Is this who we really are? Is this who we really
want to be?” (Ravasi & Schulz, 2006, p. 446). Managers’ sensemaking drew
on cues from the organization’s culture, allowing the development of new
accounts of the organization’s identity that were rooted in its valued heritage.
Studies of organizational identity threat in business schools show how sen-
semaking is triggered following the release of rankings seen to conflict with the
organizational identity and perceived image of some schools (Elsbach &
Kramer, 1996; Martins, 2005). In Elsbach and Kramer’s (1996) study,
members of disappointingly ranked schools were prompted to engage in sen-
semaking about core identity attributes of their school, and its standing relative
to others. Specifically, they worked to affirm positive aspects of the organiz-
ational identity that the rankings had overlooked, making sense of the incon-
gruous ranking in ways that reduced the identity threat. Mart ins’ (2005) work
on the impact of rankings on organizational change, however, suggests that
when an organizational identity is strong, members may discount the contra-
dictory data of rankings, and so fail to engage in sensemaking.
The Academy of Management Annals
Other studies have shown that sensemaking is triggered not only when an
organization’s identity is threatened in a specific, negative way but also when
members simply become uncertain about what the organizational identity is.
Such was the case in Corley and Gioia’s (2004) study of a corporate spin-off
where the identity labels remained the same as they were prior to the spin-
off, but the meanings of these labels took on an equivocal quality, driv ing a
search for understanding. Organizational identity ambiguity was also seen to
prompt sensemaking in Tripsas’ (2009) study of a digital photography
company, Linco, after it made a significant strategic shift away from the tech-
nology by which it defined itself. For several years, organizational members and
external stakeholders engaged in sensemaking about who Linco was and what
it stood for, before eventually converging on a new identity as a memory
At the industry level, Hoffman and Ocasio (2001) explore the impact of a
threat to the industry image and identity and find that a non-routine environ-
mental event (such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill) attracts attention and triggers
sensemaking in the U.S. chemical industry and general public when outsiders
hold the industry accountable and insiders perceive it as a threat to their indus-
try image. Rao, Monin, and Durand (2003) provide an institutional perspective
with their study of the emergence of the nouvelle cuisine “identity movement”,
which disseminated identity-discrepant cues that jeopardized the role identities
of those producing classical French cuisine. This in turn triggered sensemaking
in elite chefs that led them to distance themselves from their former identity,
and reconfigure their roles in ways consistent with the new logic.
Given the central place of identity in sensemaking (the first of Weick’s
(1995) seven characteristics of sensemaking), it is not surprising that identity
threat is a significant trigger for sensemaking, seen at the individual, organiz-
ational, industry, and institutional levels. Research has shown that when iden-
tity is threatened, or even when it simply becomes ambiguous, people respond
by working to understand the basis for the challenge, and often to alleviate it by
enacting and constructing new accounts of themselves and their organizations.
Some have argued that this reaction is mediated by powerful emotions. For
example, at the individual level, the loss of or damage to a significant aspect
of the self is associated with intense negative emotions (Maitlis, 2009; Neimeyer
et al., 2002; Pals & McAdams, 2004). At the organizational level, Brown and
Starkey (2000) have argued that members have elaborate defense mechanisms
that protect their individual and organizational identities from threat, and the
anxiety and intense discomfort that comes with such threat. Sensemaking may
thus be understood as an important way of trying to gain control and create
predictability when people feel most deeply threatened.
iii) Planned change interventions. In contrast to the unforeseen
nature of environmental jolts, organizational crises, and threats to identity,
Sensemaking in Organizations
sensemaking can also be triggered by events that are anticipated and planned—
at least by some in the organization. Much sensemaking research has been
carried out in the context of change interventions, which, despite initial plan-
ning, frequently violate expectations and generate considerable uncertainty,
ambiguity and confusion for those involved. Planned change processes may
directly target organizational meanings, such as identity or culture, triggering
sensemaking from which changes in structure and practices follow. Alterna-
tively, change processes may begin with a structural transformation that disturbs
existing understandings of the organization and so leads to sensemaking
(Balogun & Johnson, 2004; Mantere et al., 2012). Of course, changes in the
organization’s structure and interpretive framework can also be entwined
from the start, and sensemaking triggered both by managerial sensegiving and
by changes in employees’ daily practices and interactions.
Several studies have explored how sensemaking is initiated when a new
CEO or President arrives with a vision for the organization that challenges
existing beliefs (Denis, Langley, & Cazale, 1996; Gioia & Chitt ipeddi, 1991;
Gioia et al., 1994), or when existing leaders commit to a new vision in response
to environmental changes (Barr, 1998; Dunford & Jones, 2000; Nag, Corley, &
Gioia, 2007; Ravasi & Schultz, 2006). Common to this body of work is the
finding that leaders attempt to trigger sensema king by conveying the impor-
tance of adopting a new direction for the organization, in part by undermining
the viability of the previous direction. Thus, sensemaking by organizational
members occurs in response to leaders’ sensebreaking (as they challenge the
viability of the status quo) and their sensegiving (as they work to shape
members’ understandings of a positive way forward). This is facilitated when
leaders extract and draw attention to cues from prevailing industry discourses
suggesting the need for change (Humphreys & Brown, 2002; Maitlis & Lawr-
ence, 2007), evidence of the organization’s failing performance (Elsbach &
Kramer, 1996; Sonenshein, 2010), or discrepancies between the organizational
identity and external images of the organization (Corley & Gioia, 2004; Dutton
& Dukerich, 1991).
Certain conditions, however, seem to create deterrents to sensemaking,
making it hard for leaders to trigger a search for new meanings. Nag et al.
(2007) studied an engineering-oriented R&D organization which leaders
sought to re-orient toward business development. They showed how a
strong organizational identity and members’ efforts to preserve the collective
practices through which they accomplished their work buffered them from
leaders’ efforts to trigger the construction of new meanings and purpose in
the organization, impeding large-scale change. Mantere et al.’s (2012) intri-
guing analysis of a governmental organization that cancelled a planned
merger presented leaders with a different problem. The executive team that
introduced the merger had quite effectively discredited staff beliefs about the
organization, which, alongside the meaning void created by staff uncertainty,
The Academy of Management Annals
ignorance, and panic about the future, and the top team’s sensegiving around
the benefits of merging, triggered sensemaking about the merger and the post-
merger strategy. The leaders were victims of their own success, however: when
the merger was cancelled and they sought to guide staff members back to their
previous construction of the organization, it proved hard to trigger sensemak-
ing. This was, the authors argue, because of the sensebreaking and sensegiving
residuals (recollections of previous accounts) that remained from leaders’
earlier efforts to change members’ interpretive schemes, which primed
members against contradictory accounts based on alternative sets of cues.
In addition to studies of leaders’ efforts to change the interpretive schemes
of organizational members, there has been considerable research on organiz-
ational change driven by major restructuring initiatives, including the creation
of a decentralized organizational form, the comp any-wide introduction of self-
managing teams, and post-merger integration (Balogun & Johnson, 2004;
scher & Lewis, 2008; Vaara, 2003; Yu, Engleman, & Van de Ven, 2005).
This research suggests that changes in organizational structure, roles and
responsibilities create contradictions and paradoxes for members, triggering
sensemaking about what their jobs entail and how to do them (Lu
scher &
Lewis, 2008). Work by Balogun (2003, 2006) and Balogun and Johnson
(2004, 2005), for example, examines a UK utility involved in a significant stra-
tegic change initiative, and documents the great number and range of sense-
making triggers that this change created for middle managers. These
included organizational change goals, such as new working practices; specific
change interventions, such as total quality training and process redesign; and
also flaws in how change was being implemented, such as the pace of redun-
dancies and inadequate communication. All of these were at odds with man-
agers’ existing understandings of their organization, causing them to grapple
with what the organization was becoming and the implications for themselves
and their teams.
In sum, we find that sensemaking begins when people experience a violation
of their expectations, or when they encounter an ambiguous event or issue that
is of some significance to them. Often this involves a threat to taken-for-
granted roles and routines, causing th ose in organizations to question funda-
mental assumptions about how they should act. Crises can be powerful
prompts for sensemaking but crises also arise from situations in which the
organizational culture and prevailing practices inhibit sensemaking from
being triggered. Indeed, such occasions suggest that sensemaking is an effortful
and potentially costly process that requires people to feel motivated give up
their existing accounts of the world and to work to construct new meanings.
They are driven to do this when they experience a threat to their identity
and the intense negative emotions that this arouses, but are less likely to
engage in sensemaking when individual or collective identity is strong and
positive, capacity is low, or when they are highly invested in certain practices
Sensemaking in Organizations
and beliefs. In these cases, individuals and collectives become “buffered” from
potential sensemaking triggers, and a much more powerful event is required to
induce sensemaking.
How is intersubjective meaning constructed in organizations? Meaning in
organizations is highly contested and often negotiated among a wide range
of actors (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Humphreys & Brown, 2002), who may
understand an event or issue in a similar way, but are at least as likely—
because of their different positions, interests, and backgroun ds—to construct
it differently from one another (Brown, 2004; Brown, Stacey, & Nandhakumar,
2008). Much human activity in organizations is thus concerned with collective
efforts to make sense. As noted earlier, scholars have described this process in
different ways . When sensemaking is seen as taking place within individuals,
then collective meaning making occurs as individuals advocate for a particular
view and engage in influence tactics to shape others’ understandings. In con-
trast, when sensemaking is regarded as unfolding between individuals, inter-
subjective meaning is constructed through a more mutually co-constituted
process, as members jointly engage with an issue and build their understanding
of it together.
Jazz orchestras are a classic example of mutuall y constructed meaning:
members must listen closely to each other, take turns leading and following,
and respond together in real-time to novel or unexpected performance
(Hatch, 1999; Meyer, Frost, & Weick, 1998). Yet, even in more top-down pro-
cesses, when organizational leaders engage in sensegiving, organizational
members are not simply passive recipients of meaning but instead engage in
their own sensemaking and adopt, alter, resist, or reject the sense they have
been given (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Gioia et al., 1994; Pratt, 2000; Sonen-
shein, 2010). Likewise, “framing contests” can develop between peers as they
attempt to persuade each other to adopt their perspective and, eventua lly,
one viewpoint emerges as dominant (Kaplan, 2008).
In this section, we unpack the collectiv e dynamics that underpin how
intersubjective meaning is constructed. We first investigate who gets
involved in shaping sensemaking in organizations, and the impact of differ-
ent parties’ involvement on the sensemaking process. Second, we look more
closely at the resources organizational actors use to make sense. We focus on
the use of certain discursive practices, including metaphor, narrative, and
more specific examples of situated practices. Inherent to this process is the
construction of accounts through which organizational members articulate
their emerging understandings. In the final part of the chapter, we go on
to consider important emerging research that examines the role of socioma-
terial practices alongside the more commonly studied use of language in
The Academy of Management Annals
i) Those who shape sensemaking in organizations. R esearch on sen-
semaking highlights important roles for both leaders and other organiz-
ational stakeholders. Indeed, it has been found that the relative influence
of leaders and other groups determines the form of the sensemaking
process that is produced. In a study of sensemaking in symphony orches-
tras, Maitlis (2005) compared processes in which leaders were more and
less active, and stakeholders more and less active, to distinguish four differ-
ent forms of organizational sensemaking. “Guided” sensem aking occurs
when leaders are very energetic in constructing and promoting understand-
ings and explanations of events, and stakeholders are also actively engaged
in attempt ing to shape beliefs about certain elements of the issues. “Frag-
mented” sensemaking processes emerge when stakeholders raise issues, gen-
erate accounts of a situat ion, and argue for potential s olutions in the context
of leaders who do not try t o organize or c ontrol discuss ions. “Restricted”
sensemaking results from leaders promoting overarching accounts of
issues they encounter which stak eholder s tend to accept with relatively
few attempts to provide a lternative un derstandings; and “minimal” sense-
making occurs when both leaders and stakeholder await others’ interpret-
ations of and reactions to an issue, which typically come in response to
some external trigger.
Examining the sensemaking literature through the lens of this framework,
we find organizational sensemaking is most often restricted in nature, with
leaders driving and controlling the process, and periodically eliciting input
from other organizational members on certain issues (Corley & Gioia, 2004;
Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Gioia et al., 1994; Howard-Grenville, Metzger, &
Meyer, 2013; Mantere et al., 2012; Ravasi & Schultz, 2006). For example, in
Corley and Gioia’s (2004) study of a corporate spin-off, leaders acted on a sen-
segiving imperative created by the growing ambiguity about the organization’s
identity. Working to communicate a desired future image of the company as
values-led and caring, they tried to model behaviors that reflected the
desired future image they were promoting. Other members of the spin-off,
struggling with the tensions around the organization’s identity, could not con-
struct a new account of who they now were collectively. While their confusion
prompted leaders to refine the future image they promoted, members we re
relatively passive in creating a new identity for the organization. Monin
et al.’s (2013) analysis of a “carefully managed M&A” provides another
example of restricted sensemaking. Here, leaders engaged continuously in sen-
segiving about justice in the newly formed organization, while members
responded in different ways, some accepting leaders constructions, while
others distanced themselves from the issue, expressing cynicism. Even from
those who actively opposed leader sensegiving, however, resistance was
rarely strong. This kind of top-down sensemaking process is common in the
literature, perhaps unsurprisingly, since leadership has been described as
Sensemaking in Organizations
fundamentally concerned with the “management of meaning” (Smircich &
Morgan, 1982), and sensemaking as a key leadership capability (Ancona,
2011; Shamir, 2007).
Other studies reveal fragmented sensemaking, where the process is domi-
nated by middle managers (Balogun & Johnson, 2004, 2005) or other organiz-
ational members (Walsh & Bartunek, 2011). In Balogun and Johnson’s (2004,
2005) study of strategic change in a utility company, middle managers were
very active in interpreting the meanings of events for themselves and their
teams through a range of verbal, textual and non-verbal behaviors. Sensemak-
ing also occurred in formal, vertical processes with leaders, but much more of it
took place laterally, through informal processes, away from, and out of the
control of, senior management. Thus, in Maitlis’ (2005) terms, member sense-
making was highly animated but uncontrolled as leaders neither organized the
vigorous member sensemaking activities nor integrated members’ construc-
tions into coherent collective accounts. Other research suggests that this inte-
grative role in sensemaking can be very effectively played not only by leaders,
but also by middle managers who are well-placed to facilitate, blend, and syn-
thesize the emerging constructions from a range of different managerial groups
(Beck & Plowman, 2009). Indeed, because middle managers work at the
boundaries between senior management and the rest of the workforce, their
role may involve continuously responding to the dual demands of sensemaking
and sensegiving.
A decision concerning the appointment of a new principal conductor
invoked guided sensemaking in a British symphony orchestra (Maitlis,
2005). The Executive Director and Board Chairman carried out extensive sen-
segiving with different stakeholder groups to explain the strengths, benefits,
and requiremen ts of a particular candidate. At the same time, the process
was highly animated over an extended period of time because stakeholders—
including orchestral musicians, funders, and others—sought to shape under-
standings of the candidate, the orchestra’s needs and resources, and what the
role of principal conductor meant. Guided sensemaking occurs when several
different parties have the legitimacy, expertise, and opportunity to drive sense-
making, and feel an issue is important enough to engage in it (Maitlis & Lawr-
ence, 2007).
Studies revealing minimal sensemaking are rare, although we do see periods
in which there is little effort by leaders or by others to shape organizational
meanings. One such example is found in the inertial phase of a community
identity regeneration process (Howard-Grenville et al., 2013), where, over
time, the new community leader failed to promote the town’s identity, to
attract new resourc es in support of its identity, or to enable experiences that
could build a sense of identity in other community stakeholders. These other
stakeholders responded by curtailing their own efforts to perpetuate the
town’s identity, which gradually went into decline. Some research also shows
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shifts between different forms of sensemaking around an issue, for example,
moving from a more restricted, leader-controlled process, to a guided one,
where leaders remain active, guiding and coordinating other stakeholders
who start to take on a bigger role in the construction of accounts (Gioia
et al., 1994; Sonenshein, 2010).
ii) What organizational actors do to construct intersubjective meaning.
Looking beyond broad patterns of member interaction, we now examine the
discursive practices that actors use in the sensemaking process. Although
some scholars emphasize the cognitive element of sensemaking (Kiesler &
Sproull, 1982; Louis, 1980; Thomas et al., 1993), in most current writing organ-
izational sensemaking is more often understood as fundamentally concerned
with language (Nicholson & Anderson, 2005; Sonenshein, 2006; Taylor &
Robichaud, 2004; Weick, 1995). As Taylor and Van Every (2000, p. 40) note,
“sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is compre-
hended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard for action”. Weick
(1995, p. 99) cites Huber and Daft (1987, p. 151) to capture the social and
organizational implications of this process: “When confronted with an equiv-
ocal [ambiguous, confusing] event, managers use language to share perceptions
among themselves and gradually define or create meaning through discussion.”
Here, we consider some of the literature that has attempted to identify how this
is done. Two sets of work highlight the importance of narrative and of meta-
phor as sensemaking resources (Abolafia, 2010; Boje, 1991, 1995; Brown, 2000,
2004; Brown & Humphreys, 2003; Brown et al., 2008; Cornelissen, 2012; Cor-
nelissen & Clarke, 2010); other research emphasizes the local and situated
nature of discursive practices in the construction of intersubjective meaning
in organizations (Maitlis & Lawrence, 2003, 2007; Rouleau, 2005; Rouleau &
Balogun, 2011).
Research on narratives is probably the largest body of discursive work on
organizational sensemaking. Indeed, many scholars equate narrative with sen-
semaking, describing narrative as “the primary form by which human experi-
ence is made meaningful” (Polkinghorne, 1988 , p. 1) and “the preferred
sensemaking currency” (Boje, 1991, p. 106, cited in Abolafia, 2010, p. 349).
A great benefit of examining organizational sensemaking through a narrative
lens is that it reveals not only who is involved and what they are doing but
also the meanings that they are constructing in the process. As such, it spot-
lights the plurivocality of organizations and the much contested nature of
organizational mea nings. It does so by uncovering the very different stories
told by different groups and showing how even a dominant organizational nar-
rative can be embellished and modified by less powerful individuals in ways
that significantly change its meaning.
A significant stream of research in this vein is by Brown and colleagues
(Brown et al., 2008; Currie & Brown, 2003; Humphreys & Brown,
2002), who
Sensemaking in Organizations
explore how narratives are used in organizations to define individual and collec-
tive identities. Their research reveals the tensions underpinning the negotiation
of organizational identity, as leaders try to gain acceptance for their narratives
about what is central, distinctive, and persistent about an organization (Hum-
phreys & Brown, 2002), while others undermine the dominant narrative as
they struggle and often fail to reconcile it with their individual identity narra-
tives. Alongside other scholars who have emphasized the plurality of narratives
present in organizations (Boje, 1991; Rhodes, 2001), Brown’s work highlights
organizations as “polyphonic, socially constructed verbal systems characterized
by multiple, simultaneous and sequential narratives that variously interweave,
harmonize and clash” (Currie & Brown, 2003, p. 566). Sensemaking is the
process through which these narratives are contested and collective accounts
negotiated. However, since narratives serve to support different parties’ identity
and legitimacy claims, agreement, if reached, is often temporary and produces
fragile shared accounts (Brown et al., 2008; Patriotta, 2003).
While such scholars are skeptical that organizational members construct
truly shared narratives, others believe they do, and have studied the process
through which this happens. Sonenshein (2010), for example, argues that
leaders may try to impose a reality on employees, but employees use the man-
agement narrative as set of symbolic resources from which to construct their
own meanings (Swidler, 1986). In a study of strategic change, he showed that
although employees may adopt management’s anxiety-reducing stability narra-
tive about the organization (the change is consistent with the status quo), they
draw on their own experience to tell either a supportive stability narrative (the
change preserves what they value about the organization) or subversive stability
narrative (the change preserves what is wrong with the organization). In both
cases, however, these employees share and promulgate the narrative that the
organizational change is not significant or particularly disruptive.
Abolafia (2010) also takes a close interest in how a collective narrative is
co-constructed. From his study of meetings of the Federal Open Market Com-
mittee, the Federal Reserve’s most important policy-making group, Abolafia
(2010) identifies key steps in the sensemaking process through which a
shared narrative was constructed. The process begins with abduction, as
policy makers compare their operating model of the financial market to the
current conditions in an effort to establish “the facts” of the situation. As
group members come to agree that the operating model does not fit these
facts, they start to plot the narrative, weaving facts and key events into a plaus-
ible story that fits the context. Over subsequent policy meetings, committee
members retell and elaborate parts of the narrative, glossing it to make it
more coherent and explanatory, or a better reflection of an individual’s
interpretation. Chairman Greenspan exercises power in these discussions,
comparing the emerging narratives and expressing his support for one—the
progressive narrative of recovery. The final step of the sensemaking process
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is selective retention, as committee members negotiate an agreed policy choice.
This fine-grained analysis allows us to see how a collective achieves shared
meaning through discussion, debate, and the exercise of power—a difficult
and emotional process but one that generates an account supported by most
(but not all).
We turn now to metaphor, which has seen a surge of interest in the sense-
making literature in recent years (Cornelissen, 2005; Cornelissen, Oswick,
Christensen, & Phillips, 2008; Nicholson & Anderson, 2005). The first
studies of metaphor in sensemaking came earlier, however, showing the preva-
lence and importance of this rhetorical device that connects cues and frames, a
fundamental act of sensemaking (Gioia et al., 1994 ; Grant & Oswick, 1996; Hill
& Levenhagen, 1995). Gioia et al.’s (1994) analysis of sensemaking in a strategic
planning task force of a university revealed how task force members, working
under intense pressure, used metaphors first to construct their social identity
(e.g. “a smokescreen”), and later to legitimize their role in the change effort
by redefining themselves (e.g. “implementors of the President’s wishes”), and
exert lasting influence on other stakeholders’ understandings by creating
new planning units (e.g. “prisms transmitting a spectrum of inputs ”). Meta-
phors were key in shaping task force members’ understandings of their
group and of the strategic change initiative itself.
More recently, Cornelissen’s work ( 2005 , 2012; Cornelissen & Clarke, 2010)
has been important in explaining the power of metaphor in the sensemaking
process. This comes partly through metaphors’ ability to create order in unfa-
miliar situations, but more significantly because they are often evaluative and
provide justification for certain actions. Since sensemaking is concerned with
explaining previous actions to oneself and others (Weick, 1995), metaphors
play a valuable role in validating some accounts and discrediting others. For
example, when pediatric cardiac surgery staff at the Bristol Royal Infirmary
organized their sensemaking around the metaphor of a “learning curve”
(Weick & Sutcliffe, 2003), this served to justify their consistently poor perform-
ance (Cornelissen, 2012). As Cornelissen (2012) shows in his study of corpor-
ate communications professionals, sensemakers’ use of metaphors varies
depending on factors such as their role-situated commitments (commitment
to carrying out certain activities as part of a professional role) and the salience
of others’ expectations about them. When role-situated commitment is high
and the salience of others’ expectations low, individuals make sense of an
event by blending metaphors to prescribe a course of action; when the opposite
is true, they use single metaphors that align with others’ expectations. Criti-
cally, this work reveals how sensemakers’ use of discursive devices such as
metaphor shifts significantly depending on their relationship to the issue in
question and their audience.
Another set of work focuses on the situated nature of key discursive prac-
tices to highlight the importance of the sociocultural context for meaning
Sensemaking in Organizations
construction in organizations (Rouleau, 2005; Rouleau & Balogun, 2011). In
their research on middle managers, for example, Rouleau and Balogun
(2011) identify and explore the managerial activity of “performing the conver-
sation”, which involves formal and informal conversations with those within
and outside the organization to draw them into managers’ agendas. Critical
to this activity is “setting the scene”, a set of practices through which managers
create the context for the conversation: bui lding networks of relevant parties,
bringing the right people together for particular occasions, and building a per-
sonal image as a partner or spokesperson for an issue to facilitate future scene
setting. To engage in these practices successfully, middle managers need an
understanding of the sociocultural context that allows them to use appropriate
language, emotional displays, and attitudes in connecting to stakeholders.
Sense is thus made and influences others not just through language but
through an appreciation of its situated nature: “the combination of language
use in particular settings with particular stakeholder groups” (Rouleau &
Balogun, 2011, p. 975). The importance of situated discursive practices is
also prominent in Rouleau’s (2005) analysis of micro-practices of sensemaking,
which reveals how actors continually (and often unconsciously) modify prac-
tices within their daily routines and conversations so that their interpretations
of change resonate with their audiences and fit the changing context.
What is the role of action in sensemaking? Weick asserts that action is an
integral part of sensemaking—that is, we know the world by taking action and
seeing what happens next. As he writes, “Cognition lies in the path of action.
Action precedes cognition and focuses cognition” (Weick, 1988, p. 307). First,
actions are important because they create more raw ingredients for sensemak-
ing by generating stimuli or cues: people can quickly learn more about a situ-
ation by taking action and paying attention to the cues generated by that action
(Weick, 1988). Second, used more deliberately, actions can also test provisional
understanding generated through prior sensemaking. For instance, Rudolph
et al. (2009) described how medical residents took action to gather more infor-
mation to help rule in or out plausible explanations for a patient’s medical con-
dition. Action and cognition are thus recursively linked: action serves as fodder
for new sensemaking, while simultaneously providing feedback about the sense
that has already been made. Third, actions shape the environment for sense-
making. This is because the same actions that help people make sense of
what is happening can also alter what people encounter and, consequently,
change the very situation that prompted sensemaking in the first place. The
reciprocal influence between action and the environment during sensemaking
is known as enactment, or “the process in which organization members create a
stream of events that they pay attention to” Orton (2000, p. 231). Enactment is
one of the aspects that differentiates sensemaking from interpretation. Enact-
ment is premised on the idea that people play a key role in creating the
The Academy of Management Annals
environment in which they find themselves (Orton, 2000; Weick, 1979, 1988,
1995, 2003; Weick et al., 2005). As Weick (1988) observes, “People who act in
organizations often produce structures, constraints, and opportunities that
were not there before they took action” (p. 306).
In this section, we focus on three streams of research that have expanded
and extended our understanding of the roles of action and enactment in sen-
semaking. First, research on enactment during crises and unexpected events
(Shrivastava, 1987; Weick, 1988, 1990, 2010) illustrates the trade-offs involved
in taking action, which is necessary to generate more information but,
especially in hazardous and rapidly changing situations, can alter the environ-
ment for sensemaking in unexpected ways. Second, research on temporary
organizations (Bechky, 2006; Bigley & Roberts, 2001) provides concrete
examples of how people can enact structures in their environment that facili-
tate sensemaking, highlighting the importance of role structures for shaping
ongoing action and meaning making. Third, an emerging group of studies at
a more macro-level shows an effect of actions generated through organizational
member and observer sensemaking that extends well beyond the organiz-
ational boundary (Danneels, 2003; Porac et al., 1989; Weber & Glynn, 2006).
i) Crises and unexpected events. Individuals and teams managing
crises or unexpected events are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, hazar-
dous and rapidly unfolding situations are difficult to comprehend, so people
want to gather more information to determine the most appropriate action.
On the other hand, the demands of the situation often require them to take
action with incomplete information. For instance, health care providers in
the emergency department frequently care for patients who have an altered
mental state (i.e. have dementia or have taken drugs) or who are completely
unable to communicate (i.e. are unconscious) yet must still quickly diagnose
and treat those patients with limited information (Christianson & Sutcliffe,
2009). Taking action during crisis thus involves a trade-off between “dangerous
action which produces understanding and safe inaction which produces con-
fusion” (Weick, 1988, p. 305).
The degree to which and the way in which actions shape the emerging crisis
depends, in part, on how much agency actors have, how much interdepen-
dency and differentiation (LaPorte & Consolini, 1991) exists in the system,
and how tightly or loosely coupled the system is (Orton & Weick, 1990;
Weick, 1976 ). Enactment is complicated in loosely coupled systems. Tight
coupling implies close and interdependent relationships between elements in
a system—a change in one part of the system leads to a predictable change
in another part. In loose coupling, the relationships between interdependent
elements are much more difficult to discern and changes in one part of the
system have a much less predictable effect on other parts of the system. Enact-
ment gets even more unpredictable in complex systems, where effects can be
Sensemaking in Organizations
delayed and small actions can result in big and often surprising consequences.
For example, during the 1997 merger of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific
railroads, a decision was made to centralize classification (the process of receiv-
ing and dispatching trains to various U.S. destinations) to Houston’s main rail
yard. This seemingly small change of moving classification from two rail yards
just outside of Houston to the main rail yard in Houston set off a cascade of
events: trains began to back up the next day, eventually gridlocking the rail
system all the way back to Chicago (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001).
Early actions in a crisis “do more than set the tone; they determine the tra-
jectory of the crisis” (Weick, 1988, p. 309). Weick’s (1988) study of Bhopal is a
classic example of how early actions (taking a tea break) and inactions
(explaining away and failing to investigate an elevated pressure gauge
reading) can worsen an unfolding crisis: as action was delayed, the toxic gas
continued to build up, culminating in an explosion that released the gas over
an extensive area, killing thousands. Many of th e ways in which action con-
strains future sensemaking are heightened during a crisis. For example, we
know th at people are much more likely to be committed to the explanations
they have created to justify actions they have taken when their actions are
public, volitional, and irrevocable (Salancik, 1977b). During a crisis, actions
become much more public and irrevocable, strengthening commitment at pre-
cisely the time that flexibility and improvisation are required.
ii) Temporary organizations. In sensemaking, people must enact
order into chaos (Weick et al., 2005, p. 411). Research on forming or collapsing
organizations brings attention to the ways in which action creates structures
that facilitate sensemaking. Organizations are always in the process of being
created and re-created (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002) but this is especially true in
temporary organizations, where nothing exists until organizing takes place.
Film crews or emergency response teams are classic examples of temporary
organizations, which are formed on an ad hoc basis and bring together individ-
uals with specialized skills to work interdependently to address a complex chal-
lenge or task (Baker & Faulkner, 1991; Bechky, 2006; Goodman & Goodman,
1976; Meyerson, Weick, & Kramer, 1996). Role structures have emerged as a
critical component of organizing under conditions of high ambiguity or uncer-
tainty, including temporary organizations (Bechky, 2006; Bigley & Roberts,
2001; Meyerson et al., 1996). When role structures and groups disintegrate,
panic can ensue, leading to the subsequent collapse of sensemaking (Weick,
1993). Below, we examine several ways that actors within temporary organiz-
ations can enact different types of role structures that facilitate sensemaking.
Large-scale emergencies—such as wildland fires, natural disasters, and
multi-casualty accidents—require many different types of emergency respon-
ders to come together, make sense of an evolving situation, and swiftly coordi-
nate their actions to address the crisis. For example, Bigley and Roberts (2001)
The Academy of Management Annals
studied how the incident command system (ICS) was used by a large California
fire agency to coordinate responses to forest fires. Although the ICS was
characterized by a hierarchical organizational structure with extensive rules,
procedures, and policies (Bigley & Roberts, 2001), it also offered exceptional
flexibility in highly variable circumstances. For instance, within this clearly
defined system, personnel could switch from one role to another as necessary,
and authority migrated to those possessing the relevant expertise to address
emergencies. Thus, the ICS—highly structured but inherently flexible—offers
a structure that facilitates sensemaking, freeing actors from having to make
sense of how to coordinate among themselves so that they can devote more
resources to understanding the evolving situation.
An alternate model of flexible organizing is found in film crews that enact a
role structure that facilitates sensemaking and coordination. Although film
crews face different challenges than wildland fire crews, both types of tempor-
ary organizations require an ever-changing cast of team members, many of
whom have never met, to make sense of and work together on a high-stakes,
time-pressured task. Film crews must also manage unexpected events—for
example, scripts re-written during filming, or accidents on set that delay pro-
duction (Bechky, 2006). But, in contrast to the ICS model, where the role struc-
ture is imposed as an organizational framework, film crews negotiate role
structures through a set of social practices, such as thanking, admonishing,
and joking, that reinforce expectations about acceptable behaviors associated
with roles. This continuous reinforcement of role expectations created and
maintained a role structure that was stable for the duration of a particular
project and served as a resource for future projects. Like the ICS, the clear
role structure enacted by the film crews facilitates sensemaking and the man-
agement of emergent challenges.
iii) Markets, fields, and institutions. Since the seminal writing of the
1980s prompted management scholars to think about the enacted nature of
organizational environments (Daft & Weick, 1984; Smircich & Stubbart,
1985), a growing number of studies have revealed how actions stakeholders
take as part of their sensemaking help construct the operating environments
of their organizations. For example, Anand and Peterson (2000) and Anand
and Watson (2004) have shown how fields evolve and markets are enacted
when groups of actors participate in activities that create certain sets of
meaning. This research finds that actors in the commercial music industry
are motivated to participate when their joint attention is drawn to sensegiving
devices such as market information regimes (e.g. Billboard magazine’s Hot 100
chart) or award ceremonies (e.g. the Grammy award) that provide important
cues for sensemaking and a focal point for interaction about these cues.
Initially, these cues allow participants to make sense of the performance of
different products, but in making resource allocation decisions based on
Sensemaking in Organizations
these data, they enact a market that determines the commercial success of these
and future products by the same artists.
Focusing on the role of the media, Kennedy’s (2008) study of emerging
markets shows how news stories and press releases published about “not-
yet-legitimate” firms enable the construction of a new market category
through “market sensemaking”. Specifically, he finds that the media con-
structed the market of computer workstations through the 1980s by discur-
sively connecting early entrants to a small number of other new entrants.
This helped audiences to make sense of what these little known firms did,
creating the impression of a “sensible”, emerging category. Furthermore, the
new firms themselves then continued to enact the category as it was recognized,
reducing references made to the rivals in their press releases.
Santos and Eisenhardt (2009) also examine the construction of a new
market, pointing to the proactive role of entrepreneurs in “claiming” a
market. In their study of nascent technology firms in Silicon Valley, these
authors reveal important identity-based sensegiving activities, such as disse-
minating stories and signaling leadership in a field, that entrepreneurs use
to construct a market for which their firms are seen as cognitive referents.
This analysis reveals how institutional entrepreneurship can occur as a sen-
semaking process in which individual firms that are peripheral to the insti-
tutional field can enact new markets which they ultimately come to
dominate. While institutional entrepreneurs can enact and subsequently
dominate new markets, they can also destroy them. Such was the case of
Washington Mutual, the bank that sought to become “the Walmart of
banks” through its high-risk subprime loan business (Grind, 2012).
Through a sequence of rapid acquisitions and increasingly poor lending
practices, Washington Mutual ended up as the largest bank failure in Amer-
ican history, undermining the legitimacy of the category of high volume,
low-barrier lending banks.
Nigam and Ocasio’s (2010) study of Clinton’s health care reform proposal
explores sensemaking and the enactment of a new institutional logic. This
event grabbed attention and triggered “environmental sensemaking”, a
process in which actors made sense not only of a triggering event (the health
care reform proposal), but also of the organizational field at large (U.S. hospi-
tals). Their study shows distinct shifts in how field actors talked about the
health care sector between the early- and mid-1990s, prior to Clinton’s elec-
tion, arguing for political reform to address the systemic breakdown of the
sector, but later constructing a narrative in which these problems had largely
been addresse d by market-driven reforms and the growth of a managed care
system. Furthermore, we see how the term “managed care”, initially associated
with a specific organizational form, came to define the logic of the entire field,
symbolizing the organizing principles for relationships between hospitals and a
variety of other institutional actors.
The Academy of Management Annals
Danneels’ (2003) research on the apparel industry adds nuance to this lit-
erature by exploring the implications of loose and tight coupling on enactment
at the field level. Examining enactment at the interface between the firm and
customers at a wide variety of apparel retailers, Danneels shows how a firm’s
interpretations of its customers’ responses to its retail mix led the firm to
become increasingly customer-oriented, gradually adjusting its mix to better
fit its customers. While this enactment cycle appears advantageous, the study
reveals the problems caused as the cycle grew increasingly tightly coupled,
with firms becoming more and more committed to core customers to the
exclusion of other potential customers. The study thus suggests the benefit
of balancing tight coupling (to understand core customer needs) with loose
coupling (to expand the customer base and remain responsive to marketplace
changes) in the enactment process. This work offers a particularly clear
example of Weick’s (1988) observation that, through enactment, organizations
create the environments that then constrain them.
What Does Sensemaking Accomplish?
One of the significant ways in which sensemaking research has influenced
organization studies is through work that shows how sensemaking enables
other important organizational processes and outcomes. Here, we focus on
three prominent bodies of research: those linking organizational sensemaking
to strategic change (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Gioia et al., 1994; Nag et al.,
2007; Yu et al., 2005), organizational learning (Christianson et al., 2009; Col-
ville, Hennestad, & Thoner, 2013; Haas, 2006; Kayes, 2004; Thomas,
Sussman, & Henderson, 2001), and innovation and creativity (Drazin et al.,
1999; Hill & Levenhagen, 1995; Jay, 2013; Ravasi & Turati, 2005). While sen-
semaking has been linked to a variety of other outcomes (Conway & Briner,
2002; Gioia & Thomas, 1996; Morgeson, 2005; Roberson, 2006), these three
bodies of research are particularly intriguing because they show that sensemak-
ing, which is often thought of as an ordering force, also facilitates processes that
require the disruption of order.
Strategic change. Earlier, we explored planned change interve ntions as
triggers for sensemaking. The relationshi p between change and sensemaking
is recursive, however, such that sensemaking by leaders and others also accom-
plishes strategic change. When leaders are successful in influencing the sense-
making of organizational members, these individuals are motivated to make
changes in their own roles and practices; they are also able to help others by
explaining the vision and co-constructing ways of working that are consistent
with it (Corley & Gioia, 2004; Denis et al., 1996; Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991).
Middle managers’ interpretations and actions are also critical in translating
high level aspirations into local changes that underpin the vision and keep
Sensemaking in Organizations
business going during the transition (Balogun, 2003; Balogun & Johnson, 2004,
2005). Actors thus create a new organizational order through sensemaking
about structures and strategies that offer a plausible response to environmental
changes; they also use sensegiving to convince others of the value of these
changes and to explain how they can be implemented. Helms Mills (2003)
adds another layer to our understanding of sensemaking in strategic change
by highlighting the influence of interpersonal, sociocultural, and institutional
contexts for sensemaking. Explaining the reasons behind the introduction of
different change initiatives at a Canadian utility company and actors’ different
accounts of the same events, Helms Mills develops a model of sensemaking in
organizational change that acknowledges the impact of power differe ntials
among individuals. She shows that while sensemaking is the process through
which new ways of thinking and acting become incorporated in organizations,
the accounts that dominate and the practices that become accepted are pro-
ducts of negotiations undertaken in structures that privilege some actors
over others.
When sensemaking or sensegiving fail, so too may a change initiative. In a
longitudinal study of a post-merger integration process in a large health care
system (Yu et al., 2005), the sensemaking by the focal unit’s senior team was
misdirected, with serious consequences. Over a period of several years, this
team became preoccupied with making sense of internal administrative and
integration issues, devoting little time to the challenge of external inte-
gration—that is, integration with other units within the health care system.
As a result, problems deriving from unreso lved external integration issues con-
tinued to distract them from improving patient care, which was the organiz-
ation’s core function, and a primary driver of the change initiative.
Evidently, change programs can consume much energy with little positive
gain when powerful sensemakers focus their attention on too narrow a set of
cues. We also see the impact of failed sensemaking in Nag et al.’s (2007)
study of an R&D organization where members were so invested in their under-
standings of what the organization was and in practices that supported that
identity that it proved impossible to make the planned transformation to a
market-oriented firm. In contrast, leaders’ success in enabling a shared under-
standing of the need for change in an organization can prove problematic when
priorities subsequently shift. This is evident in Mantere et al.’s (2012) study of
the Nordic public sector organization in which employees struggled to con-
struct a return to the status quo as positive after a proposed merger was
called off.
Research thus shows that sensemaking at all levels of the organization is sig-
nificant in producing (or inhibiting) change: when leaders are able to influence
others to understand the future in ways consistent with their redefined reality,
strategic change is instigated and can progress through cycles of leader and
member sensemaking. In this way, sensemaking is used to create a new
The Academy of Management Annals
order in the form of a guiding vision and new meanings for organizational
members. However, when deterrents to sensemaking exist in the form of
deeply embedded practices, sticky prior accounts, or top team attention that
is focuse d on alternative issues, organizations struggle to engage a deep and
lasting change process.
Learning. Sensemaking is also an important process for learning in organ-
izations, teams, and individuals. Several studies examine high risk or crisis con-
texts, where sensemaking is critical to learning from error. Christianson et al.
(2009), for example, found that leaders’ sensemaking in response to the sudden
collapse of the roof of the B&O Museum onto priceless exhibits facilitated
learning by reducing the ambiguity generated by the collapse, and by updating
members’ understandings of the organization’s weaknesses and unrealized
potential. This allowed the revision and strengthening of important organiz-
ational routines to better equip the organization for the future. Studies of air
force pilots also reveal the value of sensemaking for learning fro m error
(Catino & Patriotta, 2013; Ron, Lipshitz, & Popper, 2006). Catino and Patriot-
ta’s (2013) study of sensemaking in the Italian Air Force shows that the
meaning pilots make of events leading to in-flight problems is fundamental
to their learning, affecting whether and how they detect, report, and correct
future errors. Ron et al. (2006) emphasize the importance of sensemaking
oriented toward issues rather than individuals in after-flight reviews, maintain-
ing the psychological safety that enables team learning. Kayes (2004) examined
sensemaking in a case of a breakdown in team learning, in the 1996 Everest
disaster in which eight climbers died. This occurred, he found, partly
because of the climbers’ failure to appreciate the ambiguity of the situation,
continuing to work on the basis of prior beliefs rather than engage in sense-
making on the basis of new information.
A second set of studies has focused on the role of sensemaking in learning in
more conventional contexts. For example, Haas’ (2006) research on teams
working in highly political, ambiguous, knowledge-intensive settings found
higher performance for teams operating in conditions that enhanced their sen-
semaking capabilities (slack time, autonomy, and work experience). When
these teams were not able to engage in sensemaking about the knowledge
they had gathered, they failed to learn from it. This, Haas (2006) argues, is par-
ticularly significant in knowledge-intensive work settings, where there is often
an abundance of problems and solutions, making it difficult not only to know
which solutions are best, but also which problems are most important. In such
uncertain contexts, team sensemaking about the material gathered and options
available becomes critical. At the individual level, Ravasi and Turati’s (2005)
study of entrepreneurs found that sensemaking plays a vital role in the learning
process that underlies innovation in entrepreneurial technology ventures. Con-
sistent with research on expertise and problem solving (Day & Lord, 1992;
Sensemaking in Organizations