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The Fifth Discipline Essay

Introduction

The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be those that discover how to tap people’s commitment and develop the capacity to learn at all levels in an organization. Deep down, people are learners. No one has to teach an infant to learn. In fact, no one has to teach infants anything. They are intrinsically inquisitive, masterful learners. Learning organizations are possible because at heart we all love to learn. Through learning we re-create ourselves and are able to do something we were never able to do earlier. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning. This seminal book by Peter M Senge explains how learning organizations can be built.

The building blocks
Systems Thinking

Business and other human endeavours are systems of interrelated actions, whose full impact may be seen only after years. Since we are part of these systems, it’s hard to see the whole pattern of change. Instead, we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the systems, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, to make the full patterns clearer and to help us see how to change them effectively.

Personal Mastery

Mastery means a special level of proficiency. People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them in effect. They approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art, by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning. The discipline of personal mastery, starts with clarifying the things that really matter to us, of living our lives in line with our highest aspirations.

Mental Models

Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects that they have on our behavior. Many insights into new markets or outmoded organizational practices fail to get put into practice because they conflict with powerful, tacit mental models. Institutional learning is the process whereby people change their shared mental models of the company, their markets, and their competitors.

Building Shared Vision

If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create. When there is a genuine vision, 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. All too often, a company’s vision revolves around the charisma of a leader, or around a crisis that galvanizes everyone temporarily. But, people must pursue a lofty goal, not only in times of crisis but at all times. What is needed is a discipline for translating individual vision into shared vision – not a “cook book” but a set of principles and guiding practices.

Team Learning

The discipline of team learning starts with “dialogue,” the capacity of team members to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine “thinking together.” Dialogue also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning. The patterns of defensiveness are often deeply engrained in how a team operates. If unrecognized, they undermine learning. If recognized, they can actually accelerate learning.

Assessing the organization’s learning disability

Most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and most importantly, the way people have been taught to think and interact, create fundamental learning disabilities. When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results they produce. Moreover, when results are disappointing, we tend to find someone or something outside ourselves to blame when things go wrong. All too often, “proactiveness” is reactiveness in disguise. True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems. Actions in organizations are dominated by concern with events: last month’s sales, the new budget cuts, the last quarter’s earnings, who just got promoted or fired, the new product our competitors just announced, the delay in launching a new product, and so on. Our fixation on events is actually part of our evolutionary programming.

The irony is that today the primary threats to our survival, both of our organizations and of our societies, come not from sudden events but from slow, gradual processes. The arms race, environmental decay, the erosion of our society’s public education system, increasingly obsolete physical capital, and decline in design or product quality are all slow, gradual processes. Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic. We learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions. The most critical decisions made in organizations have systemwide consequences that stretch over years or decades.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is the fifth discipline. It is the conceptual cornerstone that underlies all the five learning disciplines. The easy or familiar solution is not only ineffective; sometimes it is addictive and dangerous. The long-term, insidious consequence of applying non-systemic solutions is the increased need for more and more of the solution. There is a fundamental mismatch between the nature of reality in complex systems and our predominant ways of thinking about that reality.

The first step in correcting that mismatch is to let go of the notion that cause and effect are close in time and space. Tackling a difficult problem is also a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a change which – with a minimum of effort would lead to lasting, significant improvement. This point is quite similar to what Malcolm Gladwell makes in his book, “The Tipping Point”. Without systems thinking, there is neither the incentive nor the means to integrate the learning disciplines that have come into practice. Systems thinking is the cornerstone of how learning organizations think about their world.

Sophisticated tools of forecasting and business analysis, as well as elegant strategic plans, usually fail to produce dramatic breakthroughs in managing a business. They are all designed to handle the sort of complexity in which there are many variables. Senge calls it detail complexity. But there is another type of complexity, where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious. This, Senge calls dynamic complexity. Conventional forecasting, planning, and analysis are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity. When the same action has dramatically different effects in the short run and in the long run, there is dynamic complexity. When an action has one set of consequences locally and a very different set of consequences in another part of the system, there is dynamic complexity. When obvious interventions produce non-obvious consequences, there is dynamic complexity.

The real leverage in most management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity, not detail complexity. Unfortunately, most “systems analyses” focus on detail complexity, not dynamic complexity. Systems thinking is useful for describing a vast array of interrelationships and patterns of change. Ultimately, it helps us see the deeper patterns lying behind the events and the details. In mastering systems thinking, we give up the assumption that there must be an individual, or individual agent, responsible. Everyone shares responsibility for problems generated by a system. That does not necessarily imply that everyone involved can exert equal leverage in changing the system. But it discourages the search for scapegoats. In reinforcing processes, a small change builds on itself. A small action snowballs, with more and more and still more of the same, resembling compounding interest. But there’s nothing inherently bad about reinforcing loops.

There are also “virtuous cycles” – processes that reinforce in desired directions. If we are in a balancing system, we are in a system that is seeking stability. If the system’s goal is one we like, we will be happy. If it is not, we will find all our efforts to change matters frustrated until we can either change the goal or weaken its influence. Nature loves a balance – but many times, human decision makers act contrary to these balances, and pay the price. In general, balancing loops are more difficult to see than reinforcing loops because it often looks like nothing is happening. Leaders who attempt organizational change often find themselves unwittingly caught in balancing processes.

To the leaders, it looks as though their efforts are clashing with the sudden resistance that seems to come from nowhere. In fact, the resistance is a response by the system, trying to maintain an implicit system goal. Until this goal is recognized, the change effort is doomed to failure. Systems seem to have minds of their own. This is specially evident in delays between actions and their consequences. Delays can make us badly overshoot the mark, or they can have a positive effect if we recognize them and work with them. That’s one of the lessons of balancing loops with delays. Aggressive action often produces exactly the opposite of what is intended. It produces instability and oscillation, instead of moving us more quickly toward our goal.

Symptomatic intervention

A reinforcing (amplifying) process is set in motion to produce a desired result. It creates a spiral of success but also creates inadvertent secondary effects (manifested in a balancing process) which eventually slow down the success. Instead of trying to push growth, we must remove the factors limiting growth. An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But such a problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “shift the burden” of their problem to other solutions – well-intentioned, easy fixes which seem extremely efficient. Solutions that address only the symptoms of a problem, not fundamental causes, tend to have short term benefits at best. In the long term, the problem resurfaces and there is increased pressure for symptomatic response.

Meanwhile, the capability for fundamental solutions can atrophy. Symptomatic intervention; the “quick fix,” solves the problem symptom quickly, but only temporarily. In case of a more fundamental response to the problem, it takes longer to become evident. However, the fundamental solution works far more effectively. It may be the only enduring way to deal with the problem. The shifting burden structure explains a wide range of behaviors where well-intended “solutions” actually make matters worse over the long term. Opting for “symptomatic solutions” is enticing. Apparent improvement is achieved. Pressures, either external or internal, to “do something” about a vexing problem are relieved. But easing a problem symptom also reduces any perceived need to find a more fundamental solution.

Over time, people rely more and more on the symptomatic solution. Without anyone making a conscious decision, people have “shifted the burden” to increasing reliance on symptomatic solutions. A special case of shifting the burden, which recurs with alarming frequency, is “eroding goals.” Whenever there is a gap between our goals and our current situation there are two sets of pressures: to improve the situation and to lower our goals. Dealing effectively with the situation requires a combination of strengthening the fundamental response and weakening the symptomatic response. Strengthening fundamental responses almost always requires a long-term orientation and a sense of shared vision. Weakening the symptomatic response requires willingness to face the truth about palliatives and “looking good” solutions.

Leverage

The bottom line of systems thinking is leverage. We must see where small actions and changes in structures can lead to significant, enduring improvements. The best results come not from largescale efforts but from small well-focused actions. Nonsystematic ways of thinking consistently lead us to focus on low-leverage changes, on symptoms where the stress is greatest. So we repair or ameliorate the symptoms. But such efforts only make matters worse in the long run.

Systems thinking means organizing complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the cause of problems and how they can be remedied in enduring ways. The increasing complexity of today’s world leads many managers to assume that they lack the information they need to act effectively. The fundamental “information problem” faced by managers is not too little information but too much information. What we most need are ways to know what is important and what is not important, what variables to focus on and which to pay less attention to. This will generate leverage.

Personal Mastery

Organizations learn only if individual employees who learn. Individual learning is a necessary, through not sufficient condition for organizational learning. We must make personal mastery a part of our lives. This involves continually clarifying what is important to us. We often spend too much time coping with problems along our path that we only have a vague idea of what’s really important to us. We also need to see current reality more clearly. We’ve all known people entangled in counterproductive relationships, who remain stuck because they keep pretending everything is all right. In moving toward a desired destination, it is vital to know where we are now. The juxtaposition of vision and a clear picture of current reality generates “creative tension”. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives. The gap between vision and current reality is a source of creative energy. If there is no gap, there would be no need for any action to move toward the vision. But when there is a gap between the goals and the current reality, negative emotion may also arise.

We may lower our goals when we are unwilling to live with emotional tension. On the other hand, when we understand creative tension and allow it to operate by not lowering our vision, vision becomes an active force. Truly creative people use the gap between vision and current reality to generate energy for change. Mastery of creative tension leads to a fundamental shift in our whole posture toward reality. Current reality becomes our ally not an enemy. An accurate, insightful view of current reality is as important as a clear vision. If the first choice in pursuing personal mastery is to be true to our own vision, the second fundamental choice in support of personal mastery is commitment to the truth. What limits our ability to create what we really want is belief in our powerlessness and unworthiness. People cope with these problems in different ways. Letting our vision erode is one such strategy.

The second is to try to manipulate ourselves into greater effort toward what we want by creating artificial conflict, such as through avoiding what we do not want. Some people psyche themselves up to overpower all forms of resistance to achieving their goals. Willpower is so common among highly successful people that many see its characteristics as synonymous with success: a maniacal focus on goals, willingness to “pay the price,” ability to defeat any opposition and surmount any obstacle. Being committed to the truth is far more powerful than any technique. It means a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories or why things are the way they are. It means continually broadening our awareness.

Focusing on the desired intrinsic result is a skill. For most of us, it is not easy at first, and takes time and patience to develop. As soon as we think of some important personal goal, almost immediately we think of all the reasons why it will be hard to achieve – the challenges we will face and the obstacles we will have to overcome. While this is very helpful for thinking through alternative strategies for achieving our goals, it is also a sign of lack of discipline when thoughts about “the process” of achieving our vision continually crowd out our focus on the outcomes we seek. We must work at learning how to separate what we truly want, from what we think we need to do in order to achieve it. A useful starting exercise for learning how to focus more clearly on desired results is to take any particular goal or aspect of our vision.

If we ask ourselves the question. “If I actually had this, what would it get me?”, the answer to that question reveals “deeper” desires lying behind the goal. In fact, the goal is actually an interim step to reach a more important result. Ultimately, what matters most in developing the subconscious rapport characteristic of masters is the genuine caring for a desired outcome, the deep feeling that it is the “right” goal. The subconscious seems especially receptive to goals in line with our deeper aspirations and values.

People with high levels of personal mastery do not set out to integrate reason and intuition. Rather, they achieve it naturally – as a by-product of their commitment to use all the resources at their disposal. They cannot afford to choose between reason and intuition, or head and heart. The discipline of seeing interrelationships gradually undermines older attitudes of blame and guilt. We begin to see that all of us are trapped in structures embedded both in our ways of thinking and in the interpersonal and social milieus in which we live. Our knee-jerk tendency to find fault with one another gradually fades, leaving a much deeper appreciation of the forces under which we all operate.

Mental Models

New insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works. That is why the discipline of managing mental models – surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works holds the key to building learning organizations. The problems with mental models arise not because they are right or wrong but because we often act without being aware of them. The healthy corporations are ones which can systematize ways to bring people together to develop the best possible mental models for facing any situation at hand. Learning skills fall into two broad classes: skills of reflection and skills of inquiry.

Skills of reflection concern slowing down our own thinking processes so that we can become more aware of how we form our mental models and the ways they influence our actions. Inquiry skills are concerned with how we operate in face-to-face interactions with others, especially in dealing with complex issues. People who become lifelong learners practice “reflection in action,” the ability to reflect on one’s thinking while acting. Our mind tends to move at lightning speed. We immediately “leap” to generalizations so quickly that we never think of testing them.

Our rational minds are extraordinarily facile at “abstracting” from concrete particulars – substituting simple concepts for many details and then reasoning in terms of these concepts. But our very strengths in abstract conceptual reasoning also limit our learning, when we are unaware of our leaps from particulars to general concepts. Leaps of abstraction occur when we move from direct observations (concrete “data”) to generalization without testing. Leaps of abstraction impede learning because they become axiomatic. What was once an assumption becomes treated as a fact.

To spot leaps of abstraction, we need to keep asking what we believe about the way the world works – the nature of business, people in general, and specific individuals. We need to ask “What is the ‘data’ on which this generalization is based?” We need to ask, “Am I willing to consider that this generalization may be inaccurate or misleading? This is a powerful technique for beginning to “see” how our mental models operate in particular situations. It reveals ways that we manipulate situations to avoid dealing with how we actually think and feel, and thereby prevent a counterproductive situation from improving. Most managers are trained to be advocates. In fact, in many companies, what it means to be a competent manager is to figure out what needs to be done, and enlist whatever support is needed to get it done. Individuals became successful in part because of their abilities to debate forcefully and influence others. Inquiry skills, meanwhile, go unrecognized and unrewarded. But as managers rise to senior positions, they confront more complex and diverse issues.

Suddenly, they need to tap insights from other people. They need to learn. Now the manager’s advocacy skills become counterproductive. What is needed is blending advocacy and inquiry to promote collaborative learning. When operating in pure advocacy, the goal is to win the argument. When inquiry and advocacy are combined, the goal is no longer “to win the argument” but to find the best argument. When we operate in pure advocacy, we tend to use data selectively, presenting only the data that confirm our position. When we explain the reasoning behind our position, we expose only enough of our reasoning to “make our case,” avoiding areas where we feel our case might be weak. By contrast, when both advocacy and inquiry are high, we are open to disconfirming data as well as confirming data – because we are genuinely interested in finding flaws in our view. Likewise, we expose our reasoning and look for flaws in it, and we try to understand others’ reasoning. Learning eventually results in changes in action, not just taking in new information and forming new “ideas.”

That is why recognizing the gap between our espoused theories (what we say) and our “theories-in-use” (the theories that lay behind our actions) is vital. Otherwise, we may believe we’ve “learned” something just because we’ve got the new language or concepts to use, even though our behavior is completely unchanged. Systems thinking is equally important to working with mental models effectively. Most of our mental models are systematically flawed. They miss critical feedback relationships, misjudge time delays, and often focus on variables that are visible or salient, not necessarily high leverage. Understanding these flaws can help to see where prevailing mental models will be weakest and where more than just “surfing” the mental models will be required for effective decisions. Ultimately, the payoff from integrating systems thinking and mental models will be not only improving our mental models but altering our ways of thinking. This will result in shifting from mental models dominated by events to mental models that recognize longer-term patterns of change and the underlying structures producing those patterns.

Shared vision

Shared vision is vital for the learning organization because it provides the focus and energy for learning. While adaptive learning is possible without vision, generative learning, occurs only when people are striving to accomplish something that matters deeply to them. In fact, the whole idea of generative learning will seem abstract and meaningless until people become excited about some vision they truly want to accomplish. Vision creates the spark, the excitement that lifts an organization out of the mundane. Shared vision fosters risk taking and experimentation. People know what needs to be done. Even if they don’t know how to do it, they keep experimenting till they succeed. But even when they experiment, there is no ambiguity at all. It’s perfectly clear why they are doing it.

Organizations intent on building shared visions continually encourage members to develop their personal visions. They want people to have their own vision, not to “sign up” for someone else’s. That leads to compliance, not commitment. On the other hand, people with a strong sense of personal direction can join together to move toward what they truly want. Personal mastery is the bedrock for developing a shared vision. This means not only personal vision, but commitment to the truth and creative tension – the hallmarks of personal mastery. The origin of the vision is much less important than the process whereby it comes to be shared. It is not truly a “shared vision” until it connects with the personal visions of people throughout the organization. In many organizations, most people are in states of formal or genuine compliance with the organization’s goals and ground rules. They go along with “the program,” sincerely trying to contribute.

On the other hand, people in non-compliance or grudging compliance usually stand out. They are opposed to the goals or ground rules and let their opposition be known, either through inaction or through grudging obedience. An organization made up of genuinely compliant people will be very productive and cost effective. Yet, there is a world of difference between compliance and commitment. The committed person brings an energy, passion, and excitement that cannot be generated if he is only compliant. The committed person does not 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.

A group of people truly committed to a common vision is an awesome force. They can accomplish the seemingly impossible. Building shared vision is actually only one piece of a larger activity: developing the “governing ideas” for the enterprise, its vision, purpose or mission, and core values. These governing ideas answer three critical questions: “What?” “Why?” and “How?” • • • Vision is the “What?” – the picture of the future we seek to create. Purpose (or “mission”) is the “Why?” the organization’s answer to the question, “Why do we exist?” Core values answer the question “How do we want to act? A company’s values describe how the company wants life to be on a day-to-day basis, while pursuing the vision.

There are two fundamental sources of energy that can motivate organizations: fear and aspiration. Fear can produce extraordinary changes for short periods, but aspiration is a continuing source of learning and growth. Vision spreads because of a reinforcing process of increasing clarity, enthusiasm, communication and commitment. As people talk, the vision grows clearer, enthusiasm for its benefit builds and the vision starts to spread in a reinforcing spiral of communication and excitement. Enthusiasm can also be reinforced by early successes in pursuing the vision.

If the reinforcing process operates unfettered, it leads to continuing growth in clarity and shared commitment toward the vision, among increasing numbers of people. But any of a variety of limiting factors can come into play to slow down this virtuous cycle. The visioning process can wither if, as more people get involved, the diversity of views dissipates focus and generates unmanageable conflicts. People see different ideal futures. Must those who do not agree immediately with the emerging shared vision change their views? Do they conclude that the vision is “set in stone” and no longer influenceable? Do they feel that their own visions even matter? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” the enrolling process can grind to a halt with a wave of increasing polarization.

This is a classic “limits to growth” structure, where the reinforcing process of growing enthusiasm for the vision interacts with a “balancing process” that limits the spread of the vision, due to increasing diversity and polarization. In limits to growth structures, leverage usually lies in understanding the “limiting factor,” the implicit goal or norm that drives the balancing feedback process. In this case, that limiting factor is the ability (or inability) to inquire into diverse visions in such a way that deeper, common visions emerge. The visioning process is a special type of inquiry process. It is an inquiry into the future we truly seek to create. If it becomes a pure advocacy process, it will result in compliance, at best, not commitment. Approaching visioning as an inquiry process does not mean that we have to give up our views.

On the contrary, visions need strong advocates. But advocates who can also inquire into others’ visions open the possibility for the vision to evolve, to become “larger” than our individual visions. Visions can die because people become discouraged by the apparent difficulty in converting them into reality. As clarity about the nature of the vision increases, so does the awareness of the gap between the vision and current reality. People become disheartened, uncertain, or even cynical, leading to a decline in enthusiasm. In this structure, the limiting factor is the capacity of people in the organization to “hold” creative tension, the central principle of personal mastery.

This is why personal mastery is the “bedrock” for developing shared vision – organizations that do not encourage personal mastery find it very difficult to foster sustained commitment to a lofty vision. Emerging visions can also die because people get overwhelmed by the demands of current reality and lose their focus on the vision. The limiting factor becomes the time and energy to focus on a vision. In this case, the leverage must lie in either in finding ways to focus less time and effort on fighting crises and managing current reality, or to break off those pursing the new vision from those responsible for handling “current reality.” A vision can die if people forget their connection to one another. This is one of the reasons that approaching visioning as a joint inquiry is so important. The spirit of connection is fragile. It is undermined whenever we lose our respect for one another and for each other’s views. We then split into insiders and outsiders – those who are “true believers” in the vision and those who are not.


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