In Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, he introduces seven learning disabilities that largely go undetected in organizations. Only by identifying these, he writes, can an organization take the necessary steps to cure them and become a learning organization.
The Seven Learning Disabilities
It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best efforts of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities—for they pervade all organizations to some degree.
- “I Am My Position”
- “The Enemy is Out There”
- The Illusion of Taking Charge
- The Fixation on Events
- The Parable of the Boiled Frog
- The Delusion of Learning from Experience
- The Myth of the Management Team
I’ve excerpted certain lines from the section on the seven disabilities along with some commentary on what I’ve seen and felt while running my company Barrel.
1. “I Am My Position”
When asked what they do for a living, most people describe the tasks they perform every day, not the purpose of the greater enterprise in which they take part. Most see themselves within a system over which they have little or no influence. They do their job, put in their time, and try to cope with the forces outside of their control. Consequently, they tend to see their responsibilities as limited to the boundaries of their position.
When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact. Moreover, when results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why. All you can do is assume that “someone screwed up.”
Senge is writing about the lack of a shared vision and institutional structures that strip away a sense of ownership and purpose. This got me thinking about how team members at Barrel describe what they do for a living to other people. I can imagine things like “I code websites” or “I design websites” or “I put together reports for clients”. Not very inspiring stuff and most definitely a focus on the position. I do hope that many team members will talk about helping clients and working with team members to solve problems for cool brands.
I myself need to master the articulation and belief in the purpose and vision of the organization. Too many times, I’ve described my job as “I oversee this and that” or “I work on a lot of new business and hire for certain positions”.
Earlier this year, our leadership team came up with “client success through creativity and collaboration” as the way to articulate our organization’s purpose, but I don’t think we’ve done a good job in sharing this with the team.
2. “The Enemy is Out There”
The “enemy is out there” syndrome is actually a by-product of “I am my position,” and the nonsystemic ways of looking at the world that it fosters. When we focus only on our position, we do not see how our own actions extend beyond the boundary of that position. When those actions have consequences that come back to hurt us, we misperceive these new problems as externally caused. Like the person being chased by his own shadow, we cannot seem to shake them.
I think one of the most pleasing things I’ve seen at Barrel, especially over the past few years, has been the widespread sense of ownership at the company. We’ve been very good about squashing an us versus them mentality when it comes to clients and instead, framed it as “how can we be of the greatest benefit and resource to our clients”. I’ve observed team members going above and beyond to answer questions, troubleshoot issues, and work on complex challenges with patience all in order to help our clients hit their goals and look good to their bosses.
And when it comes to mistakes or screw-ups that cause issues, we’ve made it an organizational habit to own up to the error and then to unpack what happened in order to learn. A big part of this has been to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t result in public embarrassment or an immediate loss of trust. Everyone feels bad whenever they make a mistake, but that’s because they’re disappointed in themselves and feel they should’ve done better rather than out of fear of reprisals.
3. The Illusion of Taking Charge
Being “proactive” is in vogue. Managers frequently proclaim the need for taking charge in facing difficult problems. What is typically meant by this is that we should face up to difficult issues, stop waiting for someone else to do something, and solve problems before they grow into crises. In particular, being proactive is frequently seen as an antidote to being “reactive”—waiting until a situation gets out of hand before taking a step. But is taking aggressive action against an external enemy really synonymous with being proactive?
…All too often, proactiveness is reactiveness in disguise. Whether in business or politics, if we simply become more aggressive fighting the “enemy out there,” we are reacting—regardless of what we call it. True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems. It is a product of our way of thinking, not our emotional state.
This impulse to be “proactive” in the face of difficult challenges is something we try to spot and combat. Oftentimes, it comes in the form of what seems like a “quick-fix” solution or a very prescriptive top-down “new rule” to enforce certain behaviors. In most cases, these measures are absolutely reactive and do not have lasting impact.
What this disability calls for is a deeper understanding of the various forces at play in any problematic situation and the discipline to peel back the layers until we’ve uncovered what the underlying, unseen cause may be. Only then, can we craft effective solutions. This is a skill that’s still a big work in progress for us, but I’m glad we’re at least gaining awareness around it.
4. The Fixation on Events
Generative learning cannot be sustained in an organization if people’s thinking is dominated by short-term events. If we focus on events, the best we can ever do is predict an event before it happens so that we can react optimally. But we cannot learn to create.
“We lost on too many deals this quarter so that is why we are not doing well financially right now” is a linear thought I’ve had one too many times over the years. Of course, this fixation on short-term events is a real handicap and often leads to reactive behavior, like trying desperately to take on whatever new business we can to keep the business going.
Thinking about our various activities on a longer time horizon and shifting away from a linear view of why things are the way they are can open up a lot of new possibilities. This is a big part of what Senge writes about later on in the book with systems thinking.
5. 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 if 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 of 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.
…Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic.
Similar to The Fixation on Events, this learning disability emphasizes the challenge in spotting the gradual forces that quickly shape the fate of an organization. Things like client satisfaction across all of our accounts and team engagement and morale are hard to take stock immediately and the shifts in each may be gradual so that if we’re not paying attention, we could find ourselves in a tough spot. This is why it’s so critical for us to carefully examine, have check-in conversations, and be brutally honest with ourselves on how things are going.
6. The Delusion of Learning from Experience
When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.
This one I felt was a bit repetitive, especially since it’s not too different from The Fixation on Events and The Parable of the Boiled Frog. I think Senge is noting that we put too much value in learning from direct experience but oftentimes, we can’t even assess the actions we took accurately since it may be many months or even years before the consequences become clear.
This reminds me of a case in which we took on a client on very disadvantageous terms: severely discounted rate, an almost impossible timeline for the initial project, and a client team that seemed dysfunctional in their internal communications. We pulled through and delivered, with much difficulty, on the project. The client didn’t seem all that happy but also not disappointed. Internally, we wondered whether the takeaway should’ve been to never take on such work again (saying “no”). Lo and behold, some years later, this client has become a significant account and we’ve developed a great relationship with them. What’s the lesson then? That sometimes we have to bite the bullet and be patient to see if something special can emerge? See, the challenge is that even today, I don’t know if I’ve learned from the experience much.
7. The Myth of the Management Team
Striding forward to do battle with these dilemmas and disabilities is “the management team,” the collection of savvy, experienced managers who represent the organization’s different functions and areas of expertise. Together, they are supposed to sort out the complex cross-functional issues that are critical to the organization. What confidence do we have, really, that typical management teams can surmount these learning disabilities?
Senge writes about how managers often care more about protecting their turf and their egos and default into a stance that make it hard for organizations to learn. I worry about this because I sometimes do think that I’d rather seem like I know the answers and express a measure of certainty with everything I say, especially with our team. Senge writes later on about how reflection and inquiry are key behaviors to overcoming this protective stance. I know that before I expect anyone else to be open and inquisitive in the face of uncertainty, I need to work on this for myself.