The Magic of Sensemaking

By | April 19, 2021

Really, there’s no other way to say this but Weick (Weick, 2011) here is clearly struggling to express in words his song of magic that he’s perceived in the decades spent in sensemaking and its power.

After all, if indeed the Kalevala highlights the core aspect of Finnish magic from the time before writing, when the word for writing was patternmaking, then one cannot help but arrive at the conclusion – not a leap without looking, mind you – but the clearly demarcated path from ‘knower’ – the shaman, the tietaja – whose power lay bound up in his ability to know the origins of things and thus chant magical incantations leading to change and transformation based on this knowledge. What would this magical power be without the seer’s inner eye and an innate gift for sensemaking in the form of evocative narratives – the runot – the word song of the Finnish peoples?

Did not the powerful words of the Kalevala’s magic unfreeze language and meaning in word songs for me almost exactly one month ago when I began to struggle with written words again as a way to make sense of chaos and confusion characterized by silence?

Who then is the change agent and who the poet in this transformation journey?

Clearly, Weick inspired change agents in stodgy academic journals and organizations alike with his words. And I am not the first to use the word shaman in this context. Waddock (2015) goes as far as to frame sensemaking in the ancient language of magic and healing, medicine men and women, the shaman or the witchdoctor, the label is immaterial. I quote her below the image:

“If we hope to create Large System Change (LSC) and are thinking about it holistically, then I strongly believe that focus needs to be paid to the memes that shape perceptions of reality, beliefs, values, and norms, and ultimately behaviours. In this foundational change context, there is a need for some people to assume the role of shaman – and in particular the intellectual shaman who provides new and compelling sensemaking (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005) that allows those perceptions, beliefs, and ultimately behaviours to change. Intellectual (and other types of) shamans, I believe, serve in this capacity through the sensemaking role of the shaman in generating and (re-)shaping memes. (Waddock, 2015)
“I argue that as academics who wish to foster a better (healed) world in one way or another, we can and need to take on the three central roles of the shaman: healer, connector, and sensemaker (Egri & Frost,1991; Frost & Egri,1994; Waddock, 2015).

Here, however, I want to argue in the context of LSC, the role of the sensemaker becomes a primary one, since it is sensemaking that constructs, changes, or reshapes memes that is core to whether a system changes in the desired direction. (Waddock, 2015)

I came to these reflections – writings on thinking and sensing/feelings – almost immediately in the search for literature linking agency and empowerment to sensemaking. I can only say the serendipity of the convergence of my own journey on this blog with the literature I have literally stumbled over is in its own way, a form of word magic. I will review the more pragmatic papers in another post, and let the poets and the mystics and magic remain standing still for a moment here.


Maitlis, S. and Christianson, M., 2014. Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), pp.57-125.

Vanderlinden, J.P., Baztan, J., Chouinard, O., Cordier, M., Da Cunha, C., Huctin, J.M., Kane, A., Kennedy, G., Nikulkina, I., Shadrin, V. , Surette, C., Thiaw, D., and Thomson, K., 2020. Meaning in the face of changing climate risks: Connecting agency, sensemaking and narratives of change through transdisciplinary research. Climate Risk Management, 29, p.100224.

Waddock, S.. 2015. Reflections: Intellectual shamans, sensemaking, and memes in large system change. Journal of Change Management, 15(4), 259-273.

Weick, K. E., 2011. Reflections: Change agents as change poets–On reconnecting flux and hunches. Journal of Change Management, 11(1), 7-20.

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