Business leaders often think from a systemic perspective, share bold visions, build great teams, and learn new business models.
Becky Berkman

2020-08-05 08:33:00 Wed ET

Business leaders often think from a systemic perspective, share bold visions, build great teams, and learn new business models.

Peter Senge (2006)

 

The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization

 

From time to time, many business leaders strive to enhance the core competences and distinctive capabilities of both internal teams and senior specialists etc via the study and practice of 5 major disciplines. The 5 major disciplines include personal mastery skills for lifelong learners, mental models and other central notions of how the world works in reality, common values and visions for all team members, team work streams with new and diverse perspectives, and systemic worldviews of how the other 4 major disciplines interweave the business future at the speed of thought. Out of these 5 major disciplines, the most important element is the systemic global worldview of how the 4 disciplines interact with one another in the business context. This systemic global worldview connects well the individual contributions of lifelong learners with great personal mastery to the mental models, common visions for all team members, and team work streams with new and diverse perspectives. When senior business leaders and decision-makers apply the key systemic worldview to all the relevant team work streams, lean business processes, and both sustainable and disruptive innovations etc, the whole business organization can formulate lean solutions that can help address the root causes of most problems, issues, setbacks, and other obstacles etc.

The modern society often lacks a comprehensive world view. In order to make key complex tasks more manageable, most business organizations often tend to focus on specific basic components of these complex tasks. Some business leaders and decision-makers may inadvertently see the trees but not the forest. In this negative light, these senior business leaders lose strategic foresight of the big picture. In a healthy business context, most business leaders must empower all team members, senior specialists, and other subject matter experts to become lifelong learners. In this important way, such lifelong learners work together to build the viable business.

Senior business leaders and decision-makers must maintain the unique systemic worldview to connect the dots for mental models and pervasive passions. This key systemic worldview further provides a conceptual framework for empowering most team members to be lifelong learners with great personal mastery skills in the wide business context of recursive team work. When push comes to shove, the law of inadvertent consequences often counsels caution. It is essential for most business leaders and decision-makers, their direct reports, and most team members to stay true and authentic to themselves. This true identity empowers all the subject matter experts to focus on both sustainable and disruptive innovations in the long run. In practice, the dual transformation requires applying core competences, proprietary assets, and distinctive capabilities to attract steady cash flows with some reliance on early-stage disruptive innovations and growth options. This dual transformation helps turn both real growth options and disruptive innovations into new proprietary assets with steady cash streams. As these team endeavors come to fruition in time, this dual transformation becomes a virtuous cycle.

 

Most team members apply personal mastery skills to become lifelong learners.

Personal mastery requires a long-term commitment to becoming lifelong learners. In particular, personal mastery skills empower most team members to understand how individual actions affect the world. In order to achieve personal mastery, each individual team member must recognize that there is a fundamental gap between his or her work purpose and the reality of external circumstances. The fundamental gap produces a creative tension that motivates each team member to pursue his or her longer-term goals. Each active team member resolves this creative tension when he or she realizes aspirations and so reconciles personal vision with external circumstances. It is essential for each team member to continue to attain his or her life purpose. When work becomes life, each team member needs to maintain work-life quality (but not work-life balance). Each team member strives to extract quality out of every moment of work with fun, focus, peace, and joy.

When senior business leaders place total trust in their team members and partners, tremendous progress can be made. When work responsibilities increase over time, the line between work and life begins to blur. In practice, it is important for business leaders to ensure that most team members work together to bring tangible rewards to enrich their socio-economic lives. At this stage, it is important for both business leaders and team members to start paying attention to the quality of time spent at work and at home.

Sometimes team members may voluntarily choose to relieve their creative tension by lowering expectations (to bring them in line with reality). However, it is essential for team members to overcome self-fulfilling prophecies to better pursue clear and bold goals. When these goals accord with the deepest values and beliefs of each team member, he or she can achieve better work-life quality.

 

Most team members must adapt their mental models of substance over style.

Mental models represent central notions of how the world works in practice. If most senior business leaders cannot scrutinize these notions in close collaboration with their team members and individual contributors, these mental models may interfere with the practical implementation of new ideas. At the individual level, most mental models can lead people to advance views and opinions that are not truly reflective of their core values. These views and opinions represent a great leap of abstraction and thus often tilt toward narrow observations. Most team members and individual contributors need to reflect on the fundamental basis for these generalizations. As lifelong learners, such subject matter experts sometimes need to question whether their generalizations may be wrong.

Most team members and individual contributors can perform the left-hand column exercise. This exercise entails writing views and thoughts on the left-hand column in addition to a verbatim transcript of team conversations on the right-hand column. This exercise reveals how the implicit views, thoughts, and assumptions etc often impact words, actions, and team interactions. Exposing the hidden views, thoughts, and assumptions helps dispel preconceptions. This pivotal progress can empower team members and individual contributors to embrace new ideas. At the same time, some preconceptions can serve as new and diverse perspectives in a team context. These new perspectives can often help prevent groupthink. At any rate, it is crucial for business leaders to keep a delicate balance between these flip considerations. This balance places a great and reasonable emphasis on substance over style (or quality over quantity).

 

Business leaders must encourage all team members to share pervasive passions, visions, values, beliefs, and longer-term goals.

The pervasive passions, visions, values, and beliefs connect all team members to the longer-term business goals. These intangible assets formulate organizational culture and so establish guidelines and principles for most lifelong learners. Team members can all share these pervasive passions, visions, values, and beliefs etc to focus their time and energy on trying to attain the longer-term goals in the whole business context. In effect, work becomes the means to an end (but not an end in itself). Work-life quality contributes to a larger life purpose, and each team member develops a personal stake in the long-term success and sustainable profitability of his or her business organization.

Senior entrepreneurs often need to outline the longer-term goals, lead by example, stay true and authentic to themselves, and remain open and honest about both the advantages and disadvantages of these bold goals. All team members, individual contributors, and other subject matter experts etc can choose to envision the same bold longer-term goals. At any rate, business leaders and decision-makers cannot impose top-down visions and values as these intangible assets may inadvertently become narrow preconceptions and mental models that hinder business progress. When push comes to shove, the basic law of inadvertent consequences counsels caution.  

 

Business leaders should cultivate a positive team environment for lifelong learners to expose themselves to new and diverse perspectives.

Team members share ideas and learn together more quickly than they could learn individually because the team members are better able to develop ideas that often extend beyond an individual perspective. Subject matter experts need to share the pervasive passions, visions, values, beliefs, and long-term goals. At the same time, these experts further need to know how they learn and work as a team. Most team members present and defend their own views, often need to listen to the alternative views and opinions of others, and then deal with good debates and even conflicts.

Dialogue sessions can be a good iterative way for people to hone their team skills. In order to benefit from these dialogue sessions, all team members must set aside their views, thoughts, preconceptions, or assumptions. When people find common ground, tremendous progress can be made. Team members must see one another as great colleagues in order to ensure a free exchange of both positive views and thoughts. A good facilitator can keep team focus on collective dialogue rather than individual discussion. The conflict of ideas often stimulates the next search for new ideas. It is often productive for all team members to combine new diverse ideas to achieve creative problem resolution. New diverse ideas and perspectives can help with both sustainable and disruptive innovations in the broader business context. Lean CEOs and disruptive innovators strive to design lean solutions to connect the continuous flow of small batches of lean production to the lean consumption of key cost-effective minimum viable products. From time to time, teamwork trumps most individual contributions as the former often benefits from the collective wisdom of special advisors, senior specialists, and other subject matter experts with new and diverse backgrounds and experiences.

 

Business leaders must maintain the core systemic worldview to connect the dots.

There are at least 3 levels of explanation for any complex situation. At the top level is the systemic structure. The systemic structure shows what generates behavioral patterns and root causes of these patterns. At the second level are the behavioral patterns. These patterns tend to focus on the socio-economic implications of long-term trends. At the bottom level, event explanations demonstrate tactical reactions to short-term problems. Only the upper-level systemic worldviews empower senior business leaders and most team members to discover major structural shifts, long-term trends, and the root causes of behavioral patterns. Such worldviews offer the opportunity for most team members to cause positive changes in major behavioral patterns in response to structural shifts, long-term trends, customer demands, and external circumstances.

Some special situations are so dynamically complex that the cause-effect relations are non-obvious. Reactions may inadvertently produce subsequent consequences and even unknown repercussions. The ripple effects can cause the next round of interactions in a vicious cycle. For instance, the war on terrorism can be a systemic structure that causes cyclical behavioral patterns. Terrorist attacks provoke military responses, which in turn lead to more terrorist activities. Continuous responses to external threats may inadvertently increase the danger. In order to stop this vicious cycle, many senior managers and their team members need strategic foresight to deactivate the chain of both specific reactions and behavioral patterns (instead of single events). Sometimes problems arise from endogenous interrelationships but not direct cause-effect relations. The ultimate problem resolution requires strategic insights and systemic worldviews.

Systemic worldviews form the basis for all the 4 prior disciplines (personal mastery skills, mental models, common visions, and collaborative team efforts). Systemic worldviews involve seeing the whole but not the individual parts. These worldviews emphasize actively shaping the future rather than passively reacting to the present. In the first discipline of personal mastery, for example, most team members must believe in their capacity to change their external business circumstances, and thus these team members can pursue their big longer-run goals with both patience and perseverance. Also, if senior business decision-makers lead most team members to engage in team collaboration with new diverse perspectives and mental models, the systemic worldviews can empower these people to work together with specific behavioral patterns, cultures, values, visions, and beliefs etc. Overall, the systemic worldviews help draw a crystal-clear distinction between most fundamental flaws and minor blemishes. At the same time, both business leaders and managers must learn to avoid making mountains out of molehills. It is wiser for these senior leaders to focus their time and energy on the cost-effective resolution of both fundamental flaws and failures.

Systemic worldviews offer several heuristic rules of thumb. Some solutions to past problems can cause present problems because such past solutions often only shift the problems elsewhere. For instance, the rebate program can create a substantial incentive for customers to make purchases in the current quarter; nonetheless, this rebate program results in a large decline in total sales revenue in the next quarter. Also, the initial resolution of the problem sometimes masks the underlying systemic problems. It is important for most business leaders and team members to develop permanent solutions in response to long-term systemic problems. A good example relates to the legal protection of high-tech inventions. The inventors need to seek intellectual property protection in the form of patents, trademarks, and copyrights. When the inventors receive and secure their proper intellectual property rights, the high-tech inventions become legally feasible for business purposes. In this positive light, patents, trademarks, and copyrights serve as the permanent solutions to the perennial problem of potential intellectual property infringement.

Moreover, lean solutions are often non-obvious, and so most business leaders and team members often strive to find out creative lean solutions to resolve problems in a thorough and cost-effective manner. Sometimes outsourcing work to external consultants instead of training internal managers may inadvertently reduce the key corporate competences to meet new customer demands. From time to time, it can often be better to design lean solutions rather than quick fixes. As business leaders and their team members focus on lean solutions to fundamental flaws, tremendous progress can be made in the long run. Sometimes the better is the worst enemy of the good. Senior business leaders and decision-makers often strive to make wise choices of lean solutions to ensure closer alignment between both the continuous flow and eventual consumption of cost-effective minimum viable products.

In complex systems, most business leaders and their team members often assume clear cause-effect relations, whereas, these cause-effect relations may not emerge from many business conditions and circumstances due to both time and distance. From time to time, small strategic actions can snowball into a major impact on both business scale and growth in blue-ocean markets. High-leverage culture changes may not be readily apparent. Hence, most business leaders must pay attention to the systemic worldviews and structural shifts (rather than specific corporate events) to identify small but significant team efforts that can yield maximum improvements. What seems like an immediate dilemma may not be a dilemma at all when senior business leaders view this spurious dilemma from a broader systemic perspective. For instance, some manufacturers face an inevitable trade-off between high quality and low-cost production. In time, these manufacturers can come to the realization that high quality often leads to fewer consumer complaints, better customer loyalty, and lower advertisement costs. In this alternative view, most manufacturers should pursue the dual competitive advantages of both high-quality product differentiation and cost leadership.

 

Systemic thinkers can better identify the behavioral patterns and macro structures.

Systemic archetypes are common themes that create a broad variety of complex situations. As the behavioral patterns often recur to affect specific corporate events, it has become increasingly important for business leaders and their team members to identify systemic macro structures and high-leverage changes in these complex situations. In response to the systemic structures and complex situations, the high-leverage changes can result in maximum improvements with minimal team efforts. Sometimes different team members who follow distinct mental models and visions observe the same events and describe them in different ways because these team members focus on different details with alternative interpretations. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are different ways for people to skin a cat, and all roads eventually lead to Rome.

In the high-tech business context, for example, many business leaders often strive to boost business growth. Alternative interpretations can help react to this complex situation. Specifically, these high-tech business leaders and decision-makers need to first identity the main limits on business growth. In other words, these systemic thinkers often need to reduce factors that hinder iterative continuous improvements. To the extent that these iterative continuous improvements support core disruptive innovations, systemic thinkers must address the root causes of key limits on these interwoven business processes, core operations, team work streams, and so forth. In stark contrast to pursuing business growth in blind faith, the high-tech business organization must find lean solutions to permanently address the factors that inhibit both iterative continuous improvements and disruptive innovations. For this reason, the high-tech company need not work harder to design new products and services, but this company should address the management problems by bringing in outside managers or by developing management skills in most current team members.

Just as doctors often try to treat the disease without killing the patient, key business leaders often pursue easy quick fixes that address both the effects and symptoms of the main problem (but not the problem itself). Shifting the burden may appear to temporarily fix the problem, but the fundamental root causes of the problem persist so that the problem may worsen over time. Another temporary fix entails changing goals for some random reason. Changing goals may ameliorate some symptoms or side-effects of the problem, but this quick fix cannot address the root causes of the problem. One size cannot fit all unique special situations. A better lean solution shifts focus to the fundamental flaws or root causes of the problem. Most business leaders and their team members must minimize attention given to the side effects and symptoms of the problem. In this unique fashion, senior business leaders and their team members better design lean solutions that lead to the ultimate problem resolution in a thorough and cost-effective manner.

 

Systemic thinkers can often drive business growth on a global macro scale.

Under systemic worldviews, both business leaders and their team members serve as lifelong learners and therefore work together with joint commitment. These team members have power to influence major corporate events on a global macro scale. In practice, these lifelong learners focus on both iterative continuous improvements and disruptive innovations. These active team members not only strive to make a mark in the world, but these lifelong learners also mold, change, and revolutionize the respective industries in mobile connectivity, online search, e-commerce, media, finance, software, and information technology etc.

Effective business leaders have several important roles. These leaders help shape the systemic structure that drives all other team members (such as social network designers, platform orchestrators, executive managers, middle managers, subject matter experts, senior specialists, and individual contributors etc). Moreover, these business leaders teach and motivate many team members to apply lean solutions to bridge the gap between vision and reality. These business leaders further serve as stewards or servant-leaders who facilitate core business operations in order to fulfill their lofty life purposes and missions on earth. Nowadays, effective business leaders need greater reliance on women, young people, and other diverse minority groups to make savvy corporate decisions because most of these team members value passion, empathy, collaboration, and long-term sustainability.

 

Many business organizations encounter 7 common faults and fallacies when these organizations strive to develop lifelong learners.

At least 7 pervasive faults and fallacies arise from the broader business context of the 5 major disciplines for lifelong learners. First, some team members may choose to focus on their in-depth tasks and jobs and so lose strategic foresight to envision how their work fits within the business organization as a whole. From this strategic perspective, these team members tend to see the trees but not the forest. Business leaders must strive to transform this myopic view of short-run tactical solutions into the more strategic long-term perspectives in a thorough and cost-effective manner. Lean solutions help senior business leaders better connect the continuous flow of small batches of lean production to the lean consumption of better minimum viable products with iterative continual improvements over time.

Second, some team members may try to blame others, external forces, or specific circumstances for their own mistakes and failures. This common tendency for each team member to blame others often arises from the inability to look beyond his or her position in order to determine the fundamental source of the problem. It is thus essential for senior leaders to establish clear accountability mechanisms. In effect, these mechanisms specify the distinctive capabilities and responsibilities for all key team members. Most team members therefore take responsibility for their own jobs. At the same time, senior business leaders must maintain the healthy organizational culture of disruptive innovation where team members can admit their own mistakes to fail forward. This culture helps encourage incremental progress from sustainable innovations to disruptive innovations over time.

Third, some middle managers inadvertently strive to appear proactive and so often act aggressively with no or little consideration of the misalignment between actions and results (or even repercussions). When push comes to shove, the universal law of inadvertent consequences counsels caution. It is important for senior business leaders to ensure closer alignment between team efforts and desirable outcomes. This strategic alignment helps most middle managers and team members see the bigger picture.

Fourth, some middle managers assume that there is one single obvious cause for each event. From time to time, one size cannot fit all. The cause-effect relationship may not be so obvious at first glance. These middle managers often fail to see the underlying patterns and moreover the root causes of these unique specific patterns. Sometimes the overall organizational culture results in these behavioral patterns. Some behavioral patterns, habits, preferences, and assumptions etc may snowball into big problems over time. For this reason, it is essential for business leaders to cultivate a positive culture of both sustainable and disruptive innovations for most team members to admit their mistakes and failures. This management meme can contribute to good interactive discussions with actionable business insights. In this important way, senior business leaders and decision-makers can better ferret out the cause-effect relations (especially the root causes of specific long-run problems). In a positive team work environment, it is both okay and reasonable for most team members to say sorry with no adverse career consequences.

Fifth, it can be quite dangerous for senior managers and team leaders to react fast to abrupt changes in the team environment. Slow gradual changes may sometimes be imperceptible. However, it can be even more harmful for both business leaders and middle managers to fail to react to these changes. Adverse behavioral patterns and self-interests may stand in the way of positive organizational reforms. In light of these team considerations, senior business leaders and decision-makers should establish internal institutions and mechanisms to deal with special situations (such as meritocracies in the wise words of Bridgewater hedge fund founder Ray Dalio). These internal institutions and mechanisms can consist of 5 to 7 senior managers and other subject matter experts. These special advisors and senior experts often transform the whole business organization into lean, agile, and resilient team work. This transformation can be quite essential in rare hard times of financial stress.

Sixth, many team-centric lifelong learners can often extract valuable lessons and powerful insights from direct experiences; but some individual contributors cannot get the opportunity to see the immediate results and consequences of team efforts. Lean logistics can often help break down organizational silos. Good senior leaders take time to praise team success from small wins and major milestones. This small step builds trust and recognition among both senior managers and subject matter experts. Moreover, senior business leaders and middle managers must make time to build robust positive feedback loops. In this unique fashion, most team members often enjoy the opportunity to learn strategic foresight, business acumen, blue-sky clairvoyance, and blue-ocean market niche consideration etc. Through this unique transformation, some proactive individual contributors and many other similar team members can become future leaders with both great soft skills and hard work.

Seventh, the senior management team typically seems to be cohesive and capable, but some senior leaders may fail to fully resolve complex and difficult problems in a superficial effort to seem knowledgeable with great analytical prowess. In these cases, special advisors and senior experts often need to speak up in order to solve practical problems from internal communication to groupthink. On balance, lifelong learners often strive to connect creativity and capacity to the continuous flow of the 5 major disciplines. On an annual basis, senior business leaders, middle managers, and other team members should work together to agree on the pervasive systemic worldviews throughout the whole business organization. This management meme helps boost trust and recognition among team members.

 

From time to time, many business leaders strive to enhance the core competences and distinctive capabilities of both internal teams and senior specialists etc via the study and practice of 5 major disciplines. The 5 major disciplines include personal mastery skills for lifelong learners, mental models and other central notions of how the world works in reality, common values and visions for all team members, team work streams with new and diverse perspectives, and systemic worldviews of how the other 4 major disciplines interweave the business future at the speed of thought. Out of these 5 major disciplines, the most important element is the systemic global worldview of how the 4 disciplines interact with one another in the business context. This systemic global worldview connects well the individual contributions of lifelong learners with great personal mastery to the mental models, common visions for all team members, and team work streams with new and diverse perspectives. When senior business leaders and decision-makers apply the key systemic worldview to all the relevant team work streams, lean business processes, and both sustainable and disruptive innovations etc, the whole business organization can formulate lean solutions that can help address the root causes of most problems, issues, setbacks, and other obstacles etc.

 

 

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