Review of: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

“[…] vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.”

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

The Fifth Discipline is pretty much on the required reading list for Systems Thinkers. It proposes a vision of a organisation as a group of people who are continually enhancing their capabilities to create what they want to create to the benefit of all.

In the book, Peter Senge provides his description of Systems Thinking, and the disciplines he believes are required to support a Learning Organisation approach.

  • Personal mastery; looking at reality objectively, and acknowledging our personal vision.
  • Building shared vision; ensuring the organisation has one shared goal that was created by the people; deals with the difference between commitment and compliance.
  • Mental models; the epistemological constructs created by our experiences and understanding..
  • Team learning; adoption of open dialogue over discussion or being told what to do.  Letting the team decide the best way forward as a entity and through suspension of assumptions.
  • Systems thinking; the concept of looking at the entire picture and how behaviors and actions feed back into the system and cause effects.

I particularly liked the description of the MIT Beer Game. This game brings into sharp focus the ‘What You See Is All There Is’ notion described in a previous post. 

This book is a classic – used and referenced by management studies the world over. Having listened to it now on Audible I fully understand why.

It is vital that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble. This is challenging because it is much harder to integrate new tools than simply apply them separately. But the payoffs are immense.

This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline. It is the discipline that integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. It keeps them from being separate gimmicks or the latest organization change fads. Without a systemic orientation, there is no motivation to look at how the disciplines interrelate. By enhancing each of the other disciplines, it continually reminds us that the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

Systems Thinking arrives at my door…

A great deal of excitement and trepidation was in the air yesterday – all of my Open University study books arrived.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am starting on the path to a MSc Systems Thinking in Practice. – and now that I am on the verge of starting it, I thought I would take a little time to blog the thought processes and initial impressions behind why I chose this particular path, as opposed to one of the may others I could have taken.

I figure it will be an interesting exercise to look back over the next few (no doubt extremely busy) years to remind myself of my original plans and motivations, and to see how these change over time.

Why am I taking a Masters?

This is a good question. I do not really need it for my job – though I have no doubt that it will be useful. The overly competitive sibling part of me admits some base jealousy of my sister who passed her Masters a few years ago (thought that is certainly in no way a over-riding factor – even I am not that crazy!) I would say my primary motivation is curiosity and challenge. My background is in Art (believe it or not), and this piece of higher education sits squarely within the Technology and Innovation sector.

I have heard – and at times even been nominally part of – various slightly ambiguous exercises at work which I now realise were loosely related to various methodologies and forms of Systems Thinking. I always approached such things with a degree of cynicism – which leads me to now recognise that I was actually part of the problem. And – at the end of the day – I also think you can never be too old to learn something new.

How is the Open University course structured?

The main reason I chose the Open University is because this isn’t something I can do full time. I work, I have a family and I have commitments. The OU Postgraduate courses are fully modular, and like building blocks, you can customise your route to the finish line. I also should end up ticking off Post-graduate Certificates and Diplomas along the way – which is nice.

The current plan is (note that later optional modules may change once I get a better grip on the complexity of study):

Year 1:

Year 2:

Year 3:

I’m still deciding whether this one will be a 3rd optional module (possibly Information Security or Creative Management) and a Professional Project, or a full Research Project – only time will tell on that one!

I will go into a bit more detail about the first module in a future post.

A manic few days

Haven’t really had much time to do any new research this week. The weather has been pretty good so I have been otherwise engaged in building plant beds, potting out seedlings and generally de-weeding. This has taken up quite a lot of my non-work daylight hours.

The Open University have also launched the website supporting the first module of my Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice degree. The module (TU811: ‘Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change’) starts officially in May so I have been taking the time to start some of the recommended pre-reading. Be in no doubt I will be posting some initial thoughts on that soon.

If you are interested in seeing more about the degree I am taking, details can be found here. In a amusing turn of coincidence, one of the recommended pre-courses happens to be the OpenLearn: Systems Thinking and Practice course I reviewed a few weeks ago – so I was clearly on the right track!

On my Audible I am currently listening to Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which tackles the notion of the way the mind competes with itself when we make choices – the fast, intuitive, ‘snap-judgement’ emotional half, and the slower, more deliberate, logical ‘Mr Spock’ half. It is quite profound so far – and I am only a short way through. It is one of those weighty tomes that causes you stare thoughtfully out of train windows mulling over how obvious it all is, but how we never really notice it until someone points it out.  It will be a while before I finish this one though – its a very large book!

An oasis of calm in a sea of noise

Gardening runs in my family.  

My mother and sister both grow all variety of edibles, my grandmother is a plantswoman of whose skill I can only hope to emulate and going further back, my family has grown orchards and tended farmland; getting back to the earth is something that runs pretty deep.

Being a ex-designer (and a sucker for creating order in a chaotic world), I prefer architectural gardening; unusual plants, hard landscaping, distinctive shapes and smells.

Recent research by the King’s Fund for UK Department of Culture, Media and Health (2015) indicate that after the age of 25, gardening activity sharply rises to more than 40% for 25-44 year olds, over 60% in the 45-64 age bracket and over 70% for the over 65s. I wonder if there is a any correlation that could be drawn between between age, career progression / complexity and the need to get out into green space – or whether its just people eventually realising that most of the programmes on television are pretty rubbish during the day…

Gardens and gardening are my ‘mental clearance spaces’; the places I gravitate towards when I have been posed a particularly thorny technical problem, or I have multiple work demands on my time that are beginning to push me towards the edge of what I can handle in one go. Being in, walking through, or being actively engaged in creating or maintaining gardens quiets the mind, allows me to relax, and gives me time to sift through and make sense of what is actually going on. It is one of my more reliable methods of accessing my ‘systems thinking’ brain; tuning out all the useless information, the endless meetings and the extraneous ‘noise’ of a issue or problem and chasing down the roots of the issue.

Gardens have no judgement, no hurried thinking, no changing demands bar what you put on yourself.. Freud said:

‘ Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflict,’

– something that I think all of us could probably benefit from in today’s modern, connected and hyper-politicized world.

And on that note I am going to go and attack a particularly pernicious weed that has decided to inveigle its way into my flower bed.

Thoughts on Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

I have recently been listening to a new book on Audible – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, a MIT computer science professor and popular blogger.

I will admit this isn’t my usual reading material, but I stumbled upon mention of it on this blog and this blog, gave it a bit of research, read some really positive reviews of the book (New York Times, Associates Mind),  and given the impending start of my Masters degree, I thought it might be worth a quick look.

It would be a fair assessment to say that I have found it to be a fascinating book with some really strong concepts and a clear narrative style

The authors primary argument is that today’s knowledge-worker has a lifestyle that is so disrupted and fractured it becomes almost impossible to be able to focus on anything particularly complex. It’s easy to confuse ‘busyness’ with ‘productivity’ and if we don’t watch ourselves, we end up filling our days with shallow tasks instead of the mentally-intensive stuff it takes to truly get ahead.

The ‘Deep Work’ method advocates taking time away from interruption and actively blocking off potential sources of distraction; no phones (gasp), no social media (bigger gasp) and no email (…faint!).  The concept is explained more succinctly in the following equation:

High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

The author proposes several ways to achieve a personal ‘Deep Work’ approach ranging from completely locking yourself away, to setting up a schedule, to simply getting the most out of short bursts of available time, and he provides insight into what you need to do to be able to focus intensively on complex topics.

From experience, deliberately leaving your phone behind, or turning off your email is psychologically a pretty big deal. In today’s hyper-connected world choosing to disconnect can almost feel like sacrilege and that’s something you need to train yourself out of in order to embark on’Deep Work.’

I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is great food for thought. All too often I have found myself being amazingly busy, but not feeling like I have achieved anything meaningful – and this book really gives voice to why I feel like that. I will certainly be training myself towards aspects of this approach when I start my impending Masters study sessions and, as far as possible, to get more productive hours out of my time at work.

OpenLearn: Systems Thinking and practice

While researching for my Masters choices, I stumbled across a load of free courses provided by the Open University; OpenLearn. As I have been looking into a Masters degree in Systems Thinking in Practice to start later this year, this course pretty much jumped out at me.

What is the course like?

My observation is the course content is quite dry; lots of texts, minimal interaction. There is a lot of webpage reading (though to be fair it is broken up into manageable chunks).

This appears to be a old module – possibly from a replaced Business degree module chapter – however the concepts are clearly explained  and the questions are thought provoking. The course is labelled as a Level 2 (Intermediate) – I would hazard a guess that this is due to the language and concepts involved. For me personally, nothing here was ‘new,’ – but content was explained succinctly and with relevant case studies.

At the end of the course, you get a ‘certificate’ of completion. Its not worth anything per se – but it could be used as evidence of personal development  if you were so inclined.

What was the most useful thing about the course?

What I did find useful was the References page. This list was a mini goldmine of key textbooks – some of which I have now added onto my reading list and may review in due time. Indeed one of them has given me a interesting game idea for the next work Practice meeting that I am hosting.

This is a fairly solid introduction to Systems Thinking concepts.

Where can I find it?

If you are interested in giving the course a go you can find the details and how to enroll here. You will need to set up a Open University profile.