Peter Senge: The Dynamics of Change and Sustainability

By Gary, Loren | New Zealand Management, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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Peter Senge: The Dynamics of Change and Sustainability

Gary, Loren, New Zealand Management

Peter Senge has received worldwide acclaim for his work in translating the abstract ideas of systems theory into tools for understanding economic and organisational change.

Named in 1999 by the Journal of Business Strategy as one of the 24 people who have had the greatest influence on business strategy over the prior 100 years, Senge is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts institute of Technology. He is also chair of the Society of Organisational Learning (SOL), a global community of corporations that he helped found in 1997.

He is co-author of The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations.

In 1997, Harvard Business Review cited his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization as one of the seminal management books of the past 75 years.

Senge talks with Loren Gary about the disciplines that help create a genuine learning organisation and how they come into play in his work around environmental sustainability issues.

In The Fifth Discipline, you write about the component technologies or learning disciplines that combine to create learning organisations. You group these disciplines into three broad areas; the first is the capacity for aspiration. Please explain what that is. It has to do with what motivates change. It's very common for people to think that real change only occurs if there's a crisis. That's another way of saying that people have not developed a capacity to change because they see opportunities for real innovation even before somebody has a gun to their head. When an organisation changes only when it has to, that's testimony to the fact that the people in it don't have a picture of the future that's compelling enough to cause them to automatically bring about changes needed.

The capacity for aspiration has to do with creating such a compelling picture. It involves the disciplines of personal mastery and building shared vision.

But people don't aspire in a vacuum. They have to be able to make sense of their current reality.

Right, but the problem is, people often have very different views of what's going on. So just as they need a sense of capacity to aspire and foster shared visions, they also need a second broad capacity, which involves the ability to think together and reach some common understandings.

People often suppress their differences, choosing simply to salute the flag of what management says. But for organisational learning to take place, people have to be able to articulate their assumptions about what's going on--in other words, to learn the discipline of bringing their differing mental models out into the open.

Organisational or team learning also requires the ability to overcome the fear of conflict so as to challenge one another's thinking without invoking defensiveness. This is essentially the discipline of dialogue. If people think they always have to agree, the intelligence of the overall organisation will never be greater than the sum of its individuals' intelligence. Collective intelligence comes from our differences: we achieve a more integrative understanding by virtue of seeing how different people view a particular situation.

These first four disciplines--personal mastery, building a shared vision, working with mental models, and dialogue and team learning--all have to do with building the individual and collective capacity to have a strong conviction about what we want to create as well as the capacity to think together.

What about the fifth discipline--systems thinking?

Oscar Wilde said, "For every complex problem, there's a simple solution. And it's wrong." How do we really deal with the world without either trivialising its complexity or overwhelming people with all the complexity? This is the third broad capacity and it's where the discipline of systems thinking comes in.

Systems thinking has to do with learning how to see the interdependence--the processes of change that are always going on all around us but which we normally don't see.

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