Sunday, July 11, 2010

"The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization" Guides Leaders of all Stripes

We expect organizations to be corrupt and dysfunctional, requiring watchdogs to keep them on track. We expect their leaders to be venal and short-sighted, on the verge of being uncovered by investigators. Peter Senge, however, in the 2006 revision of this 1990 management classic, provides a convincing and inspiring guide for building successful organizations that adapt to change while nurturing their members.  Learning organizations see their members, operations and surroundings as a connected whole, and use each of their members to continually sense, interpret and adapt to change. A learning organization must continually engage in five disciplines:

  1. Personal Mastery,  in which individuals develop personal visions while seeing the world exactly as it is.    They harness the resulting "creative tension" to focus their efforts on realizing these visions.
  2. Mental Models, which are ways of consciously and unconsciously perceiving the world.  All models are simplifications and therefore limiting.  Many are useful, but often we are not conscious of the models we embrace and the limits they impose.  Therefore we can achieve new levels of success by becoming conscious of these models and deliberately evolving them.  
  3. Team Learning, is the development of a collective intelligence and capability exceeding that of any individual.  The foundation of team learning is dialog, or the free flow of meaning through a group, rather just discussion, in which ideas are tossed back and forth, often contentiously.
  4. Shared Vision is woven together from notions of success across the organization.  Collaborative development is required for a widespread and enthusiastic embrace of a vision, rather than the mere compliance that typically meets visions imposed by leaders.
  5. Systems Thinking is a body of knowledge, methods and tools for understanding the interrelated forces that affect any situation and developing approaches for effecting change.   This Fifth Discipline provides essential support and alignment to the other four. Practicing any of the disciplines without taking into account their impact on the others can lead to failure.  For example, adopting a new shared vision is futile if contradictory mental models ingrained in the organization are not addressed.  
The book is replete with theory, techniques and examples pertaining to all five disciplines.  Senge, an experienced teacher, researcher and management consultant, relates many stories of work with leaders of all types.  Central to the book are the twelve system archetypes, which are recurring patterns that occur in systems of all types.  These archetypes are represented by causal loop diagrams, which consist of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops.  

Causal loop diagram for
Growth and Underinvestment archetype
For example, the Growth and Underinvestment archetype (left) demonstrates that increases in sales and production typically reinforce each other, but growth can be inhibited by underinvestment in capacity.  Leaders, when faced with the effects of balancing feedback, often push harder on the elements of the reinforcing relationships, rather than looking further to the underlying inhibitors and the related opportunities for leverage. In our example, the CEO might lean on the sales force to meet quota while failing to recognize that delivery backlogs are causing customers to defect.

The last chapters of the book are focused on the ultimate systems thinking target:  a sustainable future for the planet.  The diagrams in the book clearly show the difference between wasteful and sustainable processes.  But here is where Senge's approach may meet its limits.   Senge demonstrates how his approach can have a profound impact on business organizations, nonprofits and communities small enough to work together. But it is not clear how his approach could be used to, say, get developing nations to stop burning coal to fuel their growth.  Or could we just look across Oregon's educational bureaucracy to respond to next year's 9% cuts in state funding with minimal impact on classroom instruction?   Do we really need 197 districts and 20 education service districts?  I suppose local vested interests are just another part of the system, but realistic opportunities for leverage seem hard to find.   

Nevertheless, I recommend this book highly to anyone working for business success or social change.  It is both enlightening and inspiring.

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