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Making a Better World

Peter M. Senge
Introduction // Profit and Purpose // The Vision of Learning

Our ideal of the learning organization comes from a different understanding of learning.
Our culture uses the word learning in a way that equates it with taking in information: "I
know a lot because I read a lot." This is a very weak definition of learning. The expression
for learning in Chinese is made up of two symbols: One stands for studying, the other for
practicing constantly. In China, you can't think of learning without thinking of practicing
constantly. The central definition of learning is the enhancement of capacity to produce
results that matter to you. We’re all inquisitive about things we care about, and
companies need to tap that intrinsic motivation. Because once you start doing your life's
work, everything changes. When you connect what matters in your life and what you're
doing professionally, work has a very different meaning. People sometimes ask me, "How
do you tap that motivation for production workers?" They imply that it's more difficult t o
find meaning if you're doing a job on the front line. Why would it be more difficult, unless
these people are doing something they don't want to do or are treated as if they're only
there to execute tasks and don't have brains. The way jobs are defined by the system o f
management somewhat determines the opportunity people have to bring their whole
selves to work. There's nothing wrong with hierarchy, but we might redefine it in a non-
value-laden way, saying it exists because people at different levels deal with different time
horizons. Some are focused on 20 years, some on 10 days. It's like somebody plays left
field, and somebody pitches. It's a position. But we have tied positions with value,
believing some people are more important because of their position.

Profit and Purpose

I question whether the fundamental purpose of any organization is to make a profit. I
don‘t think that's descriptive of most successful companies. Russ Ackoff, at the Wharton
School of Economics, says profit is like oxygen. If you don't have enough, you won't be
around long; but if you think life is about breathing, you're missing something. Obviously,
profit is important. But it doesn't tell you about the purpose of the enterprise. The
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founders of such companies as Ford and AT&T believed that if you did something well, a
natural by-product would be making a lot of money. That's not so radical. Maybe
what's more radical is thinking about a multiplicity of dimensions of purpose, where one
might be the continual growth of everyone in the enterprise. But that doesn't exist by
itself. I personally wouldn't want to be part of a business solely focused on that, and not
trying to contribute something to the world. A social mission is the essence of a
successful business: doing something that makes a difference to somebody. Otherwise,
they wouldn't want to pay for it. The problem is that the phrase " social responsibility" has
become a hackneyed phrase that sounds like do-goodism, and it doesn't get the right
spirit of it. For organizations to prosper over the long term, they must contribute
something. And t he more they can contribute on multiple dimensions, the more they're
likely to prosper. Those multiple dimensions include communities, customers, and
employees. Yes, that amounts to a socially responsible view, but it also amounts to a
systems view. We tend to think in terms of dichotomies, of either/ors: Either it's good for
society, or it's smart business. Might it be possible to have organizations that are both
more consistent with our deeper values, and more effective? We've bought into the idea
that to be successful in business, you have to violate your values. The idea has been
propagated using all these metaphors about the law of the jungle. But the root goes back
to the industrial era, when we developed a set of practices which were not sustainable.
Ideas that began with the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution became crystallized in
Western reductionist philosophy: the attitude that we could control our world. We tried t o
set our own rules, with no appeal to the larger systems of which we are a part. It certainly
accomplished a lot, but it's not sustainable over the long run. Paul Hawken talks about
imagining an economic system where every enterprise is responsible for the life cycle o f
its products. So you build a car, and you own those parts forever.

The Vision of Learning

The learning organization is really a vision. We need to be weaned from the model o f
fostering innovation by watching companies that are doing it right and copying them. One
good illustration of how vision works comes from Allen Kay, who led the research at Xerox
Park that produced the technical breakthroughs that led to the personal computer. He was
responsible for the user interface. The vision they had was of a “Dynabook”.@ It would be
like a book --something you could carry with you -- but fully interactive. By Kay's own
assessment they failed, because the machine they created was not as portable as a book.
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But that's the point. It wasn't whether they accomplished the vision; it was what the
vision did. We're so hooked on getting it right that we miss the essence of the creative
orientation, which is to aspire to something really worth our effort. Maybe you never fully
accomplish the vision. The vision‘s an abstraction. Kay always thought of himself as a
forcing function f or change. And that's what the learning organization is about. The more
progress that any organization makes, the more it will see its inadequacy. The most radical
aspect of the way we approach things is to focus on thinking. Most people believe you
change organizations by rearranging external conditions such as the reward systems, the
information technologies. Our premise is that organizations are the way they are because
of how people think. Until we change how we think and interact, nothing really changes.
The idea of creative tension is important. When we have a vision of where we want to be
and we tell the truth about where we are now, there’s a natural tension between the two.
Creative tension points us in two directions: toward our aspiration, but also toward our
ability to inquire into the current reality -- not just the conditions, but the underlying
causes of the conditions. Now, as soon as you go in that direction, it doesn't take much
thought to realize there is no current reality, no absolute truth. There are only
interpretations. And these are a reflection of underlying assumptions. So that leads you
into the discipline of surfacing the assumptions we bring to the table, and how do you
have conversations that free up those assumptions so that we can come to a deeper
shared sense of what's going on? For example, Royal Dutch Shell, the first company in the
West to work with mental models, was at the bottom of the oil industry in the early
seventies, and today it's at the top of the industry. A big part of that was a change in
how they went about planning. At Shell, they talk about planning as learning. They see the
purpose of planning as surfacing the underlying assumptions behind managers’ plans.
Every strategy is an expression of a set of assumptions. Usually, business people argue
about the right strategy, and that's pointless. The real conversation should be, what are
our different assumptions, and how can we understand how each other's thinking? Many
people at the top of organizations today are disoriented. They don't know what they're
supposed to be doing. On the one hand, they may be pushing empowerment or breaking
down traditional hierarchy. But, they're wondering: "What's my job? My job has always
been making the key decisions, or having a key influence on how they get made. So what
do I do now?" We need to begin thinking of leaders as designers, stewards, and teachers,
and not as the key decision-makers. I see many people leaning in that direction. It's not a
matter of saying to someone, "Do it like they do it." You have to understand the direction
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of change underway in our time, and not just try to copy people. The shared vision is an
essential element to unite people, but it's just as important to develop a shared
understanding of current reality. The Shell story illustrates the power of surfacing our
hidden assumptions and developing more coherent shared images of reality. That is a very
non-trivial task. In fact, it’s much harder than developing a shared vision. How do you
surface mental models? One key is the principle called "the ladder of abstraction," which
has to do with developing awareness of how we move from direct observation t o
interpretation. It's like this: The meeting started at nine o'clock, and Joe walked in a t
9:15. What goes off in everybody's head? "Joe's late; he's not committed; he can't
organize time." That's not data. The data is that Joe walked in at 9:15. The rest is an
interpretation nobody bothers to test. The problem is not that we have these thoughts,
but that we treat them as data. That's where the discipline of working with mental model
starts. We have to become self-conscious of our own thinking. Maybe we need to pull back
and say, "Let's look at the facts here," and try to separate the facts from the
interpretation. But then you come to the next level of skills. If you go to Joe and say,
"Joe, why did you come in at 9:15?" and try to be fact-based, very likely his first reaction
will be defensiveness. We need to learn to talk to one another in ways that will bring
assumptions into the open without invoking defensiveness. It's not easy; there are no
quick answers. The world has changed profoundly, but we haven't changed with it. It's
absolutely awesome the power we've acquired to shape the world. And yet our wisdom
hasn't increased; in fact, it's diminished. It's like we're driving down a road at night and
speeding up, and at the same time turning our headlights down. All the major crises we
face in the world today are systemic, and they're man-made. That's absolutely unique in
human history. All the major threats we used to face were short-term dramatic events,
caused by something outside ourselves, whether a natural disaster or a saber-toothed
tiger. But crises today are slow, gradual processes. And they're of our own making. Our
work is all about making a better world. You take any area of real concern, like long-term
environmental issues, it's very difficult to have improvement without a significant change
in the way businesses operate. Businesses collectively are more important than
government today. They have more global impact, more ability to influence things. We all
need to live our lives in the service of our highest aspirations. We can't afford to be
paralyzed by fear or apprehension. We need a better sense of what the deeper issues are
and what the changes are we're called upon to make.
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Peter Senge is a faculty member of MIT, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT's
Sloan School of Management, founding partner of Innovation Associates, author of The Fifth
Discipline, and contributing editor to Executive Excellence (617) 253-1575.