Global Sensemaking

Tools for Dialogue and Deliberation on Wicked Problems

Sensemaking in Decision Making - summary Phd study



Chapter 1 introduces the research question: How does sense-making develop in the context of decision-making on complex issues in a public organisation? The purpose of the research is to gather insight and to identify improvements in the process of decision-making. This research is important because democracy depends on the trustworthy execution of decisions by the public organisation. The complexity of society and its social problems increase. It is important that the process of decision-making matches the problems the government has to deal with.

The study is carried out around two cases: the decision to build a new subway in Amsterdam, called ‘Noord-Zuidlijn’, and the decision to start a new museum, called the ‘Hermitage aan de Amstel’. The Cynefin methodology is used to describe the level of complexity of the decision-making.

In most cases there is more than just rationality in decision-making in complex situations. Psychological and sociological factors also play an important role, alongside the context of the organisation involved. The theory used in the study reflects this: The concepts of structuration by Anthony Giddens and sense-making by Karl Weick. The aim of doing this is to improve insights in motives and actions from the actors, and to find out if, and how, changes in the structure of decision-making occurs or can be made.

The research methodology has characteristics from both intrinsic and instrumental case-studies. The elements of the methodology are explained: biographical notes from the organisation and the researcher, the usage of data, documentation, literature and interviews. Verifiability and transparency are improved by using these different angles and triangulation. Chapter 1 ends with the explanation of the methodology for analysing the cases.

Chapter 2 contains a biography of the municipality of Amsterdam. The identity of the organisation, the opinions and its values have - more or less consciously - an influence on the considerations and actions of agents. This is also true for the researcher himself. That is the reason why the professional life of Ben Verleg is described in this chapter as well.

Chapter 3 is the heart of the study and describes the case ‘Noord-Zuidlijn’. The first part provides a chronological abstract of occasions. Part 2 and 3 are constructed from three perspectives: the local government, the civil servants and the external experts. Using quotes of interviews, two important milestones are described: the decision to start the project in 2002 and the decision in 2009 to go on.

Chapter 4 analyses the case ‘Noord-Zuidlijn’ using the theory of structuration (Giddens) and the theory of sense-making (Weick). The analysis leads to a number of observations and conclusions about the pattern of decision-making. Although the content in 2009 is different from that in 2002, the way actors act in terms of cause-maps, has not changed.

Chapter 5 describes the case ‘Hermitage aan de Amstel’. After the chronological abstract of occasions, the picture is constructed using examples and quotes from agents in this successful project.

Chapter 6 analyses the case ‘Hermitage aan de Amstel’. The analysis is slightly different from the case ‘Noord-Zuidlijn’ because of the difference in complexity of the decision-making. The analysis is constructed using the theory of structuration (Giddens) and sense-making (Weick) as well.

Both cases are compared on the characteristics of sense-making. Striking is the observation that in the case of  ‘Hermitage’ none of the vagueness arises as seen in ‘Noord-Zuidlijn’. Another evident difference is the way actors act. In the case ‘Hermitage’ problems are seen an opportunity for win-win situations, not as resistance.

In chapter 7 the researcher reflects on the findings of the study. He concludes that not only government, but anybody involved should contribute in making the sense of decisions explicit. The more complex problems are, the greater the need to do so. If not, it is most likely that vagueness remains and that the results will be disappointing to society in the end.

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Tags: decisionmaking, sensemaking

Comment by Steven W. Sequeira on October 28, 2012 at 10:21
Very good thinking and statements, Sir. I'm excited to hear more. Thank you!
Comment by Ben Verleg on January 27, 2013 at 13:51
Thank you. I hope the book will be translated this year. Now I am working on a practical guide.

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