“From a very early age,” Peter Senge writes in his classic book, The Fifth Discipline, “we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world.”
This reflex makes complex tasks seem more approachable. But the truth is we all pay a price for this delusion. In the same way a reassembled broken mirror cannot yield an accurate reflection, “we can no longer see the consequences of our actions.” Absent that capacity, “we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”
To rebuild this capacity, we must acquire the Five Freedoms Project’s second foundational skill of leadership — what Senge calls “systems thinking,” and what I call “seeing the whole board.”
As Senge explains it:
A cloud masses, the sky darkens, leaves twist upward, and we know that it will rain. We also know that the storm run off will feed into groundwater miles away, and the sky will clear by tomorrow. All these events are distant in time and space, and yet they are connected within the same pattern. Each has an influence on the rest, and 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.
The same principles hold true for the other networks we encounter in our lives:
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.
Because it helps people see how their personal actions contribute to the world around them, systems thinking is crucial to any healthy, evolving school community. “At the heart of a learning organization,” Senge continues, “is a shift of mind — from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something ‘out there’ to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience.”
To download a PDF of the Prologue (from the book American Schools), click here.
American Schools is available for purchase at Amazon.