Sensemaking in Project Management



By Bob Prieto

Jupiter, Florida

This article looks at the Mann Gulch disaster as an analog for how project teams perform when faced with significant and rapidly evolving events. While written from the perspective of engineering and construction projects the lessons are broadly applicable. The concept of sensemaking and its importance when regular processes are overwhelmed is explored and lessons observed and to be learned are framed in the context of engineering and construction projects.


In 1993 Karl E. Weick published a poignant piece on “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.” Subsequently this fire disaster was made famous in Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire[1].” This paper will not provide a full recounting of the events that led to the death of 13 men during the fire but focus on extracting some lessons learned applicable within the complexity of the engineering and construction industry and our largest and most complex projects. The author commends both the original lecture by Weick and Maclean’s book to readers. A reviewed article which provides a foundation for this article represents a good starting point[2].

What drew my attention?

My attention to the Mann Gulch disaster was drawn by the fires ravaging the western United States in 2020/21. In looking at historical context and importantly lessons to be learned that are more broadly applicable, I came to learn of the Mann Gulch disaster. Analogs for dealing with events of scale and their attendant complexity is something which the author has focused on since just before 9/11 and most certainly in its aftermath.

What was the Mann Gulch disaster?

The August 1949 fire began with a lightning strike of a dead tree starting a small fire in the Mann Gulch area of Montana. The fire was spotted the following day and was trending to an explosive potential when a plane-full of smokejumpers were dispatched later in the day. The smokejumpers included former military and forestry students and from the beginning of the response the group encountered unexpected challenges[3]. Of the fifteen smokejumpers and the ranger who they met up with who had been fighting the fire alone, only three survived[4]. The small Class C fire (up to 99 acres) at the time they arrived ultimately engulfed 4,500 acres and took 450 men five days to get under control.

At its most fundamental level the lessons to be learned go to how temporary organizations (projects) can unravel.

What is sensemaking?

Sensemaking is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. Its introduction into organizational studies was intended to shift the focus from decision-making and towards the processes that constitute the meaning of the decisions that are enacted in behavior[5]

Shortly after his original lecture on the Mann Gulch disaster, Weick identified seven properties of sensemaking:

  1. Identity and identification is central – who people think they are in their context shapes what they enact and how they interpret events.
  2. Retrospection provides the opportunity for sensemaking.
  3. People enact the environments they face in dialogues and narratives. As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think; organize their experiences; control and predict events; and reduce complexity in the context of change management.


To read entire paper, click here

How to cite this work: Prieto, R. (2021). Sensemaking in Project Management, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue X, October. Available online https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/pmwj110-Oct2021-Prieto-Sensemaking-in-project-management.pdf

About the Author

Bob Prieto

Chairman & CEO
Strategic Program Management, LLC
Jupiter, Florida, USA


Bob Prieto is a senior executive effective in shaping and executing business strategy and a recognized leader within the infrastructure, engineering and construction industries. Currently Bob heads his own management consulting practice, Strategic Program Management LLC. He previously served as a senior vice president of Fluor, one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world. He focuses on the development and delivery of large, complex projects worldwide and consults with owners across all market sectors in the development of programmatic delivery strategies. He is author of nine books including “Strategic Program Management”, “The Giga Factor: Program Management in the Engineering and Construction Industry”, “Application of Life Cycle Analysis in the Capital Assets Industry”, “Capital Efficiency: Pull All the Levers” and, most recently, “Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects” published by the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) as well as over 800 other papers and presentations.

Bob is an Independent Member of the Shareholder Committee of Mott MacDonald and a member of the board of Dar al Riyadh. He is a member of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council, National Academy of Construction, a Fellow of the Construction Management Association of America and member of several university departmental and campus advisory boards. Bob served until 2006 as a U.S. presidential appointee to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council (ABAC), working with U.S. and Asia-Pacific business leaders to shape the framework for trade and economic growth. He is a member of the Millennium Challenge Corporation advisory board where he had previously served. He had previously served as both as Chairman of the Engineering and Construction Governors of the World Economic Forum and co-chair of the infrastructure task force formed after September 11th by the New York City Chamber of Commerce. Previously, he served as Chairman at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) and a non-executive director of Cardno (ASX)

Bob serves as an honorary global advisor for the PM World Journal and Library and can be contacted at rpstrategic@comcast.net.

To view other works by Bob Prieto, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/bob-prieto/

[1] https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/Y/bo26756813.html
[3] One smokejumper became sick on the turbulent flight and resigned on landing; radio parachute did not open and it was destroyed
[4] Two survived by working in close partnership to find an unlikely way out of the way of the fire. The third, the team leader, had provided direction to the full team to take an unlikely action (setting a small fire and lying down in its ashes, letting the larger fire pass this burned out area) but the prerequisites of a true team and trust in leadership were not present.
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensemaking#:~:text=Sensemaking%20or%20sense%2Dmaking%20is,409