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Stick Shift: Learning to Change

The birds that typically visit the feeders in my backyard are house sparrows and house finches.

The birds that typically visit the feeders in my backyard are house sparrows and house finches. Both are common. Barely worth a second look. Yes, there are cardinals and blue jays that visit. Once again: fairly familiar.

But on occasion, there are birds out there that I've never seen, such as the hairy woodpecker and the common flicker (which is about as "common" looking as something out of Jurassic Park). In order to identify these birds, I had to quickly riffle through The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds (Eastern Region). It not only tells me what the names are, but provides an array of descriptive information (genus, species, habitat, nesting...).

The book is certainly a useful tool. It is also something that few people—if any—would likely read from cover to cover.

Which brings me to The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations by Peter Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard Ross, George Roth, and Bryan Smith (Doubleday; $35.00), a book with an imposing title and list of authors. The book itself is something of a monument: it measures 7.5 × 9 × 1.5 in., runs to page 596, and weighs in at just over 2.5 lb. This is not something you take lightly.

The Dance of Change is designated as "a Fifth Discipline resource," with The Fifth Discipline being the book that Peter Senge produced in 1990. It was to have an effect—in some cases a fleeting one—on many companies, including Ford Motor.

Essentially, in that book Senge lays out five practices, or disciplines, that he recommends that people work toward understanding, internalizing and utilizing:

  1. Personal Mastery.
  2. Mental Models.
  3. Shared Vision.
  4. Team Learning.
  5. Systems Thinking.

In the case of the five disciplines (systems thinking is the fifth of the title because it encompasses the preceding), it is a matter of the individual and the group. Attaining and sustaining this sort of mindset is, to understate things, demanding, as there is a tendency for people to slide back into previous behaviors, especially when dealing with other people who aren't disposed toward the five. The systems thinking approach sometimes seems counterintuitive; consequently, backsliding can be accelerated.

Between the publication of The Fifth Discipline and The Dance of Change, Senge and several of his colleagues produced The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (1994), which is the format model for The Dance of Change. Both contain guides, stories, reviews, essays, sources, and a variety of other pieces of information and insight of various scopes and sizes.

Just as the Audubon book isn't something that people are likely to sit down and read straight through, the Fieldbook and The Dance of Change are similarly resource-oriented, not narrative. But if you find yourself in a situation and are looking for help, they are solid resources.

In the opening essay in The Dance of Change, Senge acknowledges that there is often a "failure to sustain significant change...despite substantial resources committed to the change effort (many are bankrolled by top management), talented and committed people `driving the change,' and high stakes." So given that, he explains, "Our core premise in writing this book is that the sources of these problems cannot be remedied by more expert advice, better consultants, or more committed managers." You might want to read that sentence again before moving on to how Senge continues. "The sources lie in our most basic ways of thinking. If these do not change, any new `input' will end up producing the same fundamentally unproductive types of actions." In other words, think the way you've always thought and you'll get the same old ideas you've always gotten.

Senge and his colleagues are insistent that learning is key; they describe it in a collectively written essay as "the only infinitely renewable resource" and they point out that "no one can purchase, duplicate, or reverse-engineer an organization's ability to learn."

As readers of this column know, I'm solidly behind on-going learning, as I figure that it is critically important to both one's mental fitness and organizational value-adding capability. (After all, I don't read all of the books I've mentioned in the pages of this magazine purely as recreation.) So I agree with the authors of the book, and have to laud them for tackling the things that prevent learning (as well as change). Some of the 10 obstacles they identify: ("We don't have time for this stuff!" "We have no help!" "This stuff isn't relevant!" "This stiff isn't working!" "We have the right way!"/"They don't understand us!" "Who's in charge of this stuff?" "Where are we going?"/"What are we here for?") and the ways to overcome them—and the solutions aren't easy. But just as I don't get all of the birds in the Audubon book in my backyard, no one is likely to encounter all 10—at least not simultaneously—so there is some slack.

Even if you read the entire book, looking into the specific problems you encounter is worthwhile. Going beyond that is a valuable bonus.

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