John G Bell

PALOD4

Winter '03 - Hill


Book Response: “Fifth Discipline” (1st Half) by Peter M Senge



A. Important things about ...



  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    I noticed that Senge spoke of dialogue as being the place where skills are developed that lead to success in discussions. This seems to subordinate dialogue as merely a method of learning the skills for effective group decision making. Also, I started to think even more about dialogue as a process that begins with very small steps and stages due to reading this book. What I mean by this is that instead of a significant event, that the start of dialogue is very small and can be in any interaction between people even when there are reasons that it shouldn't work, like hierarchy and agenda. The idea that dialogue is both simpler and more robust than my previous ideas is liberating.


  1. American or world society

    Beginning on page 14, Senge begins describing the learning disabilities. I was strongly reminded of the time we spent talking about the Loggers last quarter. Every learning disability seemed to reflect something that seemed to occur within that debate.

    For example, there were multiple times that I heard people claim to be exactly their position and be mystified at the idea they were anything different. The timber worker Tom Louk in El Dorado said, “I don't understand why I can't live here and keep doing what I'm doing. This is me. This is who I am.” This seems to be exactly the disability “I am my position.”


The second disability was seeing the enemy as external. The reminded me of the inability of the timber workers to see that the timber industry was manipulating them into conflict with the environmental movement. There may also be some of this in the environmental movement's inability to see the effect they were having on the timber workers, since the loss fo jobs was an outside effect felt by the enemy.


The “illusion of taking charge” includes that notion of trying harder within the small section of the system that one recognizes. Both the loggers and the environmental activists seemed to be caught in a loop of engaging more and more effort and will power within the context of the conflict without recognizing the larger system involved. To some extent the environmentalists were thinking out of the box in using the endangered species act to force the conversations, but that was really just a one time innovation and didn't require really seeing a larger system at work. Later in El Dorado, Tom Louk complains about how in a fight like this, one just has to keep going. This is exactly the “reactiveness in disguise”, increased aggressive attack at the same strategy that Senge was talking about.


The fourth disability, the fixation on events, was so widespread in El Dorado that it's hard for me to isolate. Both the loggers and the environmentalist were completely linear in they way they analyzed the conflict. They were both completely focused on the short term vista and the short term connections. They all failed to really see beyond the immediate conflict and develop an awareness of the whole system, and the forces that were manipulating and framing the conflict. One of the female environmentalists said, “We expect animals to do it: adapt or die.” She was completely unable to see either identity with the timber workers or the real survivability issues at stake for the timber workers.


During this period of time detailed in El Dorado and In Timber Country, the economy was suffering seriously from an amazing and tragic national crisis. I learned from an economics class I took this last summer a great deal about the power struggle between the Federal Reserve and the Reagan administration and the machinations of the Federal Reserve during that time from a book called “The Secrets of the Temple” by William Greider. During this period inflation and interest rates created a boom-crash cycle in the building and real estate industries. This had a ripple effect that reached the timber industries and was a major cause for the collapse of the timber workers jobs. The scapegoat used by the timber industry was those darned environmentalist which were blocking the rapacious desire for converted value from the timber managed by the Bureau of Land management. This is the idea of public goods being valuable for the profit into which they can be converted expressed by Dan Swecker in our class dialogue. So, yes, the environmentalists were blocking the desires of the timber industry, but these desires were turned into survivability issues due to the crash that followed a heavy build-up to meet the demand from the construction industries. In this way, it was exactly the kind of system described by the Beer Game in Senge. These long term and larger systemic conditions were hard to see, in fact the whole system was having trouble seeing the problems. These large scale, both in dimension and in time, problems are those difficult to see changes described by the parable of the boiled frog.


All of the parties involved often failed to expand their learning horizon to include the experience of the other or even direct experience of the issues. Many of the issues being fought over were highly disconnected from their consequences for both of the polarized parties involved in the debate.


While reading about the “myth of the management team,” I was struck by the faith placed in the timber industry by the timber workers. Also, there was plenty of skilled incompetence displayed by the various sides of the conflict. They engaged in shadow building and coping strategies to maintain cohesiveness in the face of the “enemy.” Reading the interviews from In Timber Country, it's clear that there was a lot in common across the polarized divisions in the debate.


This all points again to the idea on p42 about how people try to play the system without understanding the real system at work. Systems influence behaviour, so the reflection of these disabilities shouldn't be much of a surprise, but this was all very present in my mind as I read Senge.



  1. these specific groups

There does seem to be a sincere belief in the ideas of creating a learning organization for the people in this book. I'd be interested to hear from people who don't think it is a good idea, in contrast. I mean people in the business community, not people just in general anti-business. Also, I think both my own experience and what I've heard of Christine Vernon's story of how the principles in this book were adopted and then left behind during a regime change point to the fact that it's not self evident that these are good ideas to all people. There's not only threat to hierarchy, but I'm willing to bet that there are people that think the ideas are tangential to maximally functional profit making companies. This means that this is one of several strategies, and it would be a failure on my part to not recognize that other strategies have value for those that use them. I wonder about the long term success of these programs. It would be interesting to hear case studies of good and bad implementations and of good and bad outcomes to see if there's something to learn from them.



  1. myself

    I attempted to create some systemic diagrams of the forces involved in violence to prepare for exercises in class. I found it very difficult to get myself to think in terms of any archetypes other than a simple re-enforcing loop. This is something that I'm going to work at doing more. I was chatting with Robin about keeping this project in mind during my Friday dialogues, that at some points it might be useful to see if we could come up with a systemic diagram of the forces involved in whatever topic we were talking about in the group.



B. Talking points



  1. The Harder You Push


On p57, Senge talks about how “the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.” This makes me think a little bit about “A Force More Powerful.” There's a way that negative resistance legitimizes and strengthens opposition. Serious activism can alienate both the opposition and potentially aligned groups. Further, serious crackdowns can energize a resistance movement. The more forceful and aggressive, the less alignment is possible because force is a kind of ultimatum which precludes the ability to accept alternate mental models or to even examine them.


This reminds me of some ideas from the summer economics class called “foregone benefit” and “marginal value.” When one spends money from a budget on one project, there will inherently be beneficial gain to that action. However, for every benefit, there are other benefits that have been given up. If I choose to spend money on something, I've also intrinsically chosen to not spend that money on something else which might also have been beneficial. Further, the benefit for each unit of something I do is less than the benefit I gained from each previous unit. For example, if I'm thirsty, I really desire a drink of water, but after having a few drinks each subsequent drink has less value to me and the benefits gained are less. In fact, at some point, the marginal value of another glass of water is negative and can cause my discomfort or harm.


Aggressiveness against a system that pushes back means foregone benefit on other tasks. Further, each extra amount of effort I put into fighting the system moves the system less and less, with less and less benefit. In one of the episodes of My So Called Life the mother talks about “picking your battles.” When it comes to effort changing the system, it's actually more beneficial to spend effort on many projects than it is to expend all my effort maximizing a single project. I see this as being one of the fundamental flaws of the way that activism and progressive efforts achieve goals. The kind of cannibalism between groups which seem to say that one issue must get all the effort necessary to maximize results ignores the overall and greater total benefit of effort on multiple projects.



C. Outrageous statement or claim


p5 “... profound evolution in the nature of work as a social institution”


This seems to me turning the last sacred thing into something secular. Senge seems to be saying that industry should become not work but a calling or vocation for the workers. The calling to do good is fundamentally spiritual in nature, and removing all the religion and spirituality from the ideas in The Fifth Discipline, creating these ideas into a narrative of capitalism, is either a profane project or else a way of turning capitalism into a religion itself, as if some didn't already worship there.


I don't think of myself as religious, but I find myself very troubled by this idea. The idea of fundamentalists knocking on my door to ask if I've heard the good word about The American Dream and God Money is a nightmare to me. Of course, I'm fooling myself this doesn't already happen every time I turn on the TV or open a magazine or listen to the commercial radio. I'm in side that system already.


I'm slightly overselling this difficulty, but it's still slightly offensive to me. I've been realizing that I've been increasingly feeling some solidarity with the labor movement even though I'm the product of a great deal of privilege, and I detailed in my response to the 2nd half of this book some of my experiences in the corporate world. I'm realizing that I've developed a great deal of distrust and anger over things that I've experienced and that this may be the source of my identity with labor, more so than I would have thought I might feel.


There's a lot of historical examples of people becoming company-men, uncritical workers for the organization. The worst of this has been in the name of religions, in my view, but there's been a natural shift toward this faith in the corporate, business structure as the industrial revolution has progressed and the cultural, societal changes have developed. The cathedral has become the mall. The bard has become “Must See TV.” The family has become an affinity group of children learning on the assembly line of compulsory school to become fellow workers. Now, here in Senge, I hear words that suggest that this new world should become the secular faith of our social institution. The very idea of our world being encompassed as a social institution is to suggest an assimilation of our humanity into the gears and circuits of some machines.