I had occasion recently to reflect on the fact that it is now more than twenty years since I first read Peter Senge’s seminal book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organisation. All those years ago, I was at the National Productivity Institute in Pretoria looking for a breakthrough in work management.
The refrigeration contracting company I led was staring at a completely oversubscribed order book and we had to find a more productive way to do our work. The story began with them giving me in one hand a copy of Eli Goldratt’s The Goal, and in the other, a copy of The Fifth Discipline.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
Whilst The Goal was of more immediate relevance, The Fifth Discipline occupies a place in my practice that calls to mind TS Eliot’s famous words: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ What is the essence of what I have learned about Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Team Learning, Shared Vision and Systems Thinking in an exploration of organisational learning which I started more than two decades ago?
Firstly, the idea that organisations learn is a misnomer. People within organisations learn. Good managerial leaders create the conditions in which it is safe to learn. There is tremendous anxiety associated with learning. You will have to face into the fact that you don’t know enough, that you will feel exposed and ashamed in front of your peers, bosses and subordinates, and that you will have to yield the existing source of your power to try and gain mastery over new knowledge, processes and systems. But the alternate to stepping into the unknown and to learn how to master it is to gradually shrink away from what is meaningful, to become increasingly stale, bored and disillusioned, and ultimately to become disposable.
All learning starts with the self, and the wisdom contained in the Ethics of the Fathers:’If I am not for myself, who is? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?’ At first reading, that first question reads as if one has to be selfish. But how can we be effective for anyone else if we have not mastered ourselves? Standing on two legs, with eyes that face forward, we are creatures who are physically and psychologically built for moving toward a goal. Where are you going? What is your vision for yourself and the purpose by which you live your life?
“If I am not for myself, who is?
If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
It took me the longest time to get really clear about the ‘why’ of what I do, but once I was able to get it down in words, every other decision I made has been framed with Just Work in mind – bringing into the daily workplace the Golden Rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.
For the second part of the aphorism, I have learned the value of transcending the locus of self in service of something which can make a difference for others. It is the essence of everything heroic in the world. It is never easy to recognise in the moment the arousal of the ego, with its companion siren song of hubris. But if personal mastery doesn’t mean being self-aware enough in the moment to halt the mind’s stampede to self-serving aggrandisement, then it means nothing at all.
And finally, personal mastery is about being deeply present in each moment. I have come to learn that the true meaning of eternity is not ‘a very long time in the future’, but rather connotes the most intense concentration of the present you can experience. The past is but a story and, in the words of Yogi Berra, ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’. So, in pursuit of personal mastery, how intensely can you cultivate the only thing that is real in this world: this present moment? For me, the ultimate result of personal mastery is enlightenment, equanimity and peace—an evolution of us human beings, one at a time, over a lifetime, to our highest form of development. A work in progress.
Truly great shared visions can align a vast number of people in pursuit of a common goal. Kennedy gives his vision of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back safely to earth. Martin Luther King Jr had a Dream that people would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. The book of Proverbs tells us that ‘without vision, people perish’. So, what have I learned about the importance of having a shared vision and how to go about creating one? At a minimum, I have learned that my most important and successful assignments have always been propelled and galvanised by shared vision.
To provide energy that overcomes the inevitable dips, to have people subordinate their personal preferences in favour of the broader good, there must be a compelling aligning narrative. People on the team must feel they are contributing to, and have agency in, the unfolding of the story. You and they must create a universe big enough to accommodate each and every personal vision. As important as the strategy may be, or the calculus of the options, nothing has the power to move people to greatness than being actively engaged in what will eventually become the myths and legends of how you got from the present moment to that shining light on the hill.
You can tell people how the future’s going to be, or you can sell them the sizzle of what it looks like. You can test the vision on them or you can consult with them to gauge how they respond. But, if you want to enrol them for the long haul, you’re best co-creating the vision with them. It means spending time, lots of it, giving detailed expression to what the future will be like. Rendering it in as rich a detail as possible. Standing in the imagination in that future time and place as if the vision had already been accomplished, then collectively learning from that future into which you all wish to live. Learning how to be the change you wish to see and what needs to be done to get there.
We all carry representations in our minds of the world around us. Those representations are the map, not the territory—the mental model, not the reality. It is humbling to take the time to think of that for a moment. There is no way any of us, even the best and brightest, are capable of making our representations of that which we observe to become the thing itself.
When we apprehend a phenomenon through sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing, motion and balance, energy, emotion or thought, we can only ever hope to convey a model of what we have apprehended to another, or a group of others. We cannot convey the thing itself. We use culturally bound means of giving expression to the observed phenomenon, whether through science or art, and the best we can hope for is that there is sufficient overlap of understanding to productively use the knowledge generated.
Often in his lectures, Senge will talk about how we are not recording devices, and so have no means of giving an objectively truthful reflection of what we have experienced. Or, as the British statistician George Box put it: ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’. As creatures capable of high levels of cognitive ability, we seem to have earned this gift with its counterweight problem of cognitive bias.
So, I have learned that one should be humble when trying to articulate what the ‘truth’ is of any given situation. Use the benefit of personal mastery to not be attached to how you wish the world was, and instead be open to discovering afresh a closer truth of how it actually is. Every step we take into the territory of the unknown delivers us new knowledge as we conquer its mysteries. But there is always far more to be discovered than even the gargantuan troves of knowledge we have uncovered to date. I believe that the more we come to know and describe in our mental models, the more there is to know.
Too often I have seen people engage in discussions whose sole purpose is to destroy the argument of the other and emerge as the victor to reap the spoils. This inability to listen breeds either resentment or a learned passivity, often aggressive in its nature. You are then forced to be on your guard as the jousting continues and the bitter memory of the ‘win-lose’ becomes a toxic marinade for future tournaments. At worst, the culture becomes full of rancour and at best the winner becomes the lone genius who has to do all the thinking. No one feels safe to express an opposing view and the organisation loses out on the collective wisdom of all whose livelihood depends on it.
I have thus come to learn that the essence of team learning resides in the ability to listen. That is, to get out of the voice in your head which is constantly judging you and the person or people with whom you are in conversation, and to metaphorically step into their shoes with an open and generous heart. As already mentioned, we all have our own mental models to make sense of what we see happening in our world. Suspending your point of view for long enough to reflect on what your interlocutor is saying will inevitably provide you with fresh insights on your toughest challenges. Equipped with these insights and the growth of trust which arises from deep listening, the likelihood of generative dialogue is substantially enhanced. Powerful new solutions to seemingly intractable problems often arise from generative dialogue—the heart of team learning.
“If you think learning’s expensive, try ignorance.”
Learning how to learn together is an art form based on an understanding of what it takes to share success and failure, and to overcome judgement, cynicism and fear. No doubt the price to pay for team learning is an appreciation of the value of vulnerability—being courageous enough to speak your truth, no matter how incorrect or stupid it may seem. The only way we come to upgrade and improve our mental models is when we can speak freely and then listen in to what others contribute to refuting or confirming our ideas. As Jordan Peterson put it in rule 9 of his bestseller 12 Rules For Life: ‘Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t’.
Over the years since I first came to understand Senge’s final discipline, I have distilled my thoughts into two major parts. Goldratt’s genius provides us with an operational means of taming the complexity of what I call non-living systems—the world of mechanics and Newton’s laws of motion. Non-living systems such as trains, software programs and excavators work according to deterministic patterns and when they are broken, they can be fixed or replaced. Living systems on the other hand are complex and adaptive.
When a part of a living system starts to malfunction, the rest of the system adapts to the change and either corrects the malfunction or it evolves into a new form. Non-living systems are always a part of the broader living systems. The train exists within a much broader system of the cities, towns and villages it serves: the passengers, the drivers, the controllers, the signalmen, the ticket office, the financiers, the regulators, and not to mention the operators of the electricity grid by which its engines, lighting and air-conditioning are powered. The list could go on ad infinitum, for example, to the miners who dig the iron ore to feed into the steel mills which make the rails.
All these ‘systems within systems’ weave a web of interdependency which I believe lies at the heart of The Fifth Discipline. I am often amused and sometimes terrified by those who think they have the answer to the most intractable problems of our age and don’t include in their thinking any kind of appreciation for their role in the system of which they are a part.
Climate change becomes a climate crisis and the protestors go in their Prius cars to protest a new coal mine being built. With the best of intentions, they ignore the fact that the steel from the car came from intensive use of energy in mining the iron and the metallurgical coal, shipping it over oceans, putting it through smelters and then proceeding through every step of the manufacturing and distribution process.
The fuel they use in their car to get to the protest came from the fossil fuel source of energy they protest about. The roads they drive on were built in part on the taxes raised from these mining activities, as was the education which provided them with the knowledge of just how to articulate their protest. The social network they belong to, which was key to them being able to organise the protest, relies on server farms which chew huge amounts of electricity, mostly generated by fossil fuels. The computers they use depend on mining and manufacturing which themselves depend on reliable sources of the electricity generated from the coal they have come to demonstrate against.
“If you’re not part of the problem,
you can’t be part of the solution.”
Within the same earth system of our hominid home, however, are those who deny there is a problem. They assume that we can continue over-using our finite planetary resources without any significant consequence. People who refuse to properly recognise the price of environmental damage and are blind to the system archetype of the tragedy of the commons. As Senge put it, when you think about our good earth as a system, ‘there’s no out there, out there’.
I have adopted an axiom of system thinking which I think we would all be better off considering before assuming that simplistic solutions can solve deeply systemic problems: ‘If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution’.
In my more than twenty years of thinking about The Fifth Discipline and how we learn in organisations, I am more convinced than ever that we need mastery in all four of the other disciplines: personal mastery, shared vision, mental models and team learning to become increasingly effective systems thinkers and realise that we’re all in this together. It may be the only chance we have, because if you think learning’s expensive, try ignorance.
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My own book, More Than Just Work, distils my thinking about three decades of managing work. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
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[Background photo by Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash]
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