The production and use of material artifacts such as notes, boards, drawings, visual models, and slides facilitate the collective generation of new mental representations of elements of a task and a task environment (products, consumers, needs, lifestyles, meanings, etc.) Davide Ravasi (Department of Management and Technology) finds in Organizing Thoughts and Connecting Brains: Material Practices and the Transition from Individual to Group-Level Prospective Sensemaking (with Ileana Stigliani, Imperial College Business School, forthcoming in Academy of Management Journal).
The study is the result of a 10-month ethnographic field work at a Boston-based design consultancy and 56 formal interviews and provides a rich understanding of how material and conversational practices support collective, future-oriented sensemaking efforts, i.e. the cognitive process which underlies activities, such as product development, strategy making, and entrepreneurship, associated to the planning and initiation of change.
“Sensemaking is commonly understood as a process in which individuals or groups attempt to interpret novel and ambiguous situations”, the authors write. “The process begins when people confront events or tasks that cannot be readily interpreted using available mental structures. Collective sensemaking occurs as individuals exchange provisional understandings and try to agree on consensual interpretation and a course of action”.
As recent literature acknowledged that individuals rely on a variety of material practices and artifacts to support the conversational practices through which they exchange, combine and construct interpretations, Ravasi and Stigliani decided to observe the “extreme case” of a design firm – characterized by a particularly intense use of material artifacts – in order to highlight dynamics that could be relevant, even if less visible, in other settings.
The observation that different material practices were used at different points in time during the collective sensemaking process allowed the researchers to put forward a multi-phase and multi-level (individual, group and inter-group) model, which highlights the cognitive sub-processes that allow actors to gradually combine cues into tentative understanding and to integrate and refine provisional interpretations into a more complex set of interrelated mental structures.
In the Noticing and Bracketing phase individuals extract some stimuli (cues) from the flux of experience for further cognitive work, collecting samples of products, cut-out from magazines and general visual imagery. In the Articulating phase they attempt to bring order to the bracketed cues, combining them into tentative new understandings. Among the material practices adopted at this stage by the designing consultants there are the assemblage of the material cues in boards and project rooms, and the grouping and regrouping of special cards reporting the cues. In the Elaborating phase cognitive work increasingly shifts to the integration of these understandings into more complex mental structures. Elaboration is about connections among the components emerged by the previous phase and occurs mainly during group meetings. The material practices supporting the verbal discussions include visual representations of design attributes, matrixes, graphs and diagrams helping to organize thoughts, collective sketching sessions and the collective preparation of the slides to be used to present consultants’ ideas to the clients. In the Influence phase group-level sensemaking gradually blends into inter-group sensegiving, as group members present their ideas to clients, polishing the storytelling effort which led to the slides.
These observations help the two authors produce a more refined understanding of how materiality influences sensemaking by supporting individual and collective-level cognitive processes associated to the storage, retrieval, integration and elaboration of cues in the development of new concepts.