The Thinking of Peter Senge
A summary of a Senge 6/6/95 Seminar and the book The Fifth Discipline
Peter Senge’s work combines diverse characteristics: It is simultaneously humanistic and systematic . In addition, Senge draws his content from such diverse sources as philosophical linguistics, the young science of systems thinking, religious writings, in addition to traditional business authors such as Deming, Peters, and others.
In The Fifth Discipline, Senge elaborates five disciplines:
1. Systems Thinking - (This is the fifth discipline of the title),
2. Personal Mastery,
3. Mental Models,
4. Shared Vision, and
5. Team Learning
Elements of Personal Mastery
One of the key elements of the discipline of personal mastery is having a personal vision. It is a very specific end-goal which is measurable. It is an outgrowth of an individual’s purpose. Personal vision is the focus of an individual’s ultimate desires. Senge’s thinking here is reminiscent of Stephen Covey’s second habit Begin with the end in mind with its emphasis on the fact that “everything is created twice.” Covey speaks of the Mission Statement. Senge refers to the Vision Statement. The key difference is that Senge sees the Vision Statement as being more specific and concrete than Covey’s Mission Statement. A Coveyite might express: “I will work to feed the nation’s hungry.” A disciple of Senge would say, “By the year 2000 only 3% of my county will be unemployed.” Senge would probably characterize the typical Covey Mission Statement as being more of an expression of purpose (which, of course, has its place).
Holding Creative Tension
Senge suggests that everyone has two theories of their respective lives: An Espoused Theory, or what you say that you believe, and a Theory-in-use, what your behavior suggests that you actually believe. For example, I may say that I wish to lose 25 pounds by August of 1995. But you may see me in Friday’s Restaurant slammin’ down the beers and munching on Super Grande Nachos. My Theory-in-use is that my personal culinary enjoyment supersedes my desire to lose weight.
Consider the straight line in the above illustration as being a rubber band under tension.
The difference between these two theories creates two types of tension: Emotional Tension and Creative Tension. The Emotional Tension is the cognitive dissonance that I feel between the fact that I wish to lose weight and the fact that I’m eating like a teenager. The Creative Tension is the resultant force that will move me to either - and this is critical - give up the espoused theory (“Oh, forget it, I’ll never lose weight, “Waiter! Can I have another Molson’s?”) or change my behavior (“Hey guys, what do you say let’s catch the game at Willie’s Sports Bar and Chinese Food Emporium tonight?”) This Creative Tension, according to Senge, is the source of our success. According to Senge, we will always have this creative tension and it will always be the source of our personal growth.
Commitment to the Truth
The final element of Personal Mastery is commitment to the truth. A focus on our Espoused Theory can often lead us to compromise on seeing what is really there. For example, if my theory is that I will lose 25 ounds by 8/1/95 and on 6/12/95 I’m puttin’ away the brews, then I might rationalize by saying, “Ah, this one time won’t hurt me.” Personal Mastery requires that I never soft peddle the truth.
One of the most powerful and helpful of Senge’s five disciplines is a continuous awareness of mental models. Covey calls them paradigms. Senge here emphasizes the fact that all of us do not at any time see all of the reality that is around us. By necessity we have to operate according to mental models in order to concentrate our efforts. For example, as I type this summary, my USA TODAY co-worker Kenny is over my right shoulder shuffling paper; I feel the pressure of these keys on my fingers; I hear the air conditioning running; I hear Joe White typing; Joe is taking to Kenny; I feel the pressure of my chair; there is a multi-colored poster on my wall, etc. There are many, many other sources of stimulations to my senses of tasting touching, hearing, seeing, and smelling that I could describe. I cannot possibly at one time process all of the data inputs that I’m receiving. I have to choose to not focus on anything except what I’m thinking and typing in order to produce this summary. That is my mental model. If my computer starts making a lot of noise, because that is a part of my mental model I will tend to that input. If Kenny’s phone rings, because that is not a part of my mental model I will ignore that input.
Mental models are necessary to survive. But they are also limiting. They limit because they require assumptions. Assumptions are not data, but rather are inferred from data. Therefore they are subject to error. If Kenny and Joe begin discussing The Fifth Discipline at this moment and I tune them out because I assume their conversation is irrelevant to my writing this summary, then my mental model will cause me to miss data that could in fact be helpful.
For another example, if my mental model of a particular individual is “they don’t care about their job,” then I might attach a lower priority to a request for help from them than a request from someone I perceive as “highly motivated.”
Senge is not recommending that we get rid of our paradigms. He is strongly suggesting that we remain aware of the fact that we have paradigms. That awareness keeps us open to new data and continuous paradigm revision.
Another of Senge’s disciplines is the practicing of a Shared Vision. This involves the sharing of goals, values and mission within an organization. The emphasis is on a synergy of vision. It requires a willingness to allow our own personal vision to be strengthened by others’ visions and to be changed by others’ insights.
Critical to Shared Vision, however, is that all must be allowed the free choice to participate in the group vision and not be forced. Vision Statements, for example, must not merely be sent down from the Executive Committee but be developed by everyone in the company.
The Corporate Vision is a product of each individual’s personal vision.
Finally, Senge emphasizes the discipline of Team Learning. Senge points out that in most organizations, discussion occurs instead of dialog. Discussion occurs when two or more people state their positions and give the reasons for what they believe. Dialog occurs when people state their positions, give their reasons, and invite exploration and critique of their reasons and presuppositions. Positions are not presented merely for the purpose of defending them. They are presented “tentatively” with the willingness to acknowledge that others might be able to improve the presented position, or show why it is altogether untenable. Almost everyone will agree that “two heads are better than one.” But when it comes to discussion, people tend to act like “But my head is better than all of yours combined!”
Balancing Advocacy and Inquiry
This is the term that Senge uses the balance between putting forth what we really believe in and - at the same time - being open to the ideas of others by inquiry.
Using the Left Hand Column
Senge shared a useful technique for becoming more conscious of your presuppositions in conversations and delving more deeply into your mental models. It works like this.
Take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. Recall a conversation that you were in recently that did not go well. In the right column write down verbatim what you said and what the other party said in the order. Then in the left column beside your comments, write down what you were thinking as you said what you said.
Then analyze what is said in your left hand column (hereafter LHC). Ask yourself these questions:
1 - What would have happened if I said what was in the LHC?
2 - Why didn’t I say the LHC?
3 - What is the LHC based on in my beliefs about this person?
4. What was my goal in the conversation?
The key to really communicating is to find ways to bring out what is in the LHC without creating defensiveness in the other party. This is the fundamental to building deep trust between two people.
The Ladder of Inference
The Ladder of Inference enables you to effectively analyze the LHC and other assumptions.
In this example above, the American businessman incorrectly assumes that a Japanese nod means “yes, I agree.” It actually only means, “I hear you and acknowledge that you said that.” Consequently an incorrect interpretation leads to an incorrect attribution which leads to an incorrect generalization.
As a communicator moves up the Ladder of Inference they get farther and farther away from data and more into presuppositions. The problem is that most people treat interpretations, attributions, and generalizations as data items, or facts, rather than presuppositions. Dialog, as opposed to discussion, acts as a corrective to the tendency.
The power of the Ladder of Inference is twofold: 1) realizing that we are making inferences and that they are not the same as data; 2) communicating our inferences to others for the purpose of mutual examination of validity.
This must be done with a spirit of curiosity and humility.
In the communication modality of Balancing Advocacy and Inquiry it will be observed that Advocacy is often moving up the ladder, while Inquiry is moving down the ladder.
Two Different Kinds of Learning
In his seminar, Senge distinguished two different types of learning: Knowing and Knowing How. He used the illustration of learning to ride a bicycle. You can explain to someone the dynamics of riding a bicycle, but that does not mean that they know how to ride. You have to attempt to ride a bike to learn how to ride a bike. Learning to ride a bike is a right brain activity. Hearing someone tell you how to ride a bike is a left brain activity. This makes learning difficult and harder to manage. Why is it more difficult?
1. You fall down a lot. Mistakes must be allowed in the organization
2. It takes a leap of faith to try something that may not work.
3. Like riding a bike, the right thing to do is often counterintuitive (ex. When you start to fall down while riding a bike, you don’t slow down, you speed up).
4. Falling down and making mistakes is not what has made managers successful! Chris Argyris says: “The essence of a Learner’s Orientation is vulnerability and humility.” In most modern organizations we tell everyone, “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a suggestion for a solution.” The essence of learning is giving up what is familiar and going into the realm of the uncertainty and incompetence!
5. Schools have pre-oriented us toward left brain knowledge. We are a society of knowers.
The Three Core Capabilities of Learning Communities
1. The capacity to operate in a creative orientation.
Reference the material above on personal vision.
Senge quoted Proverbs 29:18 - “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
In learning organizations there needs to be more of an emphasis on being creative versus problem solving.
This is similar to Covey’s emphasis on spending time in quadrant II - the quadrant of the non-urgent and important instead of quadrant I - the quadrant of the urgent and important.
This emphasis on creativity involves a focus on designing elegant processes.
2. Reflective Conversations
“We do not describe the world that we see, we see the world we can describe.”
Senge: “The quality of conversations in most organizations stink” We have lost the art of conversation. Every culture has a tradition of people sitting in circles and talking. We are rapidly losing this.
True conversation is characterized by mutual respect and genuine interest. We tend to merely anchor what we are hearing with what we have already in our mental models. This inhibits our actually learning anything. We tend to think about what we are going to say as someone else is talking instead of really listening.
3, Systems Thinking
Perhaps the most challenging of all his disciplines, Systems Thinking nevertheless is worth the effort to understand it. Because language is linear and sequential, we tend to think simplistically. To use an example from USA TODAY’s National Customer Service Center, an inbound phone center where I’ve worked for the last ten years, if we have a day in which our Average Speed of Answer (ASA) is over 10 seconds, our language structure tends to program us to look for the one reason that this happened. Systems Thinking would suggest that the ASA being over 10 seconds is the result of patterns and not the result of just one cause. Emphasizing a linear and sequential causality does not show due respect for the complexity of underlying patterns. Systems Thinking emphasizes circles and not lines. Because we intuitively often realize the futility of thinking linearly - looking for a simple solution to a presenting problem - we can be tempted to just give up. Consequently, the linear thinker tends to be more passive and sees problems as “just the way things are,” rather than acknowledge the systemic forces contributing to the current situation.
System Thinking Terms
System thinking is useful because, among other reasons, it can be diagramed. There are three simple system processes that can be easily defined and understood.
Reinforcing Feedback Loop
This is a process that enhances growth or decline. For example: Word of mouth causing people to purchase a product is a reinforcing feedback process. As the product is purchased word of mouth increases which causes more product to be purchased and so on.
Balancing Feedback Loop
This is a process that limits growth or decline. For Example: As word of mouth causes a product to be sold more, production of the product increases rapidly. It’s too rapid increase causes production quality to go down which inhibits sales. Production Quality going down in is a balancing force.
This is the interruption between an action and its consequence. This is a frequent cause of misjudgment as we shall see shortly.
Systems have been analyzed into about sixteen different archetypes involving differing combinations of Reinforcing loops, Balancing loops, and delays. The Fifth Discipline explains two of these archetypes in detail and presents six in an appendix.
As an example, we will give a Shifting the Burden archetype here using a struggle that we used to experience at the National Customer Service Center several years ago.
During the Christmas season several years ago, we had several days in which our Average Speed of Answer (ASA) was over 10 seconds. A solution was proposed of having supervisors take calls for much of their shift. This solution was used for several months. In the short term, the green light was on less. However a result of this solution was that representatives were no longer being coached on efficiency issues by the supervisors. Consequently, their efficiency went down. As their efficiency went down, the ASA went up and there was a perceived need for supervisors to spend more time on the phone. This meant even less coaching which drove efficiency down further and so on. Eventually this downward performance spiral was recognized and this solution was abandoned.
Systems Thinking Description:
This diagram shows two reinforcing circles illustrating two separate processes. Putting supervisors on the phone has the short term effect of keeping the green light off and the long term effect of making it come on longer! Having supervisors take calls then becomes a reinforcing mechanism that keeps the green light on longer and longer. The lowering efficiency of the representatives acts as a balancing process.
The fundamental solution is illustrated with the bottom circle: Coaching representatives on efficiency issues increases their efficiency. In the short term, the green light stays on and ASA will become higher because supervisors are not taking calls and the representatives are not efficient. This is represented by the delay in the bottom circle. But as coaching continues and efficiency increases, the light is on less. This process is therefore a reinforcing process.
In the top circle, the reinforcing loop is having supervisors take calls. This results in the light being on less. The balancing loop that causes the light to go back on and stay on longer is the decreasing efficiency of the representatives due to lack of efficiency coaching and feedback.
The solution of worsening the ASA performance in the short run (by allowing coaching) to improve it in the long term is counter-intuitive. It is an emotionally difficult management decision to execute because of the delay. American managers are often rewarded by fixing problems quickly, not for fixing processes. An emphasis on the quick fix consequently leads to a reliance on symptomatic solutions which result in a long-term exacerbation of the problem symptom. However, on the surface, it looks highly effective.
A Change in Language
Since the publication of his book, Senge is now more apt to talk about A Learning Community as opposed to A Learning Organization, reflecting an emphasis on the need for synergistic relationships within organizations as the key to organizational effectiveness. The term Learning Organization focuses more on structure than on people.
Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Shields
I use this term without peroration.
Systems Thinking is not to be confused with computer systems. It is a larger topic.
It is possible, of course, that attributions and generalizations can be correct even though they are based on incorrect interpretations. The only point in that case would be, then, that the conclusions do not come from the data but are factually based elsewhere.
"Elegant” here is used in its archaic sense implying a simple and effective design.
ASA is Average Speed of Answer. USA Today’s National Customer Service Center’s goal is that the average caller will not have to wait longer than ten seconds before their call is answered by a representative.
The “green light” is the mechanism on the phone that comes on when a call is in the queue.