The Fifth Discipline - Revisited

(10 Minutes)

If I asked you to categorically cluster the colleagues at your school into: great worker, good enough worker, and idiot…what percentages would you give?  When you think of college employees, especially those in other departments or different divisions, how many are competent, how many are always a step ahead, and how many are riding the coat-tails of everyone else?  What about the departments themselves?  Do you have a division or department head where good ideas go to die?  Have you ever thought about it?  (I’m guessing you have.)

Having worked at a number of colleges and universities and complimented (more than I ever could have imagined) by work at various companies, I have found myself in some truly exceptional environments.  I have been a member of some fantastic teams (a term I am not using lightly in this context) who changed and transformed experiences regularly.  I have even been engaged with amazing groups doing amazing things in the midst of organizational mediocrity (if not utter dysfunction), with the walls and ceiling of incompetence squeezing in on us regularly. 

However, throughout my career, I have also experienced the other side of the coin.  I have worked within the confines of an institution with large groups of people who seemingly could not critically think, with others who were incredibly lazy, and with even more who had no ability to look past their own job to see how anyone else worked.  I have seen clever, creative, well-researched strategies glossed over and even outright stopped by executives with no vision nor any ability to see past their own departmental initiatives.   (Although worse are the executives who won't even ask quality questions to discover the merit of an idea...)  With “super” access to systems like support tickets, academic advising, and even end-of-course survey results, I have seen the underbelly of higher education contrasted against some fantastic people. 

Add to this my decades as a consultant or commercial support provider, seeing (literally) hundreds of institutional groups, some mired in dysfunction while a few were taking the world by storm.  My unique position as an academic, education technologist, consultant, and administrator has clearly seen groups with operational and implementation prowess, while seeing others who have no semblance of understanding regarding process or productivity. 

In other words, I have seen the best and the worst of colleges and universities.  I have been buried in  silos while I have also watched bridges built, elegantly connecting people, processes, and outcomes. 

Recently, I was having a conversation with a very good friend who happens to have overlapped four organizations I have been a part of.  He and I have both been part of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  (As an aside, it is incredibly hard to find yourself amid tremendous dysfunction or incompetence, when you have experienced greatness.)  But we were discussing how to help engender the right culture in our latest venture, especially based on the best and worst cultures we have experienced.

During that conversation, I remembered a book.  Through the haze of time, my brain started noodling around with concepts that I found a framework for long ago.  I recalled pieces and parts of, “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge. 

Unfortunately, I read his book (which has been updated very recently) a very long time ago, when I was not nearly as well versed in administration.  At the time, I was much more “worker bee” than anything else.  So the book, while interesting, was not nearly as pragmatic to my life as I would have liked.  I had very little ability to make changes that reflected Senge’s findings and I had not yet achieved enough status to program initiatives with his underlying framework.  However, during the conversation with my colleague, I realized that at least one of those framework components had stayed with me through all of these years.  I also recalled a crucial element of culture that I wish would have popped into my head in my last dysfunctional experience.  I’d like to share both with you today.

I re-read the book last week.  I bumped forward my list of ever-present development books to remind myself of the lessons.  (If you read my blogs, you know I always try to read new frames for learning, leadership, communication, innovation, and transformation.)  This particular book fits into several of those categories (which is my favorite type of read…). 

The book does a fantastic job providing a meaningful framework for leaders who are hoping to transform their team or institution, leveraging the 5 disciplines, 7 learning constraints, and 9 system archetypes which create great filters and lenses for change.  From the value of personal mastery, which should fit squarely into any faculty development plan to the danger of I-Am-My-Position syndrome, a major issue across higher education, the ideas are practical, applicable, and meaningful. 


But I realized that I have a personality proclivity that may hurt my ability to lead in some instances, when contrasted against Senge’s suggestions.  Having taken all manner of personality indicators, I agree with their consistent findings that people who do not perform effectively, in a collaborative fashion, nor with a proper prioritization of goals, are easily waived off in my brain as “morons.”  I struggle to give second chances and I quickly look for workarounds to people and departments that appear obstructivistic regarding forward thinking initiatives, student support, or even student learning, etc. 

But if you read Senge’s work, you know that such an extreme, black vs white approach is not always warranted, nor is it helpful.  There are times that the best people, with the best intentions, making the best decisions possible at a moment in time are going to be met with failure.  Sometimes the system itself genuinely causes unwanted or even detrimental outcomes.  At the same time, there are any number of system or process inputs that may be setup for failure without even realizing it.  Senge’s, “myth of the management team” comes to mind. 

The point is, not everyone who fails is at fault.  Not every team nor department who obstruct are obstructionists.  That is a crucial thing to remember, especially as you have more and more interdependencies, teams, or departments.  Obviously the benefit of the doubt can only go so far.  Higher education has its fair share of persons who are not effective, which can legitimately be the case for an entire institution on occasion.  But not every weak link is due to incompetence.  Remembering that will help transformation architects immensely. 

Speaking of architects, the other concept that has really settled into my personal frameworks is something I write about a lot.  I’m not sure if Senge’s work started me down this path or not, but the concept of systems thinking – system architecture – is more crucial than ever in higher education, despite being so obviously absent.  For decades I have observed Presidents who trust their Vice Presidents who trust their Directors who trust their Managers who trust their people…to get things done.  Yet, most Vice Presidents don’t collaborate around initiatives or solutions very well, while most people have no idea what other divisions are working on.  I can no longer count on my fingers and toes the number of times I have heard this phrase: “I can’t take this solution to the executive team, no matter how good it is.  So and so won’t look at any solution that s/he didn’t bring to the table.” 


At the heart of systems thinking is the analysis of patterns across an organization.  By examining those patterns from a holistic view rather than small, unrelated, manageable parts, Senge explains that an organization is like a living organism and should be managed as one.  Yet if you surveyed most college / university stakeholders and asked if other departments, teams, or divisions supported existing initiatives, you would see how little systems thinking actually goes on in higher education. 

I was so glad I revisited this powerful book.  As a person who hopes to help many organizations better their communication, education, processes, innovation, and more, it provides a firm foundation for any leader.  I hope you’ll add it to your holiday break reading list.  (Now that the term has started, I know most of you won’t read anything “for fun” until December!)

Hope Fall start was excellent for one and all.

Good luck and good learning.