Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Fifth Discipline and Fieldbook

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization
By Peter Senge (1990).

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization
By Peter Senge et al. (1994)
Both books reviewed by Marty N.

These two books launched the concept of the "learning organization." Within the world of corporate management theory, the Learning Organization ("LO") is the antithesis of the rigid hierarchical models on which most of the major corporate enterprises of this century have been erected. It is the author’s view that these authoritarian structures are today in crisis because they have failed to engage and to utilize the intelligent passion of the great majority of people who work for them. They have become rigid, dogmatic and blind, and as a result have lost market share to livelier competitors both here and abroad, or have disappeared altogether.
The "fifth discipline" of the title is systems analysis, a way of thinking about organizations in a non-linear manner by studying the consequences, frequently unintended, of every organizational structure and action. The consequence of authoritarianism, Senge holds, is to stifle team learning, discourage personal mastery, foster inaccurate mental models, and kill the vision that motivates. The LO theory aims to transform the resulting giant trunks of deadwood into fresh young saplings before they crash and fall.

Senge is a senior lecturer at MIT and a member of the Center for Organizational Learning at the Sloan School of Management there. Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Business Week and other business publications have pointed to the "learning organization" model as perhaps the most important development in management theory in the second half of this century. Highly in demand for seminars and presentations, Senge has leveraged his books into chairmanship of the Society for Organizational Learning, a collaborative that lists a gallery of Fortune 100 corporations among its sponsors. There are numerous advocates of LO theory and there is a busy mailing list, learning-org, bringing together management people from business, education, nonprofits and the military. Despite the radical flavor of some of Senge’s ideas, these are not the ravings of a fringe lunatic; on the contrary, they seem well on their way to becoming the mainstream, at least in doctrine if not in practice.

The books came to me almost by serendipity. My wife, a schoolteacher engaged in school reform, brought home the Fieldbook and suggested I might find interesting stuff in it. She was quite right. Although addiction is a minor theme in the LO theory, both books can be read with little translation as if they were sobriety manuals. After reading the Fieldbook, I went out and bought the 1990 text. Generally, the early book is more theoretical, and the Fieldbook has more practical detail.

I found LO theory easily applicable to my situation as an engaged member of a sobriety organization. By "learning," Senge obviously means something different from going to classes; it means a lifelong practice of investigating, experimenting, moving, growing in capacity and insight; it means a life of "integrity, openness, commitment, and collective intelligence." That seems to me a pretty fair approximation of the skills that a long-term addict needs to have in order to stay sober. Learning in this sense also points toward the rewards that come when a brain is allowed to work free of addictive substances. Learning is not something separate from doing or living; it is an engaged, intelligent mode of being in the world.

On the larger scale, a "learning organization" is one that creates a reality in which its vision and practice flourish almost effortlessly, and whose members have the feeling of being part of a truly "great team." To get to that point, however, requires a long and strenuous effort, and much "practice, practice, practice."

Senge and his collaborators classify the transformative work to be done into the five disciplines of personal mastery, shared vision, team learning, mental models, and systems analysis. All five lines of work contain useful ideas for being a better member of a sobriety team.

Personal mastery comes, in Senge’s view, when an individual has a clear vision of a goal, combined with an accurate reading of reality. The gap between the vision and the reality sets up a "creative tension" that energizes the individual. In pursuit of personal mastery, the individual acquires the necessary capacities and creates whatever methods and rules are necessary to realize the vision.

Basic to acquiring personal mastery is a dedication to the truth: "Seeing and telling the truth is a fundamental component of personal mastery, and of the related discipline of shared vision.... Because creative tension depends on a clear understanding of current reality, it drains away as soon as people lie to themselves or each other."

The great enemy of personal mastery, says Senge, is the belief in one’s powerlessness and lack of self-worth. He says that the culture indoctrinates most people to believe either that they lack the capacity to get what they want, or that they are unworthy to achieve their goals. These beliefs are very difficult to eradicate. They may create a vicious circle in which we fail to move forward because we believe we are powerless, and we reinforce our feelings of powerlessness because we have failed to move forward.

A key element in achieving personal mastery, Senge writes, is to train and utilize the powers of the subconscious. Our subconscious mind can handle far more complex problems and more quickly than can our consciousness. For example, in driving a car in traffic or playing a musical instrument we perform with seeming effortlessness a task that our conscious minds at first approach could perform only very poorly, if at all. Senge points out that the subconscious "is highly subject to direction and conditioning." After much practice, practice, practice, there comes a "flip of the switch" in the subconscious when we have achieved mastery; for example, we begin to dream in the foreign language we have studied.

These points about personal mastery have obvious applications to our work as persons learning sobriety. Our vision is a sober life; our reality is filled with stresses and problems. The belief in our own powerlessness and/or lack of worth holds us back from realizing our vision, and may lock us in an all-too familiar loop of defeat. But if we can still see and speak the truth, we can break out of that cycle. Many of the sobriety tools that we have available, particularly the Daily Dos and other repetitive acts, are designed to work on the subconscious. Jim Christopher’s Triumph workshops are based centrally on the idea of training the subconscious (the "lizard brain"), very much in agreement with Senge’s theories. Senge’s "personal mastery" discipline holds many useful lessons for persons overcoming addictions.

Shared vision is the glue that holds together the personal mastery efforts of a learning organization’s members. On the one hand, if the individuals have widely disparate personal visions, their efforts will not come into alignment and the organization will not cohere. On the other hand, because individual psychology is so deeply cultural and organizational in its makeup, the organization's shared vision may become the vision that guides the personal mastery efforts of the individuals. A shared vision creates within an organization the same creative tension as within an individual. However, cautions Senge, the shared vision is rarely found in the group’s compulsory mission statement. It may be implicit, unspoken, or even unknown to its members. Discovering and articulating that vision is one of the primary tasks of the organization’s leadership. "Every organization has a destiny; a deep purpose that expresses the organization's reason for existence. We may never fully know that purpose, just as an individual never fully discovers his or her purpose in life. But choosing to continually listen for that sense of emerging purpose is a critical choice that shifts an individual or a community from a reactive to a creative orientation."

Hearing and articulating that vision is not a matter of a handful of people going into a room and drafting a mission statement. It takes much time, considerable philosophical depth, and requires an ongoing process of listening to the organization’s members. An important task of leadership is to organize processes by which the vision can emerge. When it does emerge, it is a powerful energizer, because it taps into the deepest motivation that people have – deeper than money, fame, or power – namely to be part of some effort that is larger than themselves, to be of service to the community and to the world.

It seems to me that one of the useful efforts of our upcoming ’99 SOS convention, and of the preconvention period, is to work on refining and deepening our shared vision. We emerged initially with a "negative" vision, as is the case with most political and social movements (anti-colonialism, anti-slavery, anti-war, etc.). We got together to achieve sobriety "without" something (religion, God, spirituality, dogmatism) and to get "away from" a bad place, like the tribes of Moses fleeing Egypt. There has been growing up, it seems to me, the more "positive" side of that original view, a vision of what we are for. We have a job to do, all of us, to fill in further the design and color of that emergent vision.

Team learning, the "third" of the disciplines (they are actually meant to be worked in any order, as needed), is the process by which personal mastery and shared vision come into alignment. In conventional organizations, a great deal of effort goes into making sure that the organization is not as intelligent as its leading members; this Senge calls "skilled incompetence." This negative distribution of learning is reinforced by methods of communication that communicate as little as possible. Conventional advocacy and "discussion" amount to little more than exchanges of gunfire, and the natural response of all participants is to barricade what they know and cover their behinds. No team learning, much less creation of a learning organization, can take place while its internal conversations are of this type.

Senge views these practices as so ingrained in corporate culture that an outside consultant is usually necessary to introduce management to different modes of discourse ("skilled discussion" and "dialogue"). Establishing actual communication in groups requires that members define each other as colleagues, not enemies, and that each person dares to be vulnerable and to admit to ignorance. Otherwise no learning can take place. The books, particularly the Fieldbook, outline several different games that groups can play to bring hidden conflict to the surface without harm to group cohesion, and for discussing the undiscussable topics that usually lurk beneath the surface of organizations that are stuck.

It seems to me that our normal discourse in our recovery meetings is far better than that of the usual corporate management groups. We are all colleagues in recovery, and generally we are good at admitting our ignorance and being vulnerable. I see "team learning" take place at practically every meeting. I don’t believe that we need outside consultants to make the talk in our recovery meetings flow – on the contrary, we could teach the consultants a thing or two.
However, there is very little if any conversation at present between the meetings. I don’t mean casual social conversation between members of different meetings who know each other. I mean organized dialogue between representatives of different meetings in the same city or area. And if we view the representatives of all the meetings in the country as one team, there is virtually no sustained conversation at all, and therefore team learning at the national level is almost nonexistent.

The national newsletter, with its quarterly schedule, cannot sustain a conversation about current concerns. The convenor’s email list is the only channel that can carry the flow of team learning nationwide and internationally at the present time, and fortunately most convenors now have the ability to go online. Our upcoming convention will be literally the first opportunity ever for many of the attendees to practice "team learning" on the national scale. We can learn from the Senge books about the qualities that will make productive dialogue at the convention: tempering advocacy with inquiry, linking theory with implementation, and speaking in the service of truth and for the interests of the whole.

Accurate mental models are necessary both for elaborating a vision and for understanding the reality. Mental models can be complex theories but are more often simple images, assumptions and stories. Drawing on cognitive psychology, Senge writes that mental models are inner programs that govern our perceptions, feelings, thoughts and actions. Major problems arise when the really operative models lie buried beneath the surface. As the Detroit automakers demonstrated, entire industries can espouse tacit mental models that no longer match reality.
Reshaping mental models is, in Senge’s view, a key point of leverage for effecting organizational change. He offers several exercises for bringing tacit mental models to the surface so they can be examined. A starting point for applying the lever is the gap that often develops between what people really feel and think, which Senge calls the "left-column" items, and what people say in formal business meetings (the "right column").

Achievement of uniformity of mental models is not at all the goal of these exercises, Senge says. Although a successful dialogue may result in an alignment of models, a conformity of mental models in an organization is not necessary and is a sign of mental poverty. Congruency must not be forced, because it leads to shallowness in motivation and lack of resiliency. In passages that sound very much like our Sobriety Handbook, Senge writes:

Don't impose a favored mental model on people. Mental models should lead to self-concluding decisions to work their best. … Self-concluding decisions result in deeper convictions and more effective implementation. … People are more effective when they develop their own models -- even if mental models from more experienced people can avoid mistakes…. It's important to note that the goal is not agreement or congruency. Many mental models can exist at once. Some may disagree. All of them need to be considered and tested against situations that come up.
The existence of multiple mental models within an organization assures that different perspectives are brought to bear on a problem and that the collective intelligence of the organization can be greater than that of any of its parts. Successful organizations bring their diversity of mental models to the surface and cherish their differences. Organizations that have no differences or that suppress them are moribund.

Reading Senge’s remarks about mental models made me feel that SOS as an organization has been on the right track all along on this issue. We have always maintained that individuals can and must develop their own mental models for staying sober, and that only self-developed models can have the depth and inner force to sustain the individual successfully through the challenges that recovery poses. We treasure the diversity of different mental models that exists within our ranks, and we are so bold as to believe that this diversity makes us both more attractive and more effective as a sobriety organization. We would benefit by adding a still greater diversity of mental models to our toolbox, by raising the level of clarity and articulation of the models that we have, and by providing members with threads and maps that allow them more readily to locate what is available and try it on for size.

Systems thinking is the fifth and most fundamental of the disciplines whose practice makes a learning organization. Just as the learning organization is the antithesis of the hierarchical organization, systems thinking is the antithesis of linear thinking. Linear thought assumes that action flows from top to bottom, that motion goes from A to B, much in the manner of most people’s understanding of Newtonian mechanics. Systems theory thinks in circles: an action goes from A to B but there is a reflux action that goes back from B to A – frequently with unintended results.

Senge introduces the topic with "the beer game" (an unfortunate and unnecessary choice of subject matter), a seminar exercise in which a sudden modest increase in consumer demand for the "Lover’s Beer" brand leads the retailer and the wholesaler and the brewery into a massive spiral of overproduction ending in a collapse of the manufacturer – surely an unintended consequence. Dee Hock, a prominent corporate guru aligned with the LO trend, formulates this as a sardonic law of the universe: "Everything has both intended and unintended consequences. The intended consequences may or may not happen; the unintended consequences always do." The Senge books are illustrated throughout with circle diagrams showing various positive and negative feedback loops, either simple or combined into common patterns. It is Senge’s thesis that these reflux effects are frequently unseen and that they form structures which hold us prisoner so long as we are unaware of them.

Senge identifies a half dozen "archetypes" – organizational patterns that recur so frequently that systems thinkers can spot them on sight. The one that is most relevant to the current state of our organization is the archetype Senge calls "Shifting the Burden." In this pattern, a symptom of an underlying structural problem is relieved by a "quick fix," which in turn aggravates the underlying problem, which leads to more reliance on the "fix," and so on, until the organization goes into what Senge calls an "addiction loop." When this occurs, "the addiction becomes worse than the original problem, because of the devastation it wreaks on the fundamental ability to address the problem symptom."

In our case, the underlying structural problem was that we did not have the financial capacity, a decade ago, to sustain an organizational presence at the national level. We shifted the burden of that problem to a single outside funder, the Council for Secular Humanism. The unintended but inevitable consequence of this fix has been that the financial sponsor has complete ownership of the organization on the national level and considers SOS as its "subcommittee." As a consequence, our capacity to sustain a national organization from below has hardly developed and may even have atrophied. We seem to be linked to outside funding in an addictive loop, and what Senge calls "a powerful tendency toward addictive denial" is evident.
Senge’s advice for situations like this is multi-pronged. He suggests reflection: what was the original problem, and how else could it have been solved? He urges openness to hear other people’s views of what the problem is and how it can be fixed. It is crucially important, he writes, to articulate the long-term goals clearly and often, and to work on practical measures that support the underlying solution. If possible, go cold turkey on the addictive fix; if not, gain time to strengthen the long-term solution and develop alternative resources. These are wise words of advice as we approach the business meeting (Delegates’ Assembly) of our ’99 convention.
Senge avoids giving any pat formulas for how leadership in a LO should operate. No amount of reshuffling the organizational structure will produce a LO. But the bias is clearly in favor of decentralization, delegation, and a maximum of local autonomy.
If leadership no longer means issuing orders or playing the charismatic messiah, what does it mean?

Leadership means, firstly, designing the organizational structure – the leader as architect.
Then, the leader is a teacher who facilitates the learning process in the entire organization: assisting people to develop their own mental models, creating an environment in which personal mastery and team learning can flourish. The leader achieves leverage by "helping people achieve more accurate, more insightful, and more empowering views of reality." On the qualities of the leader as facilitator of the members’ self-empowerment process, Senge paraphrases Lao-tzu: "the bad leader is he who people despise. The good leader is he who people praise. The great leader is he who people say 'we did it ourselves.'" Our Handbook makes the identical point, end of Ch. 3.

The leader of the LO may also become de facto the steward of the organization’s shared vision, and this is positive; but the steward must remember that a vision cannot be owned. A vision is like a child, of which Kahlil Gibran wrote: they come through us, but they are not of us.
Finally, and most importantly, the leader models the qualities esteemed in the organization and its members. "Ultimately people follow people who believe in something and have the abilities to achieve results in the service of those beliefs. Or, to put it another way, who are the natural leaders of learning organizations? They are the learners."
The essence of a learning organization, Senge concludes, is being a member of a "great team." Through active participation, the individual experiences a "deep learning cycle," which entails "the development not just of new capacities, but of fundamental shifts of mind, individually and collectively." The evidence of "deep learning" is that we can do things we couldn't do before. We can have real conversation instead of chatter. We can see larger systems and forces at play and we can construct publicly testable hypotheses about them. We become aware of the presence or absence of spirit or vision; we know when we are following our vision, or when we are simply reacting. We begin to "tell a new story." In a learning organization, people become willing to reveal uncertainties and ignorance and incompetence, because only in this way can we learn. Gradually "a deep confidence develops within us," because we have experienced "the power of people living with integrity, openness, commitment, and collective intelligence." These are ideas that resonate deeply with many of us in recovery from lives of addiction.
It seems to me that Senge’s effort to recast the corporate world into this new mold is probably doomed. The inertia of the old behemoths founded on maximization of profit and on the externalization of costs – human, environmental and political – may prove too great, particularly against the background of the worldwide deflation that is in progress as I write this. But the concept of the learning organization may find fertile ground in the little hidden places of refuge where profit is not the prime directive, where people gather to be real with each other, and where "learning" is not only a metaphor for a vibrant way of being in the world, but a necessity of personal and organizational survival.

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