Book Suggests Map To Avoid Organization Pitfalls

ONE by one, the currencies in the Asian region succumb to speculators. The Philippines peso continues to devalue. Oil prices rise. Stocks go on a free fall. If you haven’t heard the thunder, you were not listening.

Stormy weather is here, literally and figuratively, and the rains are washing down the gains of the nascent tiger economy that is the Philippines.

As workers trudge through the flooded city and as executives in traffic-stricken cars bow their heads in grief, the Philippine economy floats on a sea (or rather a  floodwater) of misery.

As sure as the rains mercilessly beat the pavements, the cold mist of uncertainty seeps into corporate bones sending chills of fear up the spine of every local company.

Corporations were warned of the coming changes in so many management books written during the last decade. But these had been dismissed by a lot of organizations here in the country as something far from the day-to-day concerns of business. Today, as organizations stare at the face of failure in the Asian region, leaders hastily look for maps to chart their organizations’ directions toward safer shores.

One such map is Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline.” Though published seven years ago and for the most part, ignored by many organizations in the Philippines, Senge’s book was ahead of its time and is very relevant today. Senge’s theory, based on his work with top companies at the MIT Learning Center, is that the art and practice of learning in and by organizations is the only sustainable source of competitive advantage in a changing environment.

Parable of the boiled frog

In the book, Senge compares failed organizations to a “boiled frog” (curiously, a frog is an amphibian which comes out during rainy weather). He writes: “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.'”  This parable describes the situation of some companies today. Senge narrates that a frog placed in a pot of boiling water will immediately leap out. But if the frog is placed in a pot of cool water, he’ll stay put.  If the pot is gradually heated, the frog will do nothing. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will become groggy. Though there is nothing retraining him, the frog will sit there and boil.

Senge explains that this happens “because the frog’s internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared towards sudden changes in his environment, not to slow, gradual changes.”

Looking at the situation today in the Philippines, would you consider your organization a frog which hopes to “leapfrog” (an unfortunate metaphor) to the 21st century? Senge writes that “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.”

Five disciplines

Senge writes that to build a learning organization, it must develop five disciplines: personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning and systems thinking.

Personal mastery refers to a process of continually focusing and refocusing on what a person truly wants, on his vision for himself. Why would an organization encourage their people to do this? Senge quotes William O’Brien, president of Hanover Insurance Companies, who declared, “The total development of our people is essential to achieving our goal of corporate excellence. We believe that there is no fundamental tradeoff between the higher virtues in life and economic success. We believe we can have both. In fact, we believe that, over the long term, the more we practice the higher virtues of life, the more economic success we will have.”

Senge writes that encouraging personal mastery of people in the organization usually encounters much resistance and cynicism because its contribution to productivity and the bottom line cannot be measured.

Learning means getting out of powerful mental models that affect what people do. For Senge, this is called “metanoia,” which means a “shift of mind” (Stephen Covey calls this a paradigm shift.)

To grasp the meaning of “metanoia” is to understand the meaning of learning for it is only when the mind shifts that it becomes more open to new ideas and creativity.

Building a shared vision involves creating a vision of the organization that is not just the vision of a single individual but the vision of the people within the organization. Senge writes, “A vision is truly shared when you and I have a similar picture and are committed to one another having it, not just to each of us, individually, having it.” A shared vision compels people to a common action and focuses on the learning that is necessary to propel the organization forward.

Team learning uses the capacity of the team to generate ideas and to solve problems beyond the capacity of any single, though outstanding, individual. It is a paradox in group dynamics that a team of average people working cohesively will come up with more outstanding results than a team of outstanding people who don’t work harmoniously. Team learning is based on the principle of synergy in an organization.

Systems thinking, the fifth and most important discipline, is a concept that allows organizations to look at patterns and interconnectedness so that change can be managed effectively. It integrates the other four disciplines in an ensemble of theory and practice.

True proactivity

For Senge, however, systems thinking does not mean blaming  “someone else” or the system itself as the cause of problems within the organization. He writes, “Systems thinking shows us that there is no outside; that you and the cause of your problems are part of a single system.” He quotes Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Senge believes that an individual, intervening proactively, can change the system. For Senge, “True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems.” But, he says that an individual given a lever long enough “can singlehandedly move the world.”

And so as  weary workers and exasperated executives brace themselves for more torrential rains and as organizations ponder on how to move forward in the storm of speculation, Senge’s book provides a little bit of sun and hope. As we have always known, from discipline comes order, from the five learning disciplines, a successful organization.

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization
By Peter M. Senge Doubleday, New York, USA 1990, 423 pages (Updated 2006)

Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer September 1, 1997

Photo credit:

Peter Senge with Reggie Reyes (R), April 6, 2011, DAP Virata Hall, Ortigas, Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines


Update: Peter Senge’s latest book is “The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World written with Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, Sara Schley, published 2008, 2010 by Broadway Books.



Founding Editor, People at Work, Business, Phiippine Daily Inquirer

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