Applied Sustainability
Class 8: Systems & Org Learning
P. Brian Fisher
Spring 2013
RE-AMP’s Collective Network – Key
Principles to Systems Problem Solving
1. Understand the System you are trying to change
2. Involve Diversity of stakeholders
3. Design Network (not an organization) and invest in
collective infrastructure
4. Cultivate Leadership at many levels
5. Create multiple ops to connect and communicate
6. Remain Adaptive and Emergent  committed to long-term
Functionality of Systems
 Highly functional systems: resilience, self-organization, or hierarchy
 Resilience: measure of a system’s ability to survive and persist within a variable environment
 Ability to bounce back or elasticity  arises from a rich structure of many feedback loops
that can work in different ways to restore a system even after a large perturbation.
 Self-Organization: capacity for a system to create its own structure  feedback loops that
can learn, create, design, and evolve ever more complex restorative structures.
 Hierarchy: In the process of creating new structures and increasing complexity, one thing
that a self-organizing system often generates is hierarchy  a set of subsystems that
aggregate into larger systems
 Systems need to be managed not only for productivity or stability, they also need to be
managed for resilience.
 Like resilience, self-organization is often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity
and stability.
Leverage Points to Change System
 So, how do we change the structure of systems to
produce more of what we want and less of that which is
undesirable?  where in the system can we create a
small change that can lead to a large shift in the
 Leverage Points = Points of Power
 12. Numbers—Constants and parameters such as subsidies, taxes, standards
 11. Buffers—The sizes of stabilizing stocks relative to their flows
 10. Stock-and-Flow Structures—Physical systems and their nodes of
 9. Delays—The lengths of time relative to the rates of system changes
 8. Balancing Feedback Loops—The strength of the feedbacks relative to the
impacts they are trying to correct.
 7. Reinforcing Feedback Loops—The strength of the gain of driving loops
 6. Information Flows—The structure of who does and does not have access to
5. Rules—Incentives, punishments, constraints
4. Self-Organization—The power to add, change, or evolve system
3. Goals—The purpose or function of the system
2. Paradigms—The mind-set out of which the system—its goals,
structure, rules, delays, parameters—arises
1. Transcending Paradigms – No paradigm is “true”  keep unattached
 “let go into not-knowing, into what Buddhists call enlightenment
**The higher the leverage point, the more the system will resist
changing it—that’s why societies often rub out truly enlightened
Living in a world of Systems
 “Self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently
unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in
the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and
preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex
system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily,
at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our
reductionist science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from
quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible
uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t
optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of
everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature,
each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role
of the omniscient conqueror.”
Insights from Systems thinking
1. Systems thinking often leads to more questions than answers
2. We need a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and
brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned.
3. Before you disturb a system, watch how it behaves – Get the Beat of the System
4. Expose your Mental Models and Assumptions (for others to examine)  make rigorous systems models
5. Honor, Respect, and Distribute Information  Info is power  Need more complete, timely and
accurate information
6. Use Language with Care and Enrich It with Systems Concepts  Avoid language pollution, while
expanding our language to handle complexity
7. Pay Attention to What Is Important, Not Just What Is Quantifiable  Set goals around what’s important,
not measureable
8. Make Feedback Policies for Feedback Systems  best policies not only contain feedback loops, but
meta-feedback loops—loops that alter, correct, and expand loops
9. Go for the Good of the Whole  Don’t maximize parts or subsystems  aim: to enhance total systems
properties, such as growth, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability
Insights (con’t)
10. Listen to the Wisdom of the System  encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself.
11. Locate Responsibility in the System  looking for the ways the system creates its own behavior
12. Stay Humble— Stay a Learner  Don’t charge forward with unbending directives  need to learn primarily through
trial and error  “error-embracing” enhances learning
13. Celebrate Complexity  universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and dynamic  Celebrate and embrace this
14. Expand Time Horizons  Phenomena at different time-scales are nested within each other. Actions taken now have
some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come
15. Defy the Disciplines  Follow systems, and it will definitely cross traditional disciplines  more than
16. Expand the Boundary of Caring  The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either
from other human beings or from the global ecosystem
17. Don’t Erode the Goal of Goodness  “drift to low performance” is the process by which modern industrial culture
has eroded the goal of morality
Fifth Discipline
Peter Senge
Core of Book: Fifth Discipline
 Systems thinking to transform orgs into “learning organizations”
 Good orgs are ALWAYS learning
 Good managers are always thinking of the “big picture” (and the
 The five disciplines represent approaches (theories and
methods) for developing three core learning capabilities:
fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and
understanding complexity
5 Core Capabilities
Personal Mastery: continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of
focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively
Mental Modes: deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures
of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action
Shared Vision: practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster
genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance (P9)
Team Learning: dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend
assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together (p10)
Systems Thinking: The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other 4
Bringing it together
 "Systems thinking also needs the disciplines of building shared
vision, mental models, team learning, and personal mastery to
realize its potential. Building shared vision fosters a commitment
to the long term. Mental models focus on the openness needed
to unearth shortcomings in our present ways of seeing the world.
Team learning develops the skills of groups of people to look for
the larger picture beyond individual perspectives. And personal
mastery fosters the personal motivation to continually learn how
our actions affect our world." (p. 12)
 The “Lever”  A learning org is a place where people are
continually discovering how they create their reality; and how
they change it.
Metanoia – A Shift of Mind
 “a fundamental shift”
 “Real learning get to the heart of what it means to be human. Through
learning we recreate ourselves. Through learning we become able to do
something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive
the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our
capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life” (p13-4)
 “learning organization” is therefore “an org that is continually expanding
its capacity to create its future.”
 Learning org = adaptive learning + generative learning
 Putting ideas into PRACTICE
Learning Disabilities
I am my position: People fail to recognize their purpose as a part of the enterprise. Instead, they see themselves as an
inconsequential part of a system over which they have little influence, leading them to limit themselves to the jobs
they must perform at their own positions. This makes it hard to pinpoint the reason an enterprise is failing, with so
many hidden 'loose screws' around.
The enemy out there: propensity to blame someone or something outside ourselves. This disability makes it almost
impossible to detect the leverage we have on problems that straddle the boundary between us and "out there.”
The Illusion of Taking Charge: All too often, proactiveness is reactiveness in disguise. Whether in business or politics, if
we simply become more aggressive fighting the "enemy out there," we are reacting -- regardless of what we call it. True
proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems. It is a product of our way of thinking, not our
emotional state.
The Fixation of Events: Focusing on events distract us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind
the event and from understanding the cause of those patterns. The tendency to see things as results of short-term
events undermines our ability to see things on a grander scale…the biggest threats we face are rarely sudden events,
but slow, gradual processes, such as environmental changes.
Boiling Frog: We are adept at responding to sudden changes in our environment. We are terrible at assessing slow,
gradual changes, even when they threaten our survival.
The Delusion of Learning from Experience: Practice makes permanent, rather than perfect
The Myth of the Management Team: silos and self interest dominate and team breaks down under pressure
Beer Game
 Simulation of beer distrib from a factory to customers through distrib,
wholesaler and retailer
 Ex of non-systemic form of thinking that many orgs use
 Highlights the importance of understanding interrelationships in
companies to understand big picture
 Cause and effect are not always closely related in time and space
Prisoners of the Systems
 1. Structure (key interrelationships) influences behavior
 When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to
produce similar results
 2. Structure in Human Systems is Subtle
 Not external constraints on the indiv—BUT rather in complex living
systems, it means the basic interrelationships that control behavior 
HOW people make decisions (or op procedures) where we translate
perceptions, goals, rules and norms into action.
 3. Leverage often comes from New Ways of Thinking
 People often miss leverage because they focus on themselves not on
how their decision affects others.
11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline
Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."
The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
The easy way out usually leads back in.
The cure can be worse than the disease.
Faster is slower.
Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
Small changes can produce big results...but the areas of highest
leverage are often the least obvious.
9. You can have your cake and eat it too—but not at once
10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
11. There is no blame
** The cure lies in your relationship to your enemy
A Shift in Mind (ch 5)
 Systems thinking is the fifth discipline
 Way to see things holistically and gives living systems their unique character
 Cornerstone of how learning orgs think
 Means any reciprocal flow of thinking
 Every influence is BOTH cause and effect
 Starts with feedback and builds to learning to recognize types of “structures”
 We see things as linear, as opposed to systems—which is cyclical
Personal Mastery (ch 8)
 Orgs learn through people who learn
 Involves living life through “creative” viewpt rather than a reactive
 Requires continual clarification of our own “personal vision” (what
we want) and learning to see our current reality more clearly
 Total development of people leads to employee personal success
 Happy, fulfilled, innovative employees lead to corp success
 People with high levels of personal mastery are more committed,
take more initiative and have a deeper sense of responsibility
Shared Vision (ch 10)
 Shared visions are not an idea, but a Q asking “what do
we want to create?”
 Vital for learning orgs to provide focus and energy
 Can’t learn without them
 Both intrinsic and extrinsic.
 Extrinsic: focus on achieving something relating to outside
 Intrinsic: focus on uplifting a person’s aspirations
Team Learning
 Process of aligning and developing capacity of a team to
create the results its members desire
 Alignment is necessary condition before empowerment
 3 critical elements of Team Learning
 Think insightfully about complex issues
 Need for innovative coordinated action
 Role of team members on other teams
Leaders and Citizens (ch 15/16)
 Producing change necessary to creating a learning org requires true
 Need creative tension  mutual appreciation that one is capable of
obtaining a vision regardless of difference
 Leaders as designers
 Leaders as teachers
 Leaders as stewards
 Citizens: Every org lies within a larger system
 Network of mutuality
 Learning to ID systems we have formed, which in turn impact us
 Social and environmental awareness
 “nature is not made of parts within wholes. It is made
of wholes within wholes”
 Continuous improvement and learning
 To do this, shed our traditional way of thinking
 The 5 disciplines will maximize the potential of any org

Systems and Learning Organizations