Everybody understands the idea of consequence or that action A leads to B. In order to be truly proactive, IT companies need to stop thinking linearly about consequences and instead view the IT environment as a system.
In this series, we will explore systems thinking and its impact on IT service delivery.
Being able to “learn quickly” as an organization is a challenge that cannot be assumed away or taken for granted. Organizations learn only through individuals who learn, but individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning (Senge, 1995). According to Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1995), the foundation of The Learning Organization is based on the simultaneous development of five Disciplines (bodies of theory and techniques that must be mastered to be put into practice): Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Building Shared Vision, Team Learning, and Systems Thinking. One key takeaway is that all five disciplines are interdependent and must be developed and used in conjunction. Organizational learning is not only restricted to the accumulation, dissemination, retention and refinement of knowledge but to its creation as well. Research has shown that knowledge creation is a core competency for organizations to move to a higher platform of competitive success (Wang, Ahmed 2003).
In exploring collective learning Peter Senge identified five individual Disciplines, which he defined as bodies of theories and techniques that must be studied and mastered to be put into practice (Senge, 1995).
1. Systems Thinking
Systems Thinking requires a change in perspective and philosophy for most people. That is to say, systems thinking lies in a shift of thinking; seeing interrelationship rather than linear cause-effect chains and seeing processes instead of snapshots. Reality is made up of ‘circles’ but we tend to see straight lines. The key to seeing reality systematically is seeing circles of influence instead of seeing straight lines. For example when you fill a glass of water you are creating a system of influence between desired water level, faucet position, water flow, adjusting until desired water level is achieved. One-way causality says ‘My hand is controlling the rate of flow of water into the glass.’ But it is also true that ‘The level of the water in my glass is controlling my hand.’ The complete statement of causality is ‘My intent to fill a glass of water creates a system that causes water to flow in when the level is low, then shuts off the flow when the glass is full.’ This can be thought of as circles of causality, or that every action triggers a reaction. (Senge, 1995)
There are two types of reactions: reinforcing feedback, which accelerates a given trend of a process, and balancing feedback, which will adjust a present state to a desirable target. (Senge, 1995)
2. Personal Mastery
Organizations learn only through individuals who learn but individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. Therefore dedication to personal growth and learning by individuals, or Personal Mastery, is required. Personal mastery is more than just competence and skills but encompasses the desire to create and to continually clarify what is important to us (Senge, 1995) both as individuals and as organizations. True learners never “arrive” but learn from the journey. This is the same philosophy that comes from some marital arts, such as traditional Chinese Kung Fu, in which there is no ranking or classification system. Rather, the student never arrives but is on a continual, endless journey of knowledge acquisition.
There are three high-level components to Personal Mastery: Personal Vision, Creative Tension, and Overcoming Structural Conflict.
Personal Vision is the individual ability to focus on long-term desires instead of secondary goals. This has been referred to as a higher purpose and can encompass the search for the Good, the True, the Beautiful, and the Heroic (Mackey, 2011).
Creative Tension is Senge’s term for the energy created by the gap between an individual’s vision and his or her current reality. Using a rubber band as an analogy, he describes the “pull” effect from identifying the gap between one’s goals and current situation and then closing that gap through deliberate action. When people master creative tension they also build a capacity for perseverance and patience because creative tension transforms the way one views failure (Senge, 1995). Failure is not the end of a process but evidence of the gap between the vision and the current reality.
Structural conflict is the conflict that occurs when two central beliefs, powerlessness and unworthiness, keep us from our goals. Overcoming structural conflict therefore requires the removal of those negative beliefs. Structural conflict can be overcome by developing a profound commitment to the truth and by developing one’s sub-conscious rapport. In this case, the “truth” means a relentless willingness to root out and challenge our own assumptions. Developing a subconscious rapport is the practice of repeatedly focusing on one’s personal vision until it becomes automatic, facilitating the accomplishment of complex tasks with ease (Senge, 1995).
Startups should encourage Personal Mastery as much as possible, not only because it will help the company achieve its goals but because full personal development can have an immeasurable impact on individual happiness. “To seek personal fulfilment only outside of work and to ignore the significant portion of our lives which we spend working would limited our opportunities to be happy and complete human beings” (Senge, 1995, p.134). Achieving high personal mastery also gradually undermines attitudes of blame and guilt, which is critical for both personal and organizational learning. Therefore, startups should foster an environment in which the principles of personal mastery are a part of the culture and daily life of the organization. This is also supported by research into the importance of learning and personal growth and its effect on on employee loyalty, which has shown that found that employee loyalty increases in a culture of personal growth and development (Eskildsen & Nussler, 2010).
3. Mental Models
Mental Models are ways of surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works. Two people with different mental models can witness the same event and describe it differently (Senge, 1995). In a conflict, each person involved witnesses and experiences the conflict through a different filter. Similarly, when troubleshooting a problem or brainstorming, different people will bring different experiences and angles to the problem. By understanding that there is more than one way to look at a problem we can augment our learning. A mental model can be thought of as the lens through which we see the world, or Paradigm
By understanding our own mental models we can uncover hidden assumptions, which which in turn can allow us to restructure assumptions to reveal the causes of significant problems.
The metamorphosis from linear thinking to systems thinking is itself a shift in mental models. Shifting from mental models dominated by events to models that recognize longer-term patterns of change and the underlying structures producing those patterns will invariably help organizations.
Each member of an entrepreneur team must be aware of his or her own experiences that shape his or her perception and appreciate that the other team members will bring valuable different perspectives.
4. Shared Vision
Shared vision is vital for the learning organization because it provides the focus and energy for learning. While vision may be regarded as a mysterious force, there are principles and guidelines for building shared vision.
Shared vision must start with personal caring, because the only truly motivating vision is an individual’s own vision. This is why organizations that are intent on developing a shared vision encourage people to develop their own personal visions (Senge, 1995). Developing a truly shared vision takes time; it is a by-product of interactions of individual visions with guidance from organizational leaders. Enrolment or employee engagement is a natural process that springs from genuine enthusiasm for a vision. Visions spread because of a reinforcing process of increasing clarity, enthusiasm, communication, and commitment.
Most startup organizations have the advantage of having an easily-articulated vision. They are in business for a reason, to fill a gap or provide a product or service that is needed. Even if the vision is not formalized, it should be easy for every employee to articulate what the company is attempting to do and its fundamental role in the market.
5. Team Learning
Team learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. A team is “aligned” when it functions as a whole. The fundamental quality of a misaligned team is wasted energy. Team thinking has three critical dimensions (Senge, 1995):
1) need to think insightfully about complex issues
2) need for coordinated, innovative action
3) teams are interdependent
These dimensions refer to the collective thinking of a group overcoming the limitations of a single mind and acting in an interdependent coordinated fashion together. They require dedication to dialogue and collective learning, trust, open communication, and facilitated discussion. Coordinated action occurs when team members act to achieve collective goals as a cohesive unit instead of as individuals.
A unique relationship develops among team members who can enter into dialogue regularly. They develop a deep trust that cannot help but carry over into discussions. They develop a richer understanding of the uniqueness of each person’s point of view.
One of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas. It is not the absence of conflict that characterizes learning teams but the way conflict is resolved. Commitment to learning requires arriving at a communal “truth” through discussion.
The composition of an entrepreneurial team will greatly affect its ability to develop team learning effectively. With the right team in place, each member of the team will cover the knowledge and experience gaps of the others and facilitate true organizational learning.