The Fifth Discipline

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At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something "out there" to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.

Peter M. Senge, "The Fifth Discipline"

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According to Peter Senge, an organization needs to practice 5 disciplines to become a learning organization:

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  1. systems thinking,
  2. personal mastery,
  3. mental models,
  4. building shared vision,
  5. team learning

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A discipline is an activity we integrate into our life and continually do.

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Systems Thinking

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Systems thinking is the fifth discipline because it integrates all the others into a coherent body of theory and practices.

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Senge distinguishes 3 levels of explanation when we face a complex situation:

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Systemic Structure (generative) → Patterns of Behavior (responsive) → Events (reactive).

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The third level, System Structure, is the most powerful because when understanding the structure of the system we can change it and generates different patterns of behavior.

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The Laws of the Fifth Discipline

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  1. Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions"
  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
  4. The easy way out usually leads back in.
  5. The cure can be worse than the disease.
  6. Faster is slower.
  7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
  8. Small changes can produce big results—but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
  9. You can have your cake and eat it too—but not at once.
  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
  11. There is no blame.

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Systems Archetypes

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After learning the new language of systems thinking, managers should learn the systems archetypes to be able to quickly recognize complex situation and identify the actions that have the most leverage.

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Limits to Growth

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Shifting the Burden

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When dealing with an issue, managers should be able to give an explanation of the systemic causes and the high and low leverage strategies for dealing with that issue.

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Personal Mastery

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In order to continually grow and learn, we need to create a "creative tension" between a personal vision and a clear picture of current reality.

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In this context, "learning" does no mean acquiring more information but expanding our ability to produce the results we truly want in life by diminishing the gap created by this creative tension.

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Failures then become an opportunity to learn about inaccurate pictures of reality, strategies that didn't work, or about the clarity of the vision.

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A personal vision is different from a purpose. A vision is a clear picture of where we intrinsically want to be. A vision is not an intermediate goal. Always be asking "but for what purpose?" Having this clear picture helps the subconscious prioritizing and focusing.

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A learning organization must create an environment that is safe for people to create visions and be committed to the truth.

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Mental Models

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One goal of the learning organization is to "bring people together to develop the best possible mental models for facing any situation at hand."

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But in order to find those models, we need to balance inquiry and advocacy. The goal is no longer to win the argument but to collectively find the best argument.

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We should learn to see how our mental models affect how we interpret other people's actions and how to show our own reasoning behind our views: "Here is my view and here is how I arrived at it. How does it sound to you?"

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In a sense, when two people operate in pure advocacy, the outcomes are predetermined. Either person A will win, or person B will win, or more likely both will simply retain their views. When there is inquiry and advocacy, these limitations dissolve. Persons A and B, by being open to inquire into their own views, make possible discovering completely new views.

Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline"

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The goal is not to necessarily all agree but to ensure that the collective learning process is open and everyone acts with integrity.

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Guidelines to keep in mind when balancing advocacy and inquiry:

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When advocating your view:

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  • Make your own reasoning explicit
  • Encourage others to explore your view
  • Encourage others to provide different views
  • Actively inquire into others' views that differ from your own

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When inquiring into others' views:

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  • State your assumptions clearly and acknowledge they're assumption.
  • State the "data" upon which your assumptions are based
  • Don't bother asking questions if you're not genuinely interested in the others' response

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When you arrive at an impasse:

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  • Ask what data or logic might change their views
  • Ask if there is any way you might together design an experiment (or some other inquiry) that might provide new information

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When you or others are hesitant to express your views or to experiment with alternative ideas:

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  • Encourage them (or you) to think out loud about what might be making it difficult
  • If there is mutual desire to do so, design with others ways of overcoming these barriers

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Shared Vision

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A shared vision provides the focus and energy for learning.

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It might be impossible to convince people rationally to adopt the long-term view required for systems thinking. Long-term focus requires intrinsic will.

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The shared vision will emerge from the interactions of the personal visions.

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There is a level of energy, passion, and excitement that a shared vision generates in individuals that do not exist in people who are just following or complying to an external vision.

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The committed person doesn't play by the rules of the game. He is responsible for the game. If the rules of the game stand in the way of achieving the vision, he will find ways to change the rules.

Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline"

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A vision is part of the three governing ideas of the learning organization: the vision, the mission or purpose, and the core values to act consistent with the mission towards achieving the vision.

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Those governing ideas answer the question: "What do we believe in?"

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Team Learning

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Shared vision and individual talents are not enough for a team to work well together. They also need dialogues and discussions.

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A dialogue, in the sense of Bohm Dialogue, is an open exploration of complex ideas. We suspend our views and listen deeply. The goal of a dialogue is to explore complex issues.

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A discussion presents different views and there is a search for the best view to support a decision. The goal of a discussion is to make a decision.

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Great teams, like others, have conflicts but the conflicts of ideas are productive.

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Team learning is a team skill and requires constant practice.

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