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Buzzword Breakdown: Sense & Respond

In a recent push for Organizations to become more adaptive, there’s been a buzz about “Sense and Respond”. As with most buzzwords, this one has been widely misunderstood so let’s break it down so we can glean some value from it.

Why do we need Sense & Respond? The traditional model of “Predict and Plan'' can't keep up with today’s business environment. The term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) describes the conditions we need to manage in the modern world.

Consider this scenario: A customer service rep at your company hears that your competitor is about to launch a new product that threatens your market share.

The steps above outline a perfect, sunny day scenario in many companies. Some of these steps can take a long time, or become blocked. Most of the steps are ad-hoc, relying on the heroics of the person who happens to be the sensor and stumble upon the information.

When an organization can effectively Sense and Respond it looks like many moving parts, all responding at once and yet in seamless coordination with each other. It’s an emergent advancement that takes on its own shape, like starlings forming a murmur.

Let’s look at some definitions:

Sense: The act of bringing information into a system.

Sensors: The actors that bring information into a system (sense). Sensors can be:

  • Internal, External

  • People, Technology

  • Any of the 6 senses – includes Intuition

Examples of sensors:

  • Information salespeople and customer service reps learn from customers. (external, people)

  • Data gathered from a website. (external, technology)

  • Employee sentiment from surveys. (internal, people, technology)

Respond: Anything the system does with the information it senses. (Ignore, Monitor, React)

Examples of responses:

  • Launch a project

  • Gather more information

  • Communicate a stance

  • Change a policy

  • Pivot, either long term or at the moment

“The &”: Ah! I surprised you with that one, didn’t I? The “&” is the hardest part of Sense and Respond. You can sense, and you can respond, but if you can’t seamlessly move what you sense into a response, you’ll falter in a VUCA environment. We’ll get into some detail here about the “&”.

The “&” consists of 2 activities:

  • Sensemaking - What we notice and how we give meaning to our collective experiences. Habitual (unconscious) habits/patterns/mindsets of that ‘filter’ out information.

  • Connection to the response - Companies can’t get the information they sense, mobilized for a response.

The Sense and Respond Canvas

The canvas below is the basic thinking tool for Sense & Respond. Copy the detailed canvas below, including prompts.

Identity as a Lens. There is an overwhelming amount of information available to us today. So how do we, as an organization, sort through it all, winnow it down, and focus so we know what to sense for, how to filter through it, and ultimately how to respond?

The primary lens to create context is Identity. The first step when embarking on a sense & respond journey is to answer the following questions:

  • What is your Organization’s Identity?

  • What changes are we sensing for?

Getting clarity on “who we are” drives filtering criteria. When we know who we are, as an organization, we can then decide what to sense for.

Once the organization has some clarity on who they are, we can move into sensing.

Sensors. As defined earlier, sensors are anything that brings information into the system. The Sense & Respond Canvas prompts us to ask:

  • What questions are shaping our organization and our narrative?

  • What new questions are emerging?

  • How are we gathering information? (i.e., what sensors are we using?)

  • What else might we sense for?

  • What sensors do we need to add?

There’s a balance between being focused on what we want to sense, and also being open to emergent information. Though we need to filter to avoid overwhelm, be mindful not to dismiss disconfirming information as “noise”. When information doesn’t fit your current paradigm, it’s worth getting curious about. Outliers can be “noise” but “noise” can also be a signal.

“Acknowledge the noise and use it as a data point but be careful how much energy we spend reacting to it.” - Cultivating Transformations, Jardena London

Sense-Making. When the sensors have picked up information, it’s tempting to jump to action. After all, we’ve been taught that “bias for action” is a virtue. But as Peter Drucker points out, it’s wasted effort if you shouldn’t be doing it at all. One of the hardest parts of sense-making is to stay in it without prematurely jumping to action.

"There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." -- Peter F. Drucker

There is a step of sense-making that happens before we respond to information. This is where filtering comes in, and the opportunity to recognize and question our biases.

The Sense & Respond Canvas guides us through sense-making with these questions:

  • What cues (information) does the organization pay attention to?

  • How does the organization make sense of new information?

  • How does the organization avoid falling into Habit Traps?

  • Is there clarity on what to do with new information when it arrives?

  • What tensions are at play during sense-making?

This critical step is the absolute key to creating adaptive and responsive organizations. It is also the step missed by most. Inject a little sense-making into your organization, and you’ll propel yourself ahead of your competitors.

Connection. Once sense-making happens, how do we get from sense-making to response? This is the second-most common spot where organizations get tripped up. It is critical to build a clear path for the information to convert into action. When the path is ad-hoc, energy is wasted in forging new ground, each time. Clear a path so the response can happen quickly.

Use these questions from the Sense & Respond Canvas, to help guide you in creating Connection:

  • How does the organization get information into action?

  • What blocks information from getting put into action?

  • What connective tissue can be added or removed to improve flow?

The connection step is key in moving from information to action. Without this step, great insights can be squandered.

Response. Most organizations have structures for taking action. The question is, do these structures support responsiveness? Do we become nimble at sensing only to find out that there’s a 2 year queue to take action? Sensing without being able to respond is a waste of energy. “Handing off” the insights to another team who doesn’t appreciate the impact of the response, is a typical pitfall.

When working through the Sense & Respond Canvas, use these questions to uncover opportunities to tune the response process.

  • How does the organization respond today?

  • What tensions are at play in crafting a response?

  • Is there a feedback structure in place during and after the response?

  • Does the org adapt based on the response?

Scenario using Sense & Respond.

The traditional path naturally uses “Sense & Respond” even if without realizing it. The key is to make these steps intentional and repeatable. For example, step #3, “Creating a meeting with Senior Management” can take forever, never happen, and often occurs through relationship and charm. Creating a forum where information is shared and made sense of, puts intentionality behind sense-making.

Conclusion. Organizations that get really clear on their Sense & Respond flow will reap huge rewards. The Sense & Respond Canvas guides you through the process.

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