What is the Sixth Discipline? Looking Back at Senge and Systems Thinking


Fish Creek at high water, Lochsa River tributary, Idaho


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

By far, one of the best management books to appear out of the late ’90s is the text ‘The Fifth Discipline — the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization’ by Peter Senge, a Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-faculty at the Complex Systems Institute.  Senge, if not the inventor of the concept of ‘systems thinking’ was certainly one of the first authors to attempt to mainstream the idea into modern world business culture.

What is systems thinking?  In short, it is the process of realizing that things and outcomes are hooked to each other, and that only by understanding and considering more complex patterns of cause-and-effect, can we develop a more profound understanding of our current situation, as well as future outcomes.  Intrinsic in this is the practice of drawing system boundaries.  Though it may be true that everything in the world is hooked to everything else, determining effective action relies on accurately sizing and including the components of the system one can have effect on.

The book has much to like — in certain ways, Senge has written the management version of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, or Russell’s Principia Mathematica — attempts at a completeness of categorization of ways of thoughts, though to be fair, Senge declares multiple times no such aspirations as did Wittgenstein and Russell.

It is an extremely useful read.  Senge lays out many Authoritarian v-Meme modes of thought in contemporary business, and then proposes more complex, algorithmic Legalistic v-Meme patterns in kind of a mix-and-match style throughout the book.  But there are contradictory modes.  Senge, while talking about the organization, spends virtually the whole book talking about teaching the individual.  There is not a single mention of empathy in the whole book, though he alludes to lots of empathetic concepts.  With many of his examples, he compacts and conflates lots of synergistic higher v-Meme behavior, and even alludes quite often to spirituality — which sounds good.  But what does any of it really mean?  There is no real pattern except the selection based on his authority.  And there is precious little attempt to apply systems thinking to systems thinking — a meta-level version of understanding why we do what we do.

That said, understanding his perspective is extremely useful for moving past his ideas and developing more complex, synergistic paradigms.  In many ways, The Fifth Discipline stretches the paradigm of the individual and algorithmic thinking as far as it can likely go.  No one has described a Legalistic v-Meme version of Flatland better.  There is talk of evolution, of course, as well as structure.  And lots of talk about how imposed structure will change organizations.  In a very important way, The Fifth Discipline prepares one for the next step — toward realizing the unending progression of enlightenment proposed through understanding empathetic development and Integral Theory.

What’s at least as interesting is how Senge himself demonstrates how his own social structures limit his own writing.  Senge, as a Senior Lecturer at MIT, is inside his own modestly rigid hierarchy.  The people he largely uses for his business examples are high-status, aspirational and enlightened authoritarians from contemporary business practice in large organizations.  His own thought patterns, also aspirational toward higher connection and empathetic development, must be placed inside the Legalistic/Algorithmic box.  Heuristics, combined heuristics, and Guiding Principle v-Meme thinking are arbitrarily mashed down into the mix, but there is little discrimination or understanding between the separation.  Senge talks a lot about intuition, but intuition without appropriate scaffolding leads to more impulsive thought.  How one gets to profound, intuitive thought is explored somewhat through analogies, and to be fair, he understands clearly the value of experience and goal-based thinking in organizations.

Senge talks quite a bit about  spirituality, and as a personal thing, I am not a big fan.  We do not need the Divine as a way of progressing our organizations and their empathetic development.  It’s not that I am a cold-blooded, chronic rationalist.  It’s just that one of the keys to accepting that one is on some path to higher enlightenment is that our understanding and embrace of metacognition has to be constant.  There will always be information and ways of knowing that we just don’t know — yet.    It was Buddha himself, when asked the famous question “Is there a Buddha higher than Buddha?” that he answered, “well, maybe.  But it’s not me!”

The quote by Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning of this post is particularly insightful.  Whenever we try to perceive things too far above our own developmental v-Meme level, it’s going to appear as magic, or whatever more acceptable term we’d like to apply.  The key is to understand that it is not.  What is required is an embrace of the fundamental humility that we simply have not arrived — and never will.

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