The Fifth Discipline

by Peter M. Senge

It’s been a while since I chewed on this much at one time in a book. Recommended in a Catalyst podcast by Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA, I knew that I needed to digest the book. Stanley said that the leaders of his church went through the book together when they were in the pre-planting days for North Point as a way to try to understand “systems thinking.”

He said something to the effect that once your organization starts rolling, you get consumed with people, issues, problems and the like and if you don’t have the proper perspective on how organizations and people work, aka, a systems perspective, you will always be responding to crises and events rather than seeing the whole picture.

His promotion of it sold me.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The book definitely isn’t a “light” read – it took me almost two months of steady chewing to work through it all. (We bought copies for our leadership team as well, but I’ve not heard a peep of evaluation from any of them except my copastor). Although it is a different kind of reading than I’m used to, I thoroughly enjoyed being stretched in this area. I actually found myself being deeply fascinated by organizational behavior theory.

You can imagine all the immense practicalities for a pastor being well-versed in helping an organization see the big picture, make decisions with the long view in mind and addressing problems and issues with the entire system as a reference point, rather than that particular problem at that particular time.

Doing systems thinking means becoming a learning organization. It’s a group of people all committed to the truth of where their organization is/isn’t and working from there with a broad, compelling vision as their reference point and goal.

The author, Peter Senge, shares the “laws of the Fifth Discipline” in chapter 4 as being:

  1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. Basically, he means that all the stuff that an organization struggles with today is simply the delayed consequences of decisions made in the past. Most of those decisions were simply addressing symptoms of larger problems rather than seeking to address the larger issues.
  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. Senge refers here to “feedback loops” and reinforcing processes that are a little difficult at first to understand. However, I think I began to interpret this as simply “It took you a while to get in this situation; the organization ain’t gonna fix itself by your first feeble efforts overnight.”
  3. Behavior grows worse before it grows better. When you begin making strategic decisions that are truthful and right for the organization, things will probably continue bumping along as they have been for a while, with the same problems. Of course, you now have the additional stress of new direction and the pressure of “will it work?” Most “right” decisions and systems-thinking-inspired ones will take a while to begin to show results. Be patient.
  4. The easy way out usually leads back in. There are dozens of illustrations from a business context throughout the book that illustrate this point. Typically, we just want things to “get better” and NOW! However, the temptation for a quick fix in these instances does nothing to promote health for the organization. Don’t choose the easy way out; it will just compound your problems and make it more difficult later – if there is a later.
  5. The cure can be worse than the disease. Ouch. Ever had cancer? Case in point. Treatments like chemotherapy basically almost kill you in addition to the rogue cells in your body. Truly addressing deep, root organizational issues can be extremely painful.
  6. Faster is slower. This doesn’t sound very affirming because we all want to see immediate results, don’t we? However, the author urges leaders not to become discouraged. The end result takes hard work on the front end, but moving your organization to a systems perspective enables synergy, productivity, and unity in the long run.
  7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. This is probably one of the biggest downers in all of life. If consequences happened immediately after making great or stupid decisions, we’d all be rich.
  8. Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
  9. You can have your cake and eat it too – but not at the same time. If you persist in leading your organization toward a vision-oriented and long-range perspective, you’ll enjoy both harmony in relationships and immense productivity (in the business world = profits) later.
  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. Senge uses the elephant illustration to help us see that most American organizations (including churches and non-profits) tend to try to address problems and issues by isolating them. “Let’s form a committee/team and study this.” This tends to cut off part of the elephant. It prevents you from seeing the whole beast/issue. Every part of the organization affects every other part (sounds like 1 Corinthians 12, doesn’t it?), so decisions must be made with the entire elephant in view.
  11. There is no blame. This is a refreshing rule for systems thinking. Rather than blaming someone or them or even a competitor, this rule helps us to remember that we’re the problem. “There is no outside” – you and the cause of your problems are part of a single system. It’s all within the organization and the systems in place (or not) to respond to and deal with issues, problems, successes, backlogs, etc.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on “Personal Mastery” in which he describes the qualities necessary for a leader of a learning organization to pursue. The chapter on “Mental Models” is one of the best about studying worldviews because he addresses such a heady topic in a very readable fashion. It was in this chapter that some very practical ways of dealing with folks who “don’t see it your way” are shared, including some tips for advocating your own view. In fact, all the chapters in this section of the book called “Core Disciplines” were excellent. The other two were “Shared Vision” and “Team Learning.”

While I know that most of my readers will not rush out to purchase this book, I would encourage any leader of an organization to digest this book and do it slowly. Make it a goal over a year’s time span to chew through it. You’ll be glad you did.

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