Why Should I Read | The Fifth Discipline

Have you ever been scalded in the shower?

If you’re like me, you’ve pushed the handle all the way down to get the water to “heat up faster.”

I tend to get impatient and hop in the shower while it is still freezing cold, which generally results in me pushing the handle even further towards that red “H.

As soon as I get done gasping from the cold, I feel two drops of perfect temperature splash on my face before the water gushes out at what seems to be 170 degrees.

AHHHH!!

shower hand

Quickly pushing the handle back to cold, I try to avoid the streams of water, until the water gets back to frigid again. Then it’s a delicate dance of adjustments of the handle until I find the happy medium between skin-burning steam bath and ice cubes hurtling out of the shower head at me.

The lag time in the shower controls, and my groggy, early morning endeavors to adjust it with limited feedback is a great example of a system in play. Not only that, it demonstrates a system where the components are independent and the cause does not immediately turn to effect.

Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline so that individuals who encounter problems in their organizations would first of all have the tools to understand what he calls “dynamic complexity” and be able to overcome challenges through the five disciplines, culminating in the final one, “Systems Thinking.”

The topic of “Systems Thinking” is what ties the five disciplines together into a full theory of the the “Learning Organization.” I know a number of engineers with a specialty in systems engineering and they have been immersed for years. For the rest of us, the concept of thinking of the world not as a series of unrelated events but a dynamic and complex system is a deep subject.

This one minute video from Peter Senge deftly sums up “Systems Thinking” in two words, connections and consequences. 

So why is this concept new to many? First of all, most of our traditional education process was based around the word “Analysis.”

Analysis:

  1. detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation.
  2. the process of separating something into its constituent elements.

Nary a complex whole in sight! We constantly break things down to their base in order to learn them, and that is appropriate in many cases.

For example, remember learning to read? Breaking down ideas to their words and letters, learning them, then working your way up to ideas.

How about learning to drive? That’s a complex whole if there ever was one. Our society approaches it by teaching us first to learn specific functions, taking tests in a classroom, learning the various signs that we may encounter.

I’m not arguing that these methods are not effective, but they are a certain way of understanding processes. If we are to understand vastly complex systems, say the climate or changing the economy, we need to move beyond isolating a single action and assigning it undue weight during consideration.

Immediately on pg. 7 of the book Senge states of our situation as humans: “we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.” He goes on, “Systems thinking is a conceptual framework… to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.”

This idea of “Systems Thinking” goes well beyond business dilemmas, though that is what is covered in the book. I gave a quick overview of the five disciplines here in this video:

As covered in the second half of the video, there is a correct way and a less effective way to interact with systems. The natural effects of a system must be dealt with when trying to fix the situation.

If you’re highly interested in “Systems Thinking,” I strongly recommend this book. If you’re marginally interested in this topic, congratulations for reading this far! Here are a couple links that may be of interest.

How have you noticed systems at work in the world?

Follow me on Twitter! https://www.twitter.com/jondelange

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