I first discovered Systems Thinking in Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline”, when I was studying for my Masters in Adult Education. It’s one of the most thumbed books on my bookshelf!
Peter Senge’s vision of a learning organization is a group of people who are continually enhancing their capabilities to create what they want to create.
Peter Senge was named a ‘Strategist of the Century’ by the Journal of Business Strategy, one of 24 men and women who have ‘had the greatest impact on the way we conduct business today’ (September/October 1999). Born in 1947, he graduated in engineering from Stanford and then went on to undertake a masters on social systems modeling at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) before completing his PhD on Management.
He is founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL). His areas of special interest focus on decentralizing the role of leadership in organizations so as to enhance the capacity of all people to work productively toward common goals. SoL is part of a ‘global community of corporations, researchers, and consultants’ dedicated to discovering, integrating, and implementing ‘theories and practices for the interdependent development of people and their institutions’.
As well as writing The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990), Peter Senge has also co-authored a number of other books linked to the themes first developed in The Fifth Discipline. These include The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization (1994); The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations (1999) and Schools That Learn (2000).
The learning organisation
For Peter Senge, real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We become able to re-create ourselves. This applies to both individuals and organisations. Thus, for a ‘learning organisation it is not enough to survive. ‘”Survival learning” or what is more often termed “adaptive learning” is important – indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organisation, “adaptive learning” must be joined by “generative learning”, learning that enhances our capacity to create’ (Senge 1990:14).
According to Peter Senge (1990: 3) learning organisations are:
…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.
The basic rationale for such organisations is that in situations of rapid change only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to happen, he argues, organisations need to ‘discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels’ (ibid.: 4).
While all people have the capacity to learn, the structures in which they have to function are often not conducive to reflection and engagement. Furthermore, people may lack the tools and guiding ideas to make sense of the situations they face. Organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their future require a fundamental shift of mind among their members.
When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It become quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.
The dimension that distinguishes learning from more traditional organizations is the mastery of certain basic disciplines or ‘component technologies’. The five that Peter Senge identifies are said to be converging to innovate learning organizations. They are:
- Systems thinking
- Personal mastery
- Mental models
- Building shared vision
- Team learning
He adds to this recognition that people are agents, able to act upon the structures and systems of which they are a part. All the disciplines are, in this way, ‘concerned with a shift of mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future’ (Senge 1990: 69).
Systems thinking – the cornerstone of the learning organization
A great virtue of Peter Senge’s work is the way in which he puts systems theory to work. The Fifth Discipline provides a good introduction to the basics and uses of such theory – and the way in which it can be brought together with other theoretical devices in order to make sense of organisational questions and issues. Systemic thinking is the conceptual cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of his approach. It is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. Systems theory’s ability to comprehend and address the whole, and to examine the interrelationship between the parts provides both the incentive and the means to integrate the disciplines.
Senge argues that one of the key problems with much that is written about, and done in the name of management, is that rather simplistic frameworks are applied to what are complex systems. We tend to focus on the parts rather than seeing the whole, and to fail to see organization as a dynamic process. Thus, the argument runs, a better appreciation of systems will lead to more appropriate action.
With regard to organisations, Senge argues ‘We learn best from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions’ . We tend to think that cause and effect will be relatively near to one another. Thus when faced with a problem, it is the ‘solutions’ that are close by that we focus upon.We look to actions that produce improvements in a relatively short time span. However, when viewed in systems terms, short-term improvements often involve very significant long-term costs. For example, cutting back on research and design can bring very quick cost savings, but can severely damage the long-term viability of an organisation. Part of the problem is the nature of the feedback we receive. Some of the feedback will be reinforcing (or amplifying) – with small changes building on themselves. ‘Whatever movement occurs is amplified, producing more movement in the same direction. A small action snowballs, with more and more and still more of the same, resembling compound interest’ . Thus, we may cut our advertising budgets, see the benefits in terms of cost savings, and in turn further trim spending in this area. In the short run there may be little impact on people’s demands for our goods and services, but longer term the decline in visibility may have severe penalties. An appreciation of systems will lead to recognition of the use of, and problems with, such reinforcing feedback, and also an understanding of the place of balancing (or stabilizing) feedback. Another key aspect of systems is the extent to which they inevitably involve delays – ‘interruptions in the flow of influence which make the consequences of an action occur gradually’.
Peter Senge concludes:
The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view. That’s why delays and feedback loops are so important. In the short term, you can often ignore them; they’re inconsequential. They only come back to haunt you in the long term.
He advocates the use of ‘systems maps’ – diagrams that show the key elements of systems and how they connect. However, people often have a problem ‘seeing’ systems, and it takes work to acquire the basic building blocks of systems theory, and to apply them to your organization. On the other hand, failure to understand system dynamics can lead us into ‘cycles of blaming and self-defense: the enemy is always out there, and problems are always caused by someone else’.
The core disciplines
Alongside systems thinking, there are four other ‘component technologies’ or disciplines. A ‘discipline’ is viewed by Peter Senge as a series of principles and practices that we study, master and integrate into our lives. Each discipline provides a vital dimension. Each is necessary to the others if organizations are to ‘learn’.
- Personal mastery. ‘Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs’ (Senge 1990: 139). Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively’ (ibid.: 7). It goes beyond competence and skills, although it involves them. It goes beyond spiritual opening, although it involves spiritual growth (ibid.: 141). Mastery is seen as a special kind of proficiency. It is not about dominance, but rather about calling. Vision is vocation rather than simply just a good idea.
People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward’.
- Mental models. These are ‘deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action’. We are often not that aware of the impact of such assumptions etc. on our behaviour – and, thus, a fundamental part of our task is to develop the ability to reflect-in- and –on-action.
The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.
- Building shared vision. Senge starts from the position that if any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, ‘it’s the capacity to hold a share picture of the future we seek to create’. Such a vision has the power to be uplifting – and to encourage experimentation and innovation. Crucially, it is argued, it can also foster a sense of the long-term, something that is fundamental to the ‘fifth discipline’.
When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to. But many leaders have personal visions that never get translated into shared visions that galvanize an organization… What has been lacking is a discipline for translating vision into shared vision – not a ‘cookbook’ but a set of principles and guiding practices.
The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance. In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt.
Visions spread because of a reinforcing process. Increased clarity, enthusiasm and commitment rub off on others in the organization. ‘As people talk, the vision grows clearer. As it gets clearer, enthusiasm for its benefits grow’ (ibid.: 227). There are ‘limits to growth’ in this respect, but developing the sorts of mental models outlined above can significantly improve matters. Where organizations can transcend linear and grasp system thinking, there is the possibility of bringing vision to fruition.
- Team learning. Such learning is viewed as ‘the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire’ . It builds on personal mastery and shared vision – but these are not enough. People need to be able to act together. When teams learn together, Peter Senge suggests, not only can there be good results for the organization, members will grow more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise.
The discipline of team learning starts with ‘dialogue’, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’. To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing if meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually…. [It] also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning.
When dialogue is joined with systems thinking, Senge argues, there is the possibility of creating a language more suited for dealing with complexity, and of focusing on deep-seated structural issues and forces rather than being diverted by questions of personality and leadership style.