Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge

To survive and to thrive, organizations need to get a sense of how best to achieve their purpose. This is how Peter Senge defines learning.

The process of organizational learning involves five disciplines.

Rather than synthesizing Senge's views about each of them, I'd like to highlight just a few inspiring ideas.

  1. Personal Mastery

  • Organizational learning can't happen without individual learning.
  • Personal mastery is not an end, it's a process. It means continually expanding your ability to create the results in life you truly seek.
  • Happiness may be a result of living consistently with one's purpose.
  • The first step is to clarify your personal vision : to define what is important to you. (Note : some good books can help you do that : see « Total Leadership » and « Becoming a Resonant Leader »).
  • The second step is learning how to see current reality more clearly. It's a lifelong discipline that involves being constantly aware of your ignorance and your growth areas.
  • Development comes from then tension between vision and current reality.
  • You can't force someone to develop his or her personal mastery. As a leader, the best you can do is to be a model, by committing yourself to your own personal mastery.
  1. Mental Models

  • Mental models are internal images of how the world works. These deeply held images limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.
  • Mental models are OK if they stay explicit and can be discussed. Problems arise when they become implicit.
  • One dangerous way of building mental models is called a leap of abstraction. It occurs when you take a limited amount of data and use it to build a general view. (Note : I'm afraid we HR people are specialized in leaps of abstraction. When recruiting, for example, just think of the way we draw conclusions about a candidate's personality).
  • A conversation can become a learning experience when there is a balance between inquiry (acknowledging that you may be wrong and really seeking the truth) and advocacy (explaining where your conclusions come from). Unfortunately, most managers are trained to be good advocates but not so good listeners.
  • One indicator of a team in trouble is when, in a long meeting, there are few questions.
  1. Building Shared Vision

  • A learning organization needs a shared vision. Vision provides focus and energy for learning.
  • A shared vision changes the relationship between an organization and its employees. It creates a sense of ownership.
  • Shared visions emerge from personal visions.
  • The first step to build a shared vision is to share one's personal vision and to encourage others to do the same.
  • Building shared vision is not a project. It's a never-ending task. It's part of a leader's daily work.
  • You can't “sell” someone a vision. You can't get another person to enroll or commit, because real commitment to the vision requires free choice.
  • Vision is the What. Purpose is the Why. Core values are the How.
  1. Team Learning

  • Team learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire.
  • Dialogue and discussion are different and both are necessary. Dialogue means exploring together complex and subtle issues by listening to one another and suspending one's own views. Discussion means presenting and defending competing views to support decisions.
  • The difference between great teams and mediocre ones lies in how they face conflict.
  • Team learning is a skill. To develop this skill, some practice is needed. One way to practice team learning is what Senge calls “dialogue sessions”.
  1. Systems Thinking

  • Systems thinking is what Senge calls the fifth discipline.
  • Systemic thinking, or structural thinking, is the ability to discover structural causes of behavior. It is opposed to widespread linear thinking, or event thinking.
  • It's the most important among the five disciplines and it is linked to each of the four others.
  • Small changes can produce big results, but the areas of highest leverage are not often obvious.
  • Understanding a few systemic archetypes can help you understand reality in a much richer way than the usual linear thinking. 

Recommended by a seasoned HR pro

Tom HAAK, Corporate HR Director at Arcadis in Amsterdam, is the professional that recommended this book to me. You should check out his HR blog, where Tom shares the lessons of his 30 years of experience in Human Resources at an international level.

Here's what Tom has to say about The Fifth Discipline:

Early 90s I went to a seminar organized by the European Foundation for Management Development, in Brussels. The theme was 'The Learning Organization', very fashionable in those days.

Highlight of the program was a session led by Peter Senge, Chris Argyris and Arie de Geus (formerly Shell). In groups we played the beer game. A description of the game can be found in Chapter 3 of the Fifth Discipline.

Here were 100 or more people playing the game in groups of 10. The objective of the game his to demonstrate learning disabilities, and this was done very successfully. And it was great fun. After the beer game there was a stimulating dialogue between Senge, Argyris and De Geus. The atmosphere was exciting, and most of the people in the room felt energized to go back home and create learning organizations.

I had already read the book. For me this was a breakthrough. Finally here was somebody who was showing the root causes of dysfunctional organizations. Senge showed a way to improve the learning capabilities of people and organizations.

Many of the myths and mental models described in Senge's book are still fully functioning today (alas). Creating learning organizations is not easy. Mastering the five disciplines of Senge takes life-long learning and a lot of practice.

After 22 years Senge's book is still very actual and readable. It might be time for a revitalization of The Learning Organization.”

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