Peter Senge: How to Overcome Learning Disabilities in Organizations

As an organization grows, managing the flow demands work items to move from one team/department to another. In quest to make these teams accountable, very specific KPI’s are established and that breeds non-systemic thinking. People look at meeting their own numbers and push the work to next stage and often, what happens is that while people win (in short term), the system fails. Every team meets the KPI numbers and yet, customers remain disgruntled.

Peter Senge, in his book “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” outlines 7 organizational learning disabilities. He says,

“It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best effort of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities – for they pervade all organizations to some degree.”

It then becomes very crucial that we identify clearly these learning disabilities. Here is a sketch note summary of these 7 learning disabilities.

Critical question then is: How to we overcome these learning disabilities and truly create an organization that learns better? Peter Senge answers that question through his 5 disciplines of learning organizations that I have written about in the past. Here is a sketchnote summary of five disciplines:

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Disciplines of a Learning Organization: Peter Senge

If there is one book that has influenced my business thinking the most, it is Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” and I have referred to it many times over past years on this blog. Written in 1990, the insights contained in this book are even more relevant today when the rate of change has only accelerated – probably a reason why HBR identified this book as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years.

A couple weeks ago, I posted a sketch note on Why Organizations Don’t Learn? based on an HBR article by the same title and someone ended up asking me,

“How do organization’s learn?”

This question immediately reminded me of five disciplines of learning organizations that Peter Senge outlines in this book.  They are:

  • Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.
  • Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.
  • Building shared vision – a practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.
  • Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together.
  • Systems thinking – The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.

Source: Wikipedia

In the book, Peter Senge offers a wonderful analogy to introduce systems thinking:

A cloud masses, the sky darkens, leaves twist upward, and we know that it will rain. We also know that after the storm, the runoff will feed into groundwater miles away, and the sky will grow clear by tomorrow. All of these events are distant in time and space, if they’re all connected within the same pattern. Each has an influence on the rest, and influence that is usually hidden from view. You can only understand the system of rainstorm by contemplating the whole not any part of the pattern.

Businesses and other human endeavors are also systems. They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other. Since we are part of that lacework ourselves, it’s doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change. Instead we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get resolved.

While the book is a must-read if you want to gather better understanding and context behind these disciplines, here is a short summary of five disciplines of a learning organization in form of a sketch note. 

Hopefully, this will help others in acknowledging the foundation of what it takes to create a learning organization.

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Why Organizations Don’t Learn? #Sketchnote

Organizations that don’t learn constantly, adapt continuously and execute relentlessly are more likely to be disrupted by constant change and competition.

Peter Senge, in his book defined a learning organization as:

“where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

We have to go beyond formal learning methods if we have to truly build learning organizations in a rapidly changing world. A learning organization is not possible without learning individuals and individuals learn the most with each other in a network and  and through their work in an culture that promotes informal learning.

I emphasized culture because it can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in how organizations learn and apply what they learn to create meaningful results. It doesn’t matter how much you invest in formal learning, tools and methods, if you do not have a culture where people are encouraged to share without any fear, learning may not come to the fore.

Why do companies struggle to become and remain learning organizations? In November 2015 issue of HBR, I came across an article by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats titled “Why Organizations Don’t Learn” where they outline the cultural and individual biases that don’t allow organizations to learn. They also provide useful tips to overcome those biases.

Here is a sketch note I created to distill key biases that prevent organizations from learning. To know what you can do to overcome these biases, I recommend you read the full article at HBR. 

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On “Systems Thinking” and Improvement

A few years back, when I was struggling with some repetitive/difficult situations at work, one of my seniors (and a good friend) asked me, “Do you know the root cause of your problem?”. He went on to draw a diagram on his notebook, and connected the problem to the other parts of the organizational system. I realized that I was fighting the symptom, whereas the root cause was something completely different.

He told me, “As long as you fight individual fires and try to find single reason for all your problems without looking at the bigger picture, you will never see any improvement in your work.

Today, when I am responsible for improvements in a business environment, this lesson serves me well. My friend introduced me to the powerful concept of “systems thinking.” Ability to see relationships and patterns in different (and seemingly unrelated) elements of work is an essential skill for a modern day professional, because we are surrounded by systems. Right from human body to software we write and communities we belong to, everything is a system and improvement can only happen when we really understand the interconnectedness between different components within a system.

You can change the system only when you know the system – and knowing the system is a curious and creative pursuit. Improvement starts when you are “intentional” about being curious and creative.

I have seen doctors who try to “cure” isolated parts of the body without worrying about the root causes and I have seen leaders who try to “quick fix” every problem that comes their way. Systems thinking (or seeing the bigger picture) is not just a problem solving method, but an important tool for continual improvement.

In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge emphasizes that we need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

He adds, “Reality is made up of circles, but we see straight lines."

Bottom line: Think systems, not events. Next time you solve a problem or implement a significant change: Solve the immediate problems, but do not forget to look for systemic connections and causes. Observe trends, see patterns, study the history of changes. Remain curious and be creative.

Join in the conversation: How do you see patterns and systems? How well do you connect the different parts of your work? What would you recommend?