A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Organizational Resilience

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Key Concepts from The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge (1990, Doubleday)

Part I: How Our Actions Create our Reality and How we can Change it

Solutions to the problems that we face are within our reach; we have the power to control our destinies.

Chapter 1 introduces key book concepts:

  • Systems thinking can serve as a powerful lever by identifying leverage points: where the smallest efforts can make the biggest differences.
  • Five disciplines comprise the learning organization -- systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared visionandteam learning.
  • Systems thinking is the 5th discipline --the one which fuses all 5 into a coherent body of theory and practice.

Chapter 2: Seven learning disabilities often responsible for organizational failure:

(1) I am my position . . . . . (2) The enemy is out there . . . . . (3) The illusion of taking charge . . . . . (4) Fixation on events . . . . . (5) The parable of the boiled frog . . . . . (6) The delusion of learning from experience . . . . . (7) The myth of the management team

These disabilities can be overcome by mastering the core disciplines.

Chapter 3: The Beer Game

Individuals are part of a system; acting in isolation we get trapped in problems related to our own thinking and behaviors.

In the beer game, as in many other systems, to succeed requires that others succeed as well. Moreover, each player must share this systems viewpoint.

Key Concepts which Emerge from Part I:

Learning Organizations continually expand the capacity to create desired results, nurture new and expansive patterns of thinking, set free collective aspiration through enabling people to continually learn how to learn together.

     Learning organizations are fundamentally different from traditional authoritarian "controlling organizations." Rather, they excel by tapping people's commitment and through capacity to learn atalllevels in an organization.

Systems Thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that helps people see whole patterns, rather than artificially view the world as separate unrelated forces. It particularly helps us see how to change thingseffectivelyandwith the least amount of effort--to find the leverage points in a system.

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 discipline of personal mastery starts with clarifying the things that really matter to us, of living our lives in the service of our highest aspirations.

Mental Models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. the discipline begins with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.

Building Shared Vision involves unearthing shared "pictures of the future" that foster genuine commitment and enrollment, rather than compliance.

Team Learning begins with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and genuinely think together rather than discussion, which like percussion and concussion, consists of competitively heaving ideas back and forth. Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. "Unless teams can learn, the organization cannot learn."

Metanoia - A Shift of Mind. Systems thinking needs the other disciplines to realize its potential. Building a shared vision fosters commitment to the long-term; mental models unearth shortcomings in our present ways of seeing the world; team learning enables groups to find larger pictures that lie beyond individual perspectives; and personal mastery fosters the motivation to continually learn how our actions affect our world.

     At the heart of a learning organi­zation is a shift of mind --from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something "out there" to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.

Structure Influences Behavior. More often than we realize, systems, rather than external forces or individuals' mistakes, cause crises,. In human systems, structure includes how people make decisions --the "operating policies" whereby we translate perceptions, goals, rules, and norms into actions.

     Structural explanations are critical to understanding underlying causesof behavior so thatpatterns of behaviorcan be changed. Structure produces behavior, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behavior. In this sense, structural explanations are inherentlygenerative. Moreover, since structure in human systems includes the "operating policies" of the decision makers in the system, redesigning our own decision making redesigns the system structure.

Part II: The 5th Discipline: Cornerstone of the Learning Organization

Chapter 4. Laws of the Fifth Discipline:

  1. today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions"
  2. the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back
  3. behavior grows better before it grows worse
  4. the easy way out usually leads back in
  5. the cure can be worse than the disease
  6. faster is slower
  7. cause and effect are not closely related in time and space
  8. small changes can produce big results --but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious
  9. you can have your cake and eat it too --but not at once
  10. dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants
  11. there is no blame

Chapter 5: A Shift of Mind -- Feedback Loops

Systems thinking is needed more than ever because of the complexity of interactions of today's world. Senge contrasts detail complexity from dynamic complexity, situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious, when:

  • the same action has dramatically different effects in the short-run and in the long-run
  • an action has one set of consequences locally and a very different set of consequences in another part of the system
  • obvious interventions produce non-obvious consequences

Conventional forecasting, planning, and analysis methods are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity. The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view, and toward the expanded and non-obvious consequences of actions. The essence of the discipline of systems thinking lies in a shift of mind:

  • seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and
  • seeing processes of change (patterns) rather than snapshots (isolated events).

Causal relationships are generally neither linear nor unidirectional. A systems perspective – traces causality, source and effect through feedback loops. Feedback refers to any reciprocal flow of influence. A key distinction is between "reinforcing" from "balancing" feedback ("positive" and "negative" feedback loops, respectively).

In a positive reinforcing feedback system, small actions can grow into large consequences. For example, positive word of mouth can lead to sales growth. In common language such feedback loops are called bandwagon effects, vicious circles or snowball effects. (Senge uses a snowball rolling downhill to illustrate them)

Balancing (negative) feedback loops underlie all goal seeking behavior. For example, an organization that seeks to maintain a desired cash balance will continually either continually compare it’s actual cash balance with its desired cash balance and depending on which is larger, either pay debts down or borrow more.

Balancing loops underlie non-conscious goal seeking behavior as well. The human body contains thousands or balancing feedback processes that maintain temperature, heal wound, adjust our eyesight to the amount of light. The body uses feedback loops to achieve homeostasis.

Chapter 6 Systems Archetypes

Human processes can be understood as generic structures. Two archetypes are discussed in the chapter: (1) limits to growth and (2) shifting the burden. Later in the book he explains: balancing process with delay ♦  shifting the burden to the intervener ♦ eroding goals ♦ escalation ♦ success to the successful ♦ tragedy of the commons ♦ fixes that fail ♦ growth and under-investment

For each archetype, Senge illustrates the guiding structure, and the resulting behavior (or pattern) generated. He also highlights where in the system resides the leverage point(s). The discussion is enriched with practical examples.

Chapter 7 Leverage

The right lever can move the world; conversely, actions taken without systemic considerations generally failure to achieve desired results.

Chapter 8 illustrates the ideas behind Part II with an example: the rise and decline of People Express --an illustration of the workings of the limits to growth archetype.

Part II contains the technical aspects and the tools needed for systems thinking. It goes beyond the concepts laid out in Part I to demonstrate the value and importance of systems thinking in practice, and to prepare the reader to use systemic analysis.

Part III: The Core Disciplines: Building the Learning Organization

Deeper understanding of the other four disciplines:

  • Chapter 9. Personal Mastery
  • Ch 10. Mental Models
  • Ch 11. Building Shared Vision
  • Ch 12. Team Learning

Part IV: Prototypes (of Systemic Structures)

  • Chapter 13. Openness
  • Chapter 14. Localness
  • Chapter 15. A Manager's Time
  • Ch 16. Ending the War Between Work and Family
  • Ch 17. Microworlds: The Technology of the Learning Organization
  • Ch 18. The Leader's New Work


What lies ahead, after the foundation established by the five disciplines is laid out:

  • A Sixth Discipline?
  • Rewriting the Code
  • The Indivisible Whole


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Date Page Created: Feb 8, 2013 Last Page Update: Feb 11, 2013