The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge

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n.b. I read and reviewed this book as part of my coaching program, hence the references to coaching throughout this post.

The titular Fifth Discipline is systems thinking, the ability to look beyond the linear cause-effect thinking that is embedded in our language and our culture, and see the larger forces acting to create behavior. Senge illustrates this with the Beer Game simulation, where each individual actor takes actions that make sense in the moment to react to their situation, but the overall results are disastrous for the system; without the larger perspective of how the system fits together, each individual actor makes poor decisions.

Senge identifies that we must move beyond a reactive “Events” way of thinking (“this happened, so I did this”), to identify the longer-term “Patterns of Behavior” trends so we can respond to them, and eventually to shift to understanding the Systemic Structure that causes the longer-term Patterns of Behavior, so we can design new systems that generate new Patterns of Behavior; this is what he calls systems thinking.

I particularly loved his laws of systems thinking such as “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions”, “There is no blame” and “Behavior grows better before it grows worse”. These were great reminders of how when we look at our problems simplistically and reactively, we look for the immediate quick-fix without understanding how we got here. Senge explores this challenge in the realm of organizations which can not survive long-term with quick-fix thinking, but the relevance to coaching is clear; a quick fix for a client might help them in the short-term (e.g. to lose ten pounds, advise them to go on a crash diet), but will not help them develop and find a new way of being (e.g. understanding what patterns of thinking and previous embedded experiences are keeping them from developing healthier eating habits and incorporating more activity into their lives).

Another critical distinction from systems thinking is detail vs. dynamic complexity. To use Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, detail complexity is “complicated” – there may be many inter-relationships, but the system as a whole is static; if you do the same thing, you’ll get the same result. Dynamic complexity is “complex”, where the system will shift over time, so when you make one change, it will affect the behavior in a different part of the system; if you don’t have a way of thinking about the second- and third-order effects of the change (aka systems thinking), you will be defeated by the shifting complexity of the situation.

Senge uses the example of the “Limits to Growth” archetype, where growth feeds on itself, until it hits a balancing or stabilizing process. He observes that when growth slows, linear thinkers will push harder on the growth loop of the system, not realizing that the balancing loop in the system will resist more strongly as growth continues. For instance, a startup might grow very quickly in acquiring new customers (growth loop) until they hit the point where they can’t provide adequate service for their existing customers, and the customers start to leave (balancing loop). Pouring more resources into sales to acquire more customers will not enable more growth, as more customers will exacerbate the support and service issues; to unlock new customer growth possibilities requires counter-intuitively not investing in getting new customers, but in addressing the balancing loop of support and service for existing customers. The coaching analogy here is that clients will not grow or develop without seeing the patterns of thinking that are keeping them stuck.

Senge identifies four key disciplines to enable systems thinking in a learning organization:

  • Personal Mastery: “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn.” In particular, personal mastery is growing comfortable with the creative tension between an inspiring vision and one’s current reality, and learning to close that gap by improving one’s current reality rather than by limiting one’s vision. It also involves learning to harness and trust one’s subconscious and intuition to make sense of the dynamic complexity around us.
  • Managing Mental Models: “Surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works”. This is developing the skill to distinguish between what is presented to us and what conclusions we draw from it. We must both be able to clearly advocate for our own views and reasoning, while also staying curious and inquiring into how others arrive at their views. This is critical for coaching in not making assumptions about why our clients are behaving as they are, and instead staying curious and asking questions to learn what mental models they are applying to the situation.
  • Shared Vision: “generative learning occurs only when people are striving to accomplish something that matters deeply to them”. A learning organization can unlock a different level of commitment and energy with a vision that inspires the whole organization, and where people can see how they are contributing to that vision in their work.
  • Team Learning: “the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire”. This involves all of the other disciplines, starting with a shared vision, deciphering each person’s mental models to create alignment on current reality, developing personal mastery for each individual to move towards that vision, and systems thinking to create collaborative generative solutions.

The Fifth Discipline is a great summary of systems thinking and the disciplines necessary to move towards a shared vision in a shifting, complex world. My key takeaways both as a coach and as an aspiring manager are:

  • Beware of my own mental models and assumptions, and tap into my curiosity to inquire into what models my clients (or team) are applying to what they experience.
  • Move beyond linear reactive thinking to understand the systems the client (or team) is trapped in to help them design new systems to enable generative possibilities.
  • Work towards getting both me and my clients (or team) comfortable with the creative tension between an inspiring vision (a jointly defined purpose) and our current reality.

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