John G Bell


Winter '03 - Hill

Book Response: “Fifth Discipline” by Peter M Senge

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    a) Creative tension and mental models

“... as you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what's in between ... Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it ... No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear.” - p117-118 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

    On p159, Senge talks about telling the truth to combat “Structural Conflict” - a “relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge out theories of why things are the way they are.” This links to the Healing & Mind and My So Called Life videos that we saw in class that makes points about how we play the game of appearing other than how we are as a coping strategy and as a defensive routine. This also links to Thandenka and Bly's “A little book on the human shadow.” Further, in an example of Synchronicity, it also links to a section of the children's book The Phantom Tollbooth that I was reading just recently that talks about the twin cities of Reality and Illusion.

    There's multiple points in the videos ,and in the concept of the human shadow in both Thandenka and Bly, where there's a comment about the defensive routines, or games, that we play to cope by avoiding the truth or current reality.

    In fact, on p160 Senge talks about how being unaware of these strategies, or structures, “hold us prisoner. Once we can see them and name them, they no longer have the same hold on us.” This links to the book Non-violent Communication's story of the man that was better able to communicate with his father just by recognizing that the tools of NVC existed and not even specifically using them outside his own head. In Thandenka and Bly, recognizing that the shadow exists, we can begin to re-attach these parts of us that we've suppressed and in fact, in Bly, this is the primary mission of emotional maturity to re-integrate these parts of us.

    The tension between seeing things as they really are and maintaining mental models of the world is something that reminds me of the tension between the concept of the Rhino and the Monkey in the Safari Robin and I created. The Rhino wants to maintain control and is the facilitation of the process, but, as described on p186 where it is stated that unexamined mental models limit an organization's range of actions, there is a point at which the facilitation of the process becomes the limiting factor to further progress. The Rhino is the force of our mental models that frames the project, facilitates it, like the King in the elephant parable. The Monkey represents the force in us that is curious about other mental models, desires to examine them and try them on for size.

    The tension between the Rhino and the Monkey is the same kind of “creative tension” that helps “systemize bringing people together to develop the best possible mental models for facing any situation at hand.” (p181) The Rhino wants to maintain mental models and the Monkey wishes to change them. Together they are able to be creative in examining these models, but also able to hold on to them while they are useful. By maintaining this tension these mental models are seen as both useful and temporary.

    b) My new word: Understandard

On p186, Senge outlines skills related to mental models and the fourth is to recognize the distinctions between espoused theories and theories-in use. In the high-tech world there are "standards" (typically called Open Standards) which everyone is supposed to follow and that everyone agrees to and knows about, like how a web page is supposed to be displayed or the way that data is transferred over the Internet. (In fact, the Internet itself is a standard.)

Well, there's always companies that take liberties with the way they implement standards. Either they think they can improve on them, or they are trying to lock our competition, or both, etc ... anyhow, they work on a modified version of the "standard." This is like the difference between current reality and mental models, or like the difference between espoused theories and theories-in-use. So, there's the "standard" which is what we agree to publicly, but there's an "understandard" which is the modified standard by which we operate and that is the understanding between people "in the know" about how things really work.

So, that's my new word: Understandard, noun, the way things really work as opposed to the way they are officially supposed to work, which is a kind of tribal knowledge, knowledge that is often kept as a secret to maintain power and/or control over those that don't have that knowledge.

  1. American or world society

    p152 “Escaping emotional tension is easy – the only price we pay is abandoning what we truly want, our vision.”

    p146 source of cynicism - “a frustrated idealist – someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations.”

    Not only did this resonate with me as a description of myself and my father, but it seems to me to be a fundamental strategy in the modern world. In part, I think this is one of the keys to creating cynicism, because this is the mechanism where idealism is undermined and expectations fail to be reached. But isn't the whole idea of a learning organization an ideal that's being converted to an expectation?

    I wonder about this in relation to my constant struggle with the idea I have about the Hyenas, of which I seem to be very afraid. Is this about the same issues of failed idealism?

  1. these specific groups

Even in the context of this book, Senge recongized that willingness is an essential component to building learning organizations. On p245 Senge says that what is necessary is the “willingness” as in what Robin and I have talked about as being the difference between the outer and inner circles of our Safari. The inner circle is willing to communicate with others and desires to engage in the project of compassion and communication. However, it's not always the case that people are willing to do this. There are constant societal, cultural and personal forces that are pulling people, like a centrifuge, toward to outer edges of the Safari, toward the less willing edges. In the language of Senge the tension between advocacy and inquiry is important to this process. This is typified in the Safari by the creative conflict between the Rhino and the Monkey, between the desire to control and the desire to question.

On p222 Senge makes a comment that seems to recognize that learning organizations are just a tool used by management, not a real intrinsic goal. He says “managers are wary of whether the energy released through commitment can be controlled and directed. So, we settle for compliance and content ourselves with moving people up the compliance ladder.” This is essentially the admission that management isn't fully on board with this idea and that they've taken on the mantle of this project as a tool to manipulate labor. This points to a specific example of the unwillingness that exists in organizations to embrace the ideal.

On p291, Senge says “managers ... must truly want ..” and “enough people ... must truly want ...” these changes. Do they really? Isn't this a constant mistake that revolutionaries and evolutionaries make? There's a certain arrogance to the worldview that assumes what others should and must want. It seems to me that people seldom are so simple as that and that what seems obvious and essential to one person is not a universal priority.

This was something that Steve Jobs of Apple Computer said in some interviews about how his worldview has changed over time. He used to feel that people wanted to have the insanely great good, but realized that's just not the case. People want what's easy and comfortable. It seems to me that staying in a state of constant flux is not where most people will tell you they desire to be. In my experience, people may want that part of the time, or during certain periods of their life, but there's a desire for normality and constancy over the long term.

  1. myself

    I was part of a learning organization without knowing it in so many words. I was a leader in that organization. When the company I worked for was purchased by another they attempted to dismantle us without figuring out what we were. To be fair they dismantled all the other companies that they purchased at the same time, but I find it continually fascinating that my group, for which I can't take all the credit, so much to say the group in which I was involved, was the very last surviving remnant of any of the various companies that were purchased, and in fact came to be one of the most important and central places for institutional skill and knowledge within the larger company.

    We were very conscious of creating a learning environment. The strategy that I helped to create was one of constant improvement and development. In fact, we took great pride in taking people that didn't have any particular skills with computers and creating an environment where they were encouraged and enabled to learn to be effective technologists.

    I recognize the designing, stewarding and teaching aspects of the position I had taken in that organization and, though I'd forgotten, I even remember one of the owners asking me whether I'd ever read the Fifth Discipline, which I had not. I also recognize that despite some extremely frustrating failures and problems (like an institutional dysfunction of creating cynicism, failed idealism) that I and my whole team look back in fondness for that period of time.

B. Talking points

  1. Commitment to the bottom line

p140 “not designed for people's other needs ...”

The corporate world has only an incentive to address this when labor has power. When labor is dismantled by high unemployment after a bust cycle or by the social reorganization during times of war then the employing class reverses course.

This commitment to the personhood of labor rings hallow to me since it seems in my mind to be just a temporary ploy to court labor during periods of labor scarcity. For example, the reason why the owners of the company in which I was involved in creating a learning environment were supportive of that effort was that by creating a learning environment we were able to hire cheaper unskilled labor and train them into position. Further, since we offered a learning environment, we could offer less pay for trained workers due to the “opportunity” benefits.

I tried to find interesting stuff about Hanover & Kyocera. I seem to remember Kyocera has gone through some massive changes, but the only references I found were in relation to the general Japanese economy. I did find that Kyocera has 43,000 employees according to current records, that they had a huge jump in stock price in 2000 but that it's come back down to about the same, historic level per share. This doesn't really take into account the various stock splits they've had, just the chart of value per share.)

Around p217, the book talks about Digital being a shining example of the communal, open organization. However, this culture became one of the primary difficulties with the merger when Compaq purchased Digital. As I recall, Compaq ended up dismantling Digital during the process in part due to incompatibilities. They didn't get the religion and the learning communities in Digital didn't help Compaq, but in fact became problems that needed to be rutted out of the merger. In some sense, this happened when my group was dismantled by the new parent company excepting that they never bothered to find out what we were doing really, so they didn't even know. Perhaps this was similar for Compaq. In some sense, I suppose it's just as possible the the learning communities became as important within Compaq as mine did within the new parent in spite of the parent.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

p360 Who are the natural leaders? The learners

I have a gut reaction to this idea. I have trouble with the idea that the philosopher-king is a good ruler. Within the context of this book I recognize that there's a lot of intentionality and skill building toward leadership and it's the element of real world skill building where I see the philosopher-king being weakest and having the most trouble. So, I recognize this as kind of allergy I have toward the idea, which may come from my experience, but does not mean all such people are similarly flawed.