It’s true, individuals do possess the power to inspire the formation of teams, and teams can push the limits of systems thinking and coordinated systems action.
For example, Peter Senge’s inspirational book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of a Learning Organization, published in 1990, was no doubt instrumental in driving a radical increase in the prevalence of teamwork initiatives observed in organizations in the U.S. [i], and across the world [ii]. Focusing largely on the business world, Senge argued that achieving and maintaining organizational success is a team effort. Senge goes deep, and in a profoundly powerful narrative he emerges with a roadmap for organizational success.
Notably, there are five disciplines that need to be mastered, says Senge. First, if a group of people wish to uphold and maintain an “organization,” they need to develop a shared vision and clarity regarding the actions that are important to realize their vision. Second, group members need to understand the mental models (in particular, the assumptions and presumptions) that shape their particular view of reality. Third, they need to share their mental models of reality with one another to support team learning. Fourth, team members need to cultivate personal mastery: in particular, individuals in the group need to remain open to experience and learning, and constantly work to maintain a clear and unbiased view of reality. Finally, Senge argued that the discipline which binds these four other disciplines together—shared vision (1), mental models (2), team learning (3), and personal mastery (4)—is systems thinking (5).
Systems thinking is the fifth discipline and it is essential for holistic understanding of any problem situation team members are addressing. Systems thinking, says Senge, is essential if our goal is to understand and leverage change within the complex web of interdependencies that exist in organizational environments. Here is now Senge describes it.
Like all other living systems, the organizational systems that Homo sapiens design need to adapt their ongoing activities to a changing environment. This presents an invariable challenge for Homo sapiens, who have only woken up quite recently to the realization that, across all levels of analysis in a living system—including individual, team, organization, society, ecosystem—the “web of interdependencies” that supports survival, adaptation, and flourishing is constantly changing. This is why we use the word “dynamic” when talking about systems. The word dynamic implies constant change and, sometimes, at least in the dictionary definition, it implies progress and other positive connotations, including lively, zestful, vital, vigorous, strong, powerful, potent, effective, bold, and enterprising. Naturally, an organization that does not adapt to changes in its environment runs the risk of ‘death’ or an end to its organization “successes.” It’s no longer a “dynamic” system.
Although Senge’s book has been hugely influential and remains culturally significant in shaping teamwork initiatives across the business world, translating Senge’s cultural shift into the worlds of education, science, politics, and social system infrastructure design requires considerable work. Senge’s hopeful synthesis—that individuals and teams of the future cultivate a set of disciplines that support open, reflective, dialogue-based systems thinking, grounded in a mindful and non-defensive stance in relation to self, other, and reality—has yet to become mainstream in our culture. Senge’s vision, as it emerged in 1990, was an almost inevitable consequence of a confluence of historical and cultural influences that were emerging in the fields of science, technology, and business. Looking to the future, Senge foresaw the potential for a new type of team-based systems thinking that would help to support our adaptive success as a species, but he also foresaw the need for teams to take charge of this new way of thinking and cultivate the discipline needed to make good use of emerging systems thinking innovations.
Clearly, foresight doesn’t always translate into reality. Utopian visions abound. Cultural evolution and infrastructure redesign is slow and difficult. While the systems thinking movement has grown and developed in many ways, both inside and outside of the academic community, in the public and private sector, the broader cultural push for synthesis of personal, interpersonal, and scientific discipline that Senge’s thesis pointed to has been limited. There are a number of reasons for this, including the simple fact that team-based systems thinking is difficult: cultivating the requisite discipline in a team is difficult, and educating teams in the use of systems thinking methods is far from easy. At a societal level, there are related challenges, including the challenges of embedding system thinking into educational practice, and bridging subjective and objective paths of development and ways of knowing. Furthermore, if our design goals include the import of scientific knowledge into our broader systems thinking efforts in specific projects on the ground, there is always a challenge of facilitation—of synthesizing diverse scientific disciplines, paradigms, languages, and methods as part of a common, transdisciplinary effort. Our cultural evolution may be slow in the face of such challenges, but the evolutionary process continues nonetheless.
This is what we will do. We will explore the evolutionary process. To do this, we need to broaden our vision further, and move further upstream.