Systems thinking: The fifth discipline

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PREVIOUS discussions dealt on systemic (second order) change and on four of the five disciplines to be acculturated in an organization – both in the leader and in the led — to materialize much if not a hundred percent of their shared vision for their organization.

Thus, we borrowed heavily from Peter Senge, the change guru, and his advocates of how best to realize a desired future for one’s organization. To be able to accomplish this, change Guro Senge offers the processes and the language used in a learning organization – an organization that continually adopts to the environment and remains competitive because it continually learns together how to square off the future with all its uncertainties not only to survive but to raise its niche. Our past discussions described four of the disciplines to arrive at systemic change–personal mastery, mental models, team learning and shared vision.

Today, our final topic is on the fifth discipline: systems thinking. Given the practice of the other four disciplines, systems thinking can readily become a habit of mind. This discipline ties up all the other four.

Like an organism, an organization has its beginnings, grows, develops but unlike mortals, could have continued existence led by succeeding generations. Like an organism, it has its vital parts and some, are mere appendages. Together with the vital parts, this organism lives and grows. Appendages are like paraphernalia, decorative accessories that add distinction to an organism. They are not vital, which means that the organism would still have a life and continues its vital functions. Vital parts have their special functions which work in harmony to keep the organism alive and well. A malfunction in one vital part could trigger a malfunction in other parts threatening the organism’s very existence or identity. Changes in the environment and “aging” of these vital parts have to be considered. Aging parts refer to those parts which are outdated, obsolete, inefficient and do not leverage the desired future for the organization.


An organization, much like an organism with all its vital parts, has and is a system. But the organism analogy somewhat fails at this point. An organization’s vital parts not only should stay healthy but should be replaced. Any obsolescence could cause organizational disequilibrium and systems breakdown.

Clyde Kluckhohn and Henry Murray, an anthropologist and a psychologist, respectively say, that in some respects, “all men are like all other men,” and that “all men are like some other men.” They also say, that in some respects, “all men are like no other man.” <https://books. google.com/ ?isbn=0742575489> Hence, individuals, in some respects, see reality differently; they have different mental models. Each sees reality differently from one another.

There are many excellent examples of leaders able to make the most use of such differences in perspectives, making these differences and discords opportunities for creative tension. Given the practice of the other disciplines as ingrained in the organization’s culture, through dialogue and discussion, creative tension leads individuals to an unbiased, objective assessment of the gap between reality and vision and triggers innovative solutions to problems to erase the gap. When team members seem or are breaking down, it is necessary to have the leader and the led extend to one another moral support and understanding. No giving up! Just as psychologists recommend, that there be a transitory calming down, until nerves recover from stress. <http://www.moyak .com/papers /learning-organization.html> so also do we invoke the presence of caring and supportive leaders, and everyone having “the ability to work well with others,” are “more verbal,” can “network with people across all departments within the organization” (Navran 1993). With leaders committed to developing, maintaining, and facilitating an atmosphere that garners learning,” an organization will overcome its travails. These are organizational attributes which could heal a bruised system that with much resolve could leverage organizational vision.

Systems thinking as the fifth discipline ties up all the way of life shaped by the four other disciplines. It refers not to holistic or whole systems thinking, not to the structure of the organization and its parts that make up its system. Rather, systems thinking refers to the dynamics of the system; “the behavior that is due to arise from interrelationships of behavior.” It refers to the “art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior” triggering “innovative thinking.” Systems thinking “looks for the interrelationships that shape the kind of behavior and the kind of outcomes that are generated in an organization.” <http://www.spe.org/twa/print/arch ives/2007/2007v3n3/twa2007v3n3_Soft_Skills.pdf>

Here is a definition from Peter Senge’s highly influential The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: “Systems thinking [is]a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems. This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the natural processes of the natural and economic world.”

The practice of this discipline develops awareness of complexity, interdependencies and leverages shared vision. (Schools That Learn Annex Copyright © 2000 Peter Senge, et al.) It is “the ability to see the big picture, and to distinguish patterns instead of conceptualizing change as isolated events. Systems thinking needs the other four disciplines to enable a learning organization to be realized. There must be a paradigm shift – from being unconnected to interconnected to the whole, and from blaming our problems on something external to a realization that how we operate, our actions, can create problems (Senge 1990, 10).”

Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, PhD, is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished educators and experts on institutional management in colleges and universities. Her studies have included not only education and pedagogy but also literature. She has studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Britain and Japan. She is now the Vice-President for External Relations and Internationalization of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro) after serving as its VP for Academic Affairs for six and a half years concurrent to her ten years as dean in the Graduate Studies of the same university. She holds a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the central office of the Commission on Higher Education.

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