1. Personal Mastery
Personal mastery is concerned with individuals’ desire and ability to grow through learning. Those who have the discipline of personal mastery are actually ‘masters of personal learning’; people who value learning and who act on what they learn.
This kind of mastery implies a more active form of learning, a desire to find out more and to act on what we find out, turning it into knowledge, and in the process improving our lives.
Achieving true mastery involves a constant search for priorities. Prioritizing is itself a form of learning, which requires awareness, honesty and continual questioning. We must be prepared to note changes in ourselves and our environment, and re-prioritize accordingly.
Learning organizations are built by people with personal mastery. Without people who will question and re-prioritise, any organization risks pursuing the wrong goals and constantly playing catch-up with the opposition. In return, organizations need to value those who value learning. Companies need to provide opportunities to learn and act, and they need to seek ways to align the individual’s goals and objectives with those of the firm.
According to Senge, not only will those who possess mastery learn faster, but they will be more committed and more prepared to take the initiative. Enlightened companies will seize upon these attributes and harness them to the firm’s goals. This can only be a win–win situation: individuals are given opportunities to learn and are happier in their work. Meanwhile, the firm reaps the returns from new ideas, commitment and improved operations.
2. Shared Vision
Sharing a common goal is what distinguishes a team from a group of people. Simply putting people in a room and telling them that they are a team doesn’t make them a team. Similarly, hiring six developers who have worked well in six different teams before and calling them a team doesn’t make them a team. Each team is different, because each team contains a different mix of people and each team needs to find its own way of working together, its own strengths and weaknesses.
Participating in the shared vision means that individuals accept that they won’t create the whole themselves. Instead, individuals are offered the opportunity to create something bigger than they could create alone, and something that will be bigger than the sum of its parts.
For this to happen, each individual must hold a personal stake in the vision. In order to build a personal stake, it helps if each person is allowed to take part in the vision formation. This will help them internalize the vision and make it part of their identity, thus creating a sense of belonging and focus for actions.
Simply handing a team a ready-made vision and asking them to adopt it as theirownis the antithesis of true shared vision. People who are handed a ready made vision won’t feel the same attachment, and consequently they will be less motivated to bring the vision to reality.
For a shared vision or mission statement to really motivate individuals and teams, they must be able to associate closely with the idea. It is not enough for a manager or planner to explain how vision affects an individual. In order to create a close personal relationship with the vision, individuals need to hold a stake in it.
3. Team Learning
In any development team, many members will have specialist skills and knowledge. For the team to work well together, the members need to respect one another and maximize individual’s specialities, but also support the needs of those with less experience or knowledge.
For Senge, there’s more to team learning than just ensuring that a team works well together. Team learning goes beyond good teamwork. Team learning builds personal mastery and shared vision, to create highly effective motivated units.
Team action and learning are guided by the shared vision that helps the team to direct its thinking. The shared vision helps the team to know what to investigate and what to pass over.
When a team works well together, guided by a shared vision that all members believe in and work towards, then a phenomenon of alignment is seen. This occurs when all team members are pulling in exactly the same direction, without diversion. Unfortunately, there’s a danger that effective individuals working with the best intention but not working in alignment can pull in different directions. This makes management more difficult.
Team members need personal mastery to keep their individual learning moving, but for team learning there needs to be more. There needs to be sharing of learning amongst team members and between teams. Individuals can be great learners themselves, but if they don’t share their learning then team learning won’t occur.
Effective teams are open to learning as a group. The team needs to be able to engage shared reflection and what Senge calls dialogue and discussion. Senge differentiates between dialogue – which he considers a creative exploration and discussion, which he describes as the presentation and defence of different views.
The team should inquire into opportunities and problems, and recognize potential conflicts rather than avoiding them. These mechanisms help the team learn, build team knowledge and identify improvements to workpractices.
4. Mental Models
Mental models are the ideas, preconceptions and assumptions that we all carry around in our heads.We need these models to help us function every day, and they are valuable short cuts that enable us to skip over first principles and get things done.
When we’re aware of these models, there’s little problem. If our assumptions are out in the open, are explicit and we’re aware of them, then we can selectively switch them off when dealing with new problems or seeking new solutions. Problems set in when we’re unaware that the models are governing our actions, or when we fail to recognize that our models don’t apply.
Senge goes further than just pointing out that mental models exist. He advocates a discipline that seeks to expose the models and open them to questioning. Recognizing that these assumptions exist allows them to be questioned and rethought.
Mental models exist throughout the software development process. They exist in specification documents, in manager’s models of how development works, in the code that developers write and in the tests run against the system. Some inaccurate assumptions lead directly to bugs found by customers.
At every stage in the development process, we use our mental models to make assumptions. Advocates of voluminous documentation and strict methodological processes can claim that documentation will help overcome the problem. But as we write longer documents, and add extra rigour to our processes, we encourage individuals to take short cuts and rely on their mental models all the more.
5. Systems Thinking
Systems are not just computer systems. They are any kind of device or process where a number of different pieces need to work together to produce an end result or product. Computer systems are just one type of system, namely the type relating to computers. Modern society and business are full of systems.
Traditional Western science emphasizes breaking things down into small parts and understanding the operation of each small piece. We consider substances made up of atoms, and atoms made up of electrons, protons and neutrons; protons in turn are made up of quarks and so on. Systems thinking takes the opposite approach. It seeks to understand how larger entities interact and inter-operate. Rather than looking at individual actions and explaining how each one came to occur we look at the overall system and try to understand the drivers for whole systems.
Issues arise because although all the individual pieces may be working faultlessly, when they work together in the system unintended results occur. Identifying the problems can be difficult because our training, as engineers and scientists, leads us to decompose the problem and examine individual pieces. To overcome this, we need to engage in systems thinking.
Diagnosing problems is only half the story. Once identified, these problems need to be addressed. Again, the complex interaction between multiple pieces makes solutions harder. Fixing a problem may require several coordinated changes. What may appear to be a retrograde step in one piece may actually resolve a far larger problem.
‘‘Skills of reflection concern slowing down our own thinking processes so that we can become aware of how we form our mental models and the ways they influence our actions. Inquiry skills concern how we operate in face-toface interactions with others, especially in dealing with complex and conflicting issues.’’ Peter Senge (1990)
In practice, reflection simply means ‘taking time to think about things’. It is very easy in a hectic environment to be so concerned with getting stuff done that we never stop to think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and whether we may actually be making everything worse with the fixes we apply.
Reflection is key to personal growth and development. Actively practising reflection can substantially improve our own learning process and help us achieve our aims and objectives. Team reflection can also help with enhancing team learning.