American Scientist, Director of the Center For Organizational Learning at MIT Sloan School of Management and Author
Peter Senge, fully Peter Michael Senge
American Scientist, Director of the Center For Organizational Learning at MIT Sloan School of Management and Author
When any of us acts in a state of fear or anxiety, our actions are likely to revert to what is most habitual: our most instinctual behaviors dominate, ultimately reducing us to our ?fight ? or ? flight? programming of the reptilian brain stem. Collective actions are no different. Even as conditions in the world change dramatically, most businesses, governments, schools, and other large organizations continue to take the same kinds of institutional actions that they always have. This does not mean that no learning occurs. But it is a limited type of learning: learning how best to react to circumstances we see ourselves as having no hand in creating. Reacting learning is governed by ?downloading? habitual ways of thinking, of continuing to see the world within the familiar categories we are comfortable with. We discount interpretations and options for action that are different than ones we know and trust. We act to defend our interests. In reactive learning, our actions are actually re-enacted habits, and we invariably end up reinforcing pre-established mental models. Regardless of the outcome, we end up being ?right.? At best, we get better at what we have always done. We remain secure in the cocoon of our own world view, isolated from the larger world.
When executives lead as teachers, stewards, and designers, they fill roles that are much more subtle and long-term than those of power-wielding hierarchical leaders.
When I entered graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970, I was already convinced that most of the problems faced by humankind concerned our inability to grasp and manage the increasingly complex systems of our world. Little has happened since to change my view.
When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.
Whenever I?m trying to help people understand what this word ?system? means, I usually start by asking: ?Are you a part of a family?? Everybody is a part of a family. ?Have you ever seen in a family, people producing consequences in the family, how people act, how people feel, that aren?t what anybody intends?? Yes. ?How does that happen?? Well? then people tell their stories and think about it. But that then grounds people in not the jargon of ?system? or ?systems thinking? but the reality ? that we live in webs of interdependence.?
Where then is the leverage in dealing with structural conflict? If structural conflict arises from deep underlying beliefs, then it can be changed only by changing the beliefs. But psychologists are virtually unanimous that fundamental beliefs such as powerlessness or unworthiness cannot be changed readily. They are developed early in life (remember all those "can'ts" and "don'ts" that started when you were two?) For most of us, beliefs change gradually as we accumulate new experiences - as we develop our personal mastery. But if mastery will not develop so long as we hold un-empowering beliefs, and the beliefs will change only as we experience our mastery, how may we begin to alter the deeper structures of our lives?
World problems are becomingly increasingly complex and interconnected.
You cannot have a learning organization without a shared vision...A shared vision provides a compass to keep learning on course when stress develops.
You look down there and you can't imagine how many borders and boundaries you crossed again and again and again. And you don't even see 'em. At that wake-up scene - the Middle East - you know there are hundreds of people killing each other over some imaginary line that you can't see. From where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it's so beautiful. And you wish you could take one from each side in hand and say, "Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What's important?
Learning organizations themselves may be a form of leverage on the complex system of human endeavors. Building learning organizations involves developing people who learn to see as system thinkers see, who develop their own personal mastery, and who learn how to surface and restructure mental models, collaboratively. Given the influence of organizations in today's world, this may be one of the most powerful steps toward helping us "rewrite the code", altering not just what we think but our predominant ways of thinking. In this sense, learning organizations may be a tool not just for the evolution of organizations, but for the evolution of intelligence.
Our fundamental challenges in education are no different than in business. They involve fundamental cultural changes, and that will require collective learning. They involve people at multiple levels thinking together about significant and enduring solutions we might create, and then helping those solutions come about.
The discipline of team learning starts with "dialogue," the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine "thinking together"... allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.
The tools and ideas presented in this book are for destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces. When we give up this illusion - we can then build "learning organizations", organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.
We are conditioned to see life as a series of events, and for every event, we think there is one obvious cause... Focusing on events leads to "event" explanations... they distract us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind the events and from understanding the causes of those patterns.
Learning to see the structures within which we operate begins a process of freeing ourselves from previously unseen forces and ultimately mastering the ability to work with them and change them.
Our unit of innovation has usually been the individual teacher, the individual classroom, or a new curriculum to be implemented individually by teachers. But the larger environment in which innovation is supposed to occur is neglected. So few innovations stick. Either a teacher moves away, or a teacher who successfully innovates becomes threatening to those around him or her. Significant changes in the content and process of education require coordinated efforts throughout a school: you cannot implement ?learner-directed learning,? for example, in one classroom and not others. It would drive kids nuts, not to mention the stress on the individual teacher. So there's absolutely no choice but trying to create change on multiple levels. Yes, there needs to be fundamental innovation in the classroom. Yes, you've got to find and support these teachers who are really committed to that. And no, it's completely inadequate by itself, because you have to be working simultaneously to create a totally different environment in the classroom, in the school, in the school system, and eventually in the community. And that's why it's not easy.
The earth is an indivisible whole, just as each of us is an indivisible whole. Nature (and that includes us) is not made up of parts within wholes. It is made up of wholes within wholes. All boundaries, national boundaries included, are fundamentally arbitrary. We invent them and then, ironically, we find ourselves trapped within them.
The traditional approach to helping educators learn has been to develop the skills of individuals to do their work better. I'm talking about enhancing the collective capacity of people to create and pursue overall visions. Obviously, the educational enterprise is ultimately about kids learning. But we must also give systematic attention to how teachers learn. And by learning, I don't mean sending them away to off-site conferences. I'm not saying they shouldn't ever do that, but learning is always an on-the-job phenomenon. Learning always occurs in a context where you are taking action. So we need to find ways to get teachers really working together; we need to create an environment where they can continually reflect on what they are doing and learn more and more what it takes to work as teams.
We are like actors who forget they are playing a role. We become trapped in the theater of our thoughts. This is when thought starts, in [David] Bohm's words, to become 'incoherent.'
Living systems have integrity. Their character depends on the whole.
Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.
The education enterprise is especially complicated because not only does the organization have different levels, it's very stratified. You've got teachers, principals, off-site administrators, school board members. I'm not convinced many of them see themselves as having a lot of power. One characteristic of an organization that has very low ability to learn is that people at all levels see themselves as disempowered; they don't think that they have leverage to make any difference. Last but not least, this whole enterprise is embedded within the community. So it's an extraordinarily complex organization and very stratified, very fragmented. And so it really should come as very little surprise that it's almost incapable of innovation.
The value of systems thinking also goes beyond that derived by any institution. To explain, let me take a step back. There is a certain irony to mankind's present situation, viewed from an evolutionary perspective. The human being is exquisitely adapted to recognize and respond to threats to survival that come in the form of sudden, dramatic events. Clap your hands and people jump, calling forth some genetically encoded memory of saber-toothed tigers springing from the bush. Yet today the primary threats to our collective survival are slow, gradual developments arising from processes that are complex both in detail and in dynamics. The spread of nuclear arms is not an event, nor is the "greenhouse effect", the depletion of the ozone layer, malnutrition and underdevelopment in the Third World, the economic cycles that determine our quality of life, and most of the other large-scale problems in our world.
We are taught to break apart problems... we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.
Maladaptation to gradually building threats to survival is so pervasive in systems studies of corporate failure that it has given rise to the parable of the "boiled frog." If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to scramble out. But if you place the frog in room temperature water, and don't scare him, he'll stay put. Now if the pot sits on a heat source, and you gradually turn up the temperature, something very interesting happens. As the temperature rises from 70 to 80 degrees F., the frog will do nothing. In fact, he will show every sign of enjoying himself. As the temperature gradually increases, the frog will become groggier and groggier, until he is unable to climb out the the pot. Though there is nothing restraining him, the frog will sit there and boil. Why? Because the frog's internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes in his environment, not to slow, gradual changes? We will not avoid the fate of the frog until we learn to slow down and see the gradual processes that often pose the greatest threats.