On Monday morning March 18, 2019 a terrorist opened fire inside a tram in the middle of the city of Utrecht. A key challenge in the Utrecht attack was making sense of the situation and organizing a coherent response in a distributed command and control structure. This is a recurrent challenge in crisis management. As command structures expand, sensemaking becomes distributed when groups at different locations develop partial images of a complex environment. While most sensemaking studies focus on how specific groups attempt to collectively construct a plausible representation of the situation, few accounts of distributed sensemaking have appeared. This study explains how crisis managers made sense of the volatile situation across different command structures. Twenty-five crisis managers from different teams were interviewed by making use of the critical decision methodology. The analysis points to five factors that influence the quality of distributed sensemaking: type of interdependence, sensitivity to operations, plausibility, hierarchy, and identity. It signals that updating one’s sensemaking does not only require noticing discrepant cues but is especially related to key social-cognitive and organisational processes that stimulate doubt, questioning, and a plurality of perspectives.
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