Personal Development

Systems Thinking (book)

#learningIsAGift ?
#rituals of #theBeautifulJourney ?

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I wish this book was really the subject of a book club, but it wasn’t. I’ve used information from this book as part of a series of meetings I’ve run in the work place on the topic of change, meetings known as The Change Series. I’ll write about those separately. Let me introduce you to the author and the book.

The author, Peter M. Senge, is an American system scientist who is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, co-faculty at the New England Complex Systems Institute, and the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning. And this book that I’m teasing you with is:

The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation

The title is catchy, most of the book content is as well. It is a long book that covers many organizational success stories meant to get your buy-in to the ideas in the book, but at times it feels like it is a bit too much of this type of content. Definitely not an elevator pitch! Yet, the real-world situations explored are good!

The storyline covers the five disciplines and how they depend on each other. The narrative gets a bit philosophical at times as well, especially when introducing the notion of dialogue, essential for the Team Learning discipline listed below, and distinguishing it from discussion or when it explains why these components should be called disciplines. And it can’t be a book about organizational learning without talking about learning, hence the disciplines also get associated with 3 learning capabilities:

The Five disciplines

Three learning capabilities

1. Personal Mastery

1. Fostering aspiration

2. Shared Vision

3. Team Learning

2. Developing reflective conversation

4. Mental Models

5. Systems Thinking

3. Understanding complexity

Peter Senge also points out how learning hindrances look like, here in a list of short titles:

  1. I am my position
  2. The enemy is out there
  3. Proactiveness without self-awareness,
  4. The fixation on events (reaction) instead of creation
  5. The parable of the boiled frog,
  6. The delusion of learning from experience,
  7. The myth of the management team.

The author distinguishes between survival and generative learning, the latter being the ideal and depending on the ability to discover structural causes of behaviour. He also goes on to demonstrate how structure influences behaviour i.e. when placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results. The system causes its own behaviour.

The book title is essentially Systems Thinking: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation and the author distils the essence of the discipline of systems thinking to a shift of mind in seeing wholes:

  • seeing interrelations rather than linear cause-effect chains
  • seeing processes of change rather than snapshots
  • seeing the structures that underlie complex situations
  • seeing high from low leverage change
  • seeing people as active participants in shaping reality

On the topic of Systems Thinking I’d also like to leave you with its governing laws and invite you to explore whether you can relate any of your experience, real-world observations, to them:

  1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.
  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  3. Behaviour 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 always 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 all at once.
  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
  11. There is no blame. The cure lies in your relationship with your “enemy”.

The book also covers The Systems Archetypes to support practical applications and introduces The U Process (developed by C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Adam Kahane):

  • The Systems Archetypes come with a textual & visual description, a list of warning signs, recommended management approach, a business story and further examples.
  • The U Process is a way to design and lead deep collective learning processes. “In effect, it can provide a framework for organizing how the five disciplines are used in time.” What this process is about is: sensing (mental models deep dive), presencing (connecting to the vision), realizing (rapid prototyping).

The book explores various concepts relevant to each discipline and it is genuinely interesting, there is variety, novelty and meaningful insights. The Lean approach is also mentioned with an emphasis on it being a cultural change, not just technical, because the Lean flexibility, “just in time”, depends on relationships of trust.

The book title is also about Art & Practice and these points will be made throughout. Practicing a discipline is different from emulating a model, it is tailored to personal and shared vision and forever evolving (#practiceiseverything) and because of this, it is good to remember that the journey is the reward.

Whilst in this book we get told the theory, how applying it is an art, how important the practice is and some starting points for it, Peter Senge gives us another book that looks specifically at what to do and how to do it – “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies for Building a Learning Organisation”.

Until next time… enjoy the journey!

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