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Systems Thinking

The notes and quotes below are from the following book:

Senge, Peter M. THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. NY: Doubleday, 1990. ISBN 0-385-26094-6.

These notes cover only a small portion of what is in the book. The examples, stories, and explanations are well worth purchasing and reading the entire book. It is seminal material and I highly recommend that you read it all.

"...we are taught to break apart problems... we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole" (3).

"Today, I believe, five new "component technologies" are gradually converging to innovate learning organizations" (6). They are listed here:

1. 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 these events are distant in time and space, and yet they are all connected within the same pattern. Each has an influence on the rest, an influence that is usually hidden from view. You can only understand the system of a rainstorm by contemplating the whole, not any individual part of the pattern.

"Business 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 solved. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.

"Though the tools are new, the underlying worldview is extremely intuitive; experiments with young children show that they learn systems thinking very quickly" (6-7).

2. Personal Mastery

"People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them... They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.

"...the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies..." (7).

3. Mental Models

"Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior. For example, we may notice that a co-worker dresses elegantly, and say to ourselves, "She's a country club person." About someone who dresses shabbily, we may feel, "He doesn't care about what others think"" (8).

4. Building Shared Vision

" bind people together around a common identity and sense of destiny... When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar "vision statement"), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to... given a choice, most people opt for pursuing a lofty goal.." (9).

5. Team Learning

"The discipline of team learning starts with "dialogue," the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine "thinking together."... allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.

"The patterns of defensiveness are often deeply engrained in how a team operates. If unrecognized, they undermine learning.

"Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations" (10).

".. the five learning disciplines.. are "personal" disciplines. Each has to do with how we think, what we truly want, and how we interact and learn with one another" (11).

"It is vital that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble... This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline.

" without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there" (12).

"At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind... from seeing problems as caused by someone or something "out there" to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience" (12-13).


"...metanoia.. means a shift of mind... a fundamental shift or change, or more literally transcendence..

"To grasp the meaning of "metanoia" is to grasp the deeper meaning of "learning," for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of mind" (13).

"Most people's eyes glaze over if you talk to them about "learning... Little wonder--for, in everyday use, learning has come to be synonymous with "taking in information." "Yes, I learned all about that at the course yesterday." Yet, taking in information is only distantly related to real learning. It would be nonsensical to say, "I just read a great book about bicycle riding--I've now learned that"" (13).

"Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it" (14).

"... at MIT.. Jay Forrester, a computer pioneer who had shifted fields to develop what he called "systems dynamics." Jay maintained that the causes of many pressing public issues, from urban decay to global ecological threat, lay in the very well-intentioned policies designed to alleviate them. These problems were "actually systems" that lured policymakers into interventions that focused on obvious symptoms not underlying causes, which produced short-term benefit but long-term malaise, and fostered the need for still more symptomatic interventions" (15).

Learning Disability: The Fixation on Events

"We are conditioned to see life as a series of events, and for every event, we think there is one obvious cause... Focusing on events leads to "event" explanations... they distract us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind the events and from understanding the causes of those patterns.

"Our fixation on events is actually part of our evolutionary programming. If you wanted to design a cave person for survival, ability to contemplate the cosmos would not be a high-ranking design criterion. What IS important is the ability to see the saber-toothed tiger over your left shoulder and react quickly. The irony is that, today, the primary threats to our survival, both of our orangizations and of our societies, come not from sudden events but from slow, gradual processes; the arms race, environmental decay, the erosion of a society's public education system, increasingly obsolete physical capital, and decline in design or product quality.. are all slow, gradual processes" (21-22).

Learning Disability: The Boiled Frog

"Maladaptation to gradually building threats to survival is so pervasive in systems studies of corporate failure that it has given rise to the parable of the "boiled frog." If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to scramble out. But if you place the frog in room temperature water, and don't scare him, he'll stay put. Now if the pot sits on a heat source, and you gradually turn up the temperature, something very interesting happens. As the temperature rises from 70 to 80 degrees F., the frog will do nothing. In fact, he will show every sign of enjoying himself. As the temperature gradually increases, the frog will become groggier and groggier, until he is unable to climb out the the pot. Though there is nothing restraining him, the frog will sit there and boil. Why? Because the frog's internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes in his environment, not to slow, gradual changes" (22).

"We will not avoid the fate of the frog until we learn to slow down and see the gradual processes that often pose the greatest threats" (23).

The Delusion of Learning From Experience

"The most powerful learning comes from direct experience... But, what happens when we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions? What happens if the primary consequences of our actions are in the distant future or in the distant part of the larger system within which we operate? We each have a "learning horizon," a breadth of vision in time and space within which we assess our effectiveness. When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.

"Herein lies the core learning dilemma that confronts organizations: we learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions... These are exactly the types of decisions where there is the least opportunity for trial and error learning" (25).

"These learning disabilities have been with us for a long time. In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman traces the history of devastating large-scale policies "pursued contrary to ultimate self-interest," from the fall of the Trojans through the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In story after story, leaders could not see the consequences of their own policies, even when they were warned in advance that their own survival was at stake" (25).

Structure Influences Behavior

".. the first principle of systems thinking [is that] structure influences behavior.

"When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.

"The systems perspective tells us that we must look beyond individual mistakes or bad luck to understand important problems... We must look into the underlying structurese which shape individual actions and create the conditions where types of events become likely" (42-43).

[In other words, don't get mad at an individual for not doing "A" when the system is set up to reward him for doing "B".]


1. Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."

"Police enforcement officials will recognize their own version of this law: arresting narcotics dealers on Thirtieth Street, they find that they have simply transferred the crime center to Fortieth Street. Or, even more insidiously, they learn that a new citywide outbreak of drug-related crime is the result of federal officials intercepting a large shipment of narcotics--which reduced the drug supply, drove up the price, and caused more crime by addicts desperate to maintain their habit.

"Solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected because, unlike the rug merchant, those who "solved" the first problem are different from those who inherit the new problem" (57-58).

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

"Systems thinking has a name for this phenomenon: "Compensating feedback": when well-intentioned interventions call forth responses from the system that offset the benefits of the intervention" (58).

"...compensating feedback processes have operated to thwart food and agricultural assistance to developing countries. More food available has been "compensated for" by reduced deaths due to malnutrition, higher net population growth, and eventually more malnutrition" (59).

3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

"Compensating feedback usually involves a "delay," a time lag between the short-term benefit and the long-term disbenefit" (60).

4. The easy way out usually leads back in.

"...if the solution WERE easy to see or obvius to everyone, it probably would already have been found. Pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of nonsystemic thinking--what we often call the "what we need here is a bigger hammer" syndrome" (61).

5. The cure can be worse than the disease.

"The long-term, most insidious consequence of applying nonsystemic solutions is increased need for more and more of the solution. This is why ill-conceived government interventions are not just ineffective, they are "addictive" in the sense of fostering increased dependency and lessened abilities of local people to solve their own problems" (61).

6. Faster is slower.

"...all natural systems.. have intrinsically optimal rates of growth. The optimal rate is far less than the fastest possible growth. When growth becomes excessive... the system itself will seek to compensate by slowing down" (62).

7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

You need to let go of this notion in order to be a systems thinker.

8. Small changes can produce big results--but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

"There are no simple rules for finding high-leverage changes, but there are ways of thinking that make it more likely. Learning to see underlying "structures" rather than "events" is a starting point... Thinking in terms of processes of change rather than "snapshots" is another" (65).

You can have your cake and eat it too--but not at once.

"Sometimes, the knottiest dilemmas, when seen from the systems point of view, aren't dilemmas at all. They are artifacts of "snapshot" rather than "process" thinking, and appear in a whole new light once you think consciously of change over time" (65).

"[Problems] only appear as rigid "either-or" choices, because we think of what is possible at a fixed point in time" (66).

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

"Living systems have integrity. Their character depends on the whole" (66).

"Many European cities have avoided the problems of crime, entrenched poverty, and helplessness that afflict so many American inner cities because they have forced themselves to face the balances that a healthy urban area must maintain. One way they have done this is by maintaining large "green belts" around the city that discourage the growth of suburbs and commuters... By contrast, many American cities have encouraged steady expansion of surrounding suburbs, continually enabling wealthier residents to move further from the city center and its problems" (67).

A Shift of Mind

"...the unhealthiness of our world today is in direct proportion to our inability to see it as a whole" (68).

" thinking is a sensibility--for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.

"Today, systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity. Perhaps for the first time in history, humankind has the capacity to create far more information than anyone can absorb, to foster far greater interdependency than anyone can manage, and to accelerate change far faster than anyone's ability to keep pace" (69).

"Language shapes perception. What we SEE depends on what we are prepared to see" (74).

".. in systems thinking, feedback.. means any reciprocal flow of influence... The key to seeing reality systematically is seeing circles of influence... By tracing the flows of influence, you can see patterns that repeat themselves, time after time, making situations better or worse" (75).

"...seeing only individual actions and missing the structure underlying the actions... lies at the root of our powerlessness in complex situations" (77).

"Another idea overturned by the feedback perspective is anthropocentrism--or seeing ourselves as the center of activities. The simple description, "I am filling the glass of water," suggests a world of human actors standing at the center of activity, acting on an inanimate reality. From the systems perspective, the human actor is part of the feedback process, not standing apart from it. This represents a profound shift in awareness. It allows us to see how we are continually both influenced by and influencing our reality" (78).

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Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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