Think Like Peter Senge

Applying his laws of systems thinking to identify patterns that shape behavior by William G. O’Callaghan Jr.

From a very early age, we have been taught that every cause has an effect. If we do A, then B will occur.

However, what we have not been taught to do is see the long-term effects of doing A. What’s more, the long-term effects may be quite different from what we intended to have happen.

Take, for example, the challenge of passing school tax issues in a local community. Realizing how difficult it is to pass tax issues today, many school boards with all good intentions place them on the ballot before the money is really needed. They do this so if the tax issues are not approved, they have another chance to get them passed before serious educational cuts have to be made.

In states where school districts must rely on the passage of a local tax referendum to fund at least part of their operations, this is a common practice. However, in trying to be responsible by asking for the money before it is really needed, often what school officials actually end up doing is to trigger a chain reaction of negative side effects, or unintended consequences, that surface later down the road.

Unintended Outcomes

First, placing a tax issue on the ballot before it is needed makes it difficult, if not impossible, to establish a sense of urgency among voters. This, in turn, erodes public trust by creating a crying-wolf mindset when the issue is defeated and there are no visible consequences.

The lack of a clear sense of urgency then leads to more tax issue proposals being placed on the ballot— whether or not the money is really needed—because school officials surmise if they don’t keep the proposal on the ballot, residents will feel they didn’t need the money in the first place. However, by continually asking voters to approve the tax issue, the no-voters grow angrier with a “what-part-of-no-don’t-you-understand” attitude, dig in their heels and work overtime to defeat any and all future tax issue proposals that come their way.

To complicate matters, the growing parade of tax issue attempts begins to wear down both school district employees and the citizens who are working to pass them. After a while, school officials grow weary of losing and decide to appease the no-voters by freezing staff salaries, cutting athletics, eliminating busing and making other cuts and reductions. However, since no-voters have an insatiable appetite for making cuts, these reductions only serve as additional proof to them that the school district has more money than it needs.

Symptomatic Solutions

In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, author Peter Senge explains why strategies such as placing tax issues on the ballot before the money is needed and other well-intended solutions to problems actually make matters worse over the long term: “Opting for ‘symptomatic solutions’ is enticing. Apparent improvement is achieved. Pressures, either external or internal, to ‘do something’ about a vexing problem are relieved.”

But easing a problem symptom also reduces any perceived need to find more fundamental solutions.

Meanwhile, the underlying problem remains unaddressed and may worsen, and the side effects of the symptomatic solution make it still harder to apply the fundamental solution. Over time, people rely more and more on the symptomatic solution, which becomes increasingly the only solution. As a result, without anyone making a conscious decision, they have shifted the burden to increasing reliance on symptomatic solutions.

By understanding the patterns that shape behavior, we can avoid using symptomatic solutions and other actions that, in many instances, feed our problems and cause us to fail. The discipline of identifying these patterns is called systems thinking.

Senge’s Laws

Senge has identified certain patterns that occur again and again. He calls these reoccurring patterns the laws of systems thinking. A few examples follow.

  • Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.
    We often are puzzled by the causes of our problems, but remembering solutions to past problems provides insight. For instance, why are educators struggling to reduce class sizes today? One answer is because efficiency experts convinced them in the early 1900s that increasing class sizes would make their schools more efficient and save them money.

  • The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
    We have all felt it. The more you try to improve things, the more effort is required. For instance, the harder you try to convince some teachers they need to improve their teaching methods, the more they resist and the harder it is to get them to change.

  • Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
    If we intervene to improve things, we succeed, but only in the short term. For instance, when teacher salaries are frozen, short-term financial pressures are relieved. However, the mood of the teachers is often negatively affected by the salary freeze, and staff morale begins to falter. When our short-term success of saving money turns into a gradual long-term decline in staff spirit, it may be hard to recognize the connection between the two.

  • The easy way out usually leads back in.
    When we stick to what we know best and apply familiar or textbook solutions, we find comfort. Relying on familiar solutions even while problems persist indicates nonsystemic thinking, or the “what we need here is a bigger hammer” syndrome. For instance, when student performance is static or declining, the typical reaction is to tighten the screws by raising the threshold for meeting educational standards. However, in doing so, the unintended consequences are to mask incremental improvements in student achievement, frustrate the teachers and principals and further increase demands for more stringent standards.

  • The cure can be worse than the disease.
    The familiar solution is sometimes not just ineffective but also dangerous. For instance, eliminating educational programs to balance the school district budget not only masks the need for more money, but it also lowers the quality of education and can trigger a long-term dismantling process.

  • Faster is slower.
    All natural systems, whether ecosystems or organizations, have an optimal rate of growth that is far slower than the fast pace most of us think is desirable. For instance, the current drive to reform our public schools is running headlong into the natural tendency for teachers, principals, school board members and parents to adjust slowly to change. As Daniel Yankelovich states in his book, Coming To Public Judgment, the process of working through change can take months or even years.

  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
    Most of us assume that cause and effect occur closely together. That makes it hard to find the causes that effects, such as sagging public trust of school officials and other public officials, indicate exist. The first step in learning how to view reality systemically is to dispense with simple cause-and-effect thinking and learn to see that sometimes we—and not external adversaries or events—are at the root of our problems. For instance, the propensity for school officials to try to convince residents to feel good about their public schools can in the long run lead to public distrust because these residents over time feel they are receiving only part of the truth.

  • Small change can produce big results, but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
    Small, well-focused actions can produce solid improvements, but only if done in the right place. This is called leverage. For instance, when school officials make the decision to introduce educational reforms, simply sitting down with teachers one-on-one at the outset and easing their concerns about the impact these reforms will have on their lives can go a long way toward paving the way for a smooth transition to new, more effective teaching methods.

  • You can have your cake and eat it too, but not all at once.
    Sometimes knotty dilemmas, from a systems point of view, are not dilemmas at all. Once you change from a “snapshot” to a “process” mode of thinking, they appear differently. For instance, it is possible to use computer technology to improve the quality of teaching and learning and to do it efficiently. However, the early stages of implementing this technology can be time consuming and expensive as computers are purchased, buildings are wired for the technology and teachers are trained to use it. After the startup period, the educational and economic benefits begin to gradually kick in.

  • Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
    Systems are alive, and their character depends upon the whole. To understand difficult problems or plot strategy, you will have to see the whole system that creates the issues. For instance, when a school system runs out of money, the school district’s treasurer may see the problem as a financial one, while the board of education and the superintendent may view the problem in terms of the educational cuts that will have to be made if more money is not generated.

On the other hand, some school district residents may feel the lack of state funding is the root cause of the financial problems facing their district. All see a different dimension of the problem and have trouble seeing how they interact.

Wicked Problems

The Kettering Foundation and other public policy think tanks have identified a growing number of problems—which they call “wicked problems”—that cannot be resolved in the same way that many problems have been resolved in the past. These wicked problems, they explain, are not easy to define. They often defy logic, have many origins and are deeply embedded in human nature and social culture.

Trying to pass school tax issues, changing how teachers teach, running a school system more like a business and other real-life situations cited here are examples of wicked problems. The changing nature of these and other challenges makes it imperative that educational leaders internalize at an intuitive level Senge’s laws of systems thinking. Once internalized, they can then use these mental models to build workable, long-term solutions and avoid generating unwanted and counterproductive unintended consequences.

To resolve the growing number of wicked problems facing our schools and communities, educational leaders must transcend just being creative and coming up with a new angle or technique. They must shift their thinking to a new dimension in which they see things in a new light where unforeseen possibilities appear.

As Albert Einstein has said, the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we used when we created them. Teaching yourself to think like Peter Senge will help you make that shift and reach the level of thinking where the solutions to many of the wicked problems facing public education will begin to emerge into the light of a new day.

William O’Callaghan Jr. is founder of the Santa Rita Collaborative, 1201 Virginia Ave., Lakewood, OH 43107. E-mail: wgoassoc@earthlink.net. This article is adapted from his latest book, Thinking Outside the Box: How Educational Leaders Can Safely Navigate the Rough Waters of Change (ScarecrowEducation).