In how the individual looks at the world

In this lesson, you’ll be introduced to Peter Senge, a proponent for decentralizing leadership. We’ll explore his contributions to the leadership model for learning organizations through an exploration of systems thinking.

Who Is Peter Senge?

The Journal of Business Strategy called Peter Senge ‘Strategist of the Century’ in a 1999 issue.

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Peter Senge is an advocate for decentralizing leadership so all people in an organization can work together towards a common goal.Born in 1947, Senge has earned multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. in Management from MIT.

So what makes him the strategist of the century? Well, Senge is a proponent for what has become known as learning organizations, which are predicated on the principles of system thinking. Let’s take a look at what that means.

Learning Organizations

In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990), Senge defined learning organizations as those organizations that encourage adaptive and generative learning, encouraging their employees to think outside the box and work in conjunction with other employees to find the best answer to any problem.There are five characteristics of a learning organization:

  1. Personal mastery, or how the individual looks at the world
  2. Mental models, or an individual’s deeply ingrained assumptions
  3. Shared vision, which encourages experimentation and innovation among multiple members
  4. Team learning, or more than one person acting together; two heads are better than one
  5. Systems thinking, looking at the whole picture rather than the individual problem

Within each of these characteristics there are three levels of approaches, including

  • Practice, or what the individual does, which is the lowest level
  • Principles, or what the individual does in keeping with the guiding ideas of the organization
  • Essences, or what the individual automatically thinks in terms of the whole organization, which is the highest level of mastery

Let’s take a closer look at this idea of systems thinking that’s so important to having a learning organization.

Systems Thinking

According to Senge, learning organizations encourage a holistic approach called systems thinking. Systems thinking stems from the tenets of system theory where each process integrates with all the others. Basically, it means the ability to see the big picture and to be able to see the interrelationships between what might, at first, seem to be completely unrelated.

Systems thinking relies on a collective intelligence, believing that a group of people are smarter than one or two smart people. In systems thinking there’s a commitment within this process to real learning, and an agreement that occasionally, the group may be wrong. This process requires that individuals listen to every idea that’s put forward and that there are no wrong or bad ideas. While one idea may initially seem off the wall, it may result in someone else thinking outside the box and coming up with a really good idea.

Advantages

There are some significant advantages to systems thinking and learning organizations.

Being able to understand how elements of a business fit together means a better solution can be found.For example, it isn’t enough to know that a computer is broken and needs to be fixed. The holistic approach will recognize the other business elements that enter into the equation.

Is there enough money in the budget to fix or replace the computer? What are the future needs? If the company plans on moving entirely to tablets, maybe this computer can be let go.Another advantage of systems thinking is that models for processes, once developed, can be reused. For example, the model discovered to solve the problem of a broken computer may be applied the next month when the phone system breaks down.

Disadvantages

One of the biggest disadvantages to systems thinking is that this process of holistic review and collaborative investigation can take a lot of time. Just one individual deciding to fix the problem the way they think it should be fixed can be quick and efficient.Another disadvantage is the blurring of boundaries between elements. For example, even if the broken computer is no longer an issue for the department where the computer is used, it may become an issue for other departments, such as IT or finance. So, the question becomes: who has the final say?

Lesson Summary

Let’s review.

Peter Senge is known in the business world for his work in learning organizations and systems thinking. He wrote The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990), where he defined learning organizations as organizations where employees work together toward a common goal. Senge defines five characteristics of learning organizations, including:

  1. Personal mastery, or how the individual looks at the world
  2. Mental models, or an individual’s deeply ingrained assumptions
  3. Shared vision, which encourages experimentation and innovation among multiple members
  4. Team learning, or more than one person acting together
  5. Systems thinking, or looking at the whole picture rather than the individual problem

Ultimately, systems thinking suggests that problems should be looked at by the group holistically or, in other words, with a clear understanding of how the problem affects other parts of the organization. Senge’s model gives an organization the ability to find a solution to a problem that works for the entire organization, but it is a time consuming process.

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