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When your company is struggling with projects, when all Project Managers are PMP certified, when every conceivable procedure seems to be in place, it is time to turn to The Fifth Discipline. No, this is not some kind of dark society. It is the art of creating a learning organization. Ever since Peter Senge put forth the idea of “five disciplines” in the early 1990s, business management thinking has not been the same.
This article takes a brief look at each of the disciplines espoused by Senge, which, according to him, are the hallmarks of a “learning” organization:
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Systems Thinking
- Shared vision, and
- Team learning.
In the backdrop of software projects, systems thinking, personal mastery and mental models work on the level of the individual, while the concept of shared vision and team learning have more to do with team dynamics. This is applicable for the project manager / leader as well as the team member. Every discipline will have relevant links to articles on Project Shrink, so you can plan ideas for improvement.
Photography by Mind meal.
“Personal Mastery” is another name given to the state of Self-Knowledge. Project Managers should have a great sense of why they are doing what they are doing. Are you performing a technique because you are supposed to do as a professional, or because you really think personally that the technique will be beneficial to the project? Another part of Personal Mastery can be found in clearly knowing your own desires and goals, your strengths and limitations.
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“Turning the mirror inwards” is how Peter Senge describes mental models. He has taken as basis for his postulates, the research work done by Dr. Chris Argyris in the field of mental modeling. Dr Argyris, in his path breaking studies, made the contention that people who manage projects swing between two mental models – one that they adopt as their favorite, and the other that they eventually slip into, in actual practice.
Traditionally favorite mental models bestride extremes of the spectrum – with a plan-and-plan-to-minutest-detail project management approach balancing a plan-minimally-and-manage-as-you-go approach. Senge’s mental model recognizes the “inherent” chaos in managing software projects upfront. Though the initial set of conditions that a project takes off from may be as orderly as possible, Senge suggests that we
- Understand and value “leaps of abstractions” – that is, the tendency to generalize specific issues;
- Recognize the subtext beneath our words that go into the project plan – that is, understand and appreciate that your perception of the other party is saying may be different from what actually got said;
- Strive to achieve a deft balance between the skill of inquiry and advocacy – this is done through actively listening to the other party, and, at the same time, articulating one’s own thought processes and encouraging others to fill in any gaps that they see
- Keep in focus the ambivalence in our own favorite theories and the ones that we actually end up practicing.
Mental models provide us with lenses to view the world. If we look through a depressing lens, we see depressing things and behave accordingly. By using different mental models, or mindsets, we can understand other people better, by adopting assumptions of the other person.
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Photography by Eirikref.
Systems thinking, as a discipline, requires a shift of mind:
- From focusing on cause-effect chains, to focusing on interrelationships between the components; and
- From looking at snapshots and arriving at conclusions, to looking at processes of change, and then form conclusions.
The key factor that matters in Systems Thinking, is that not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but also it is different from the parts themselves. Systems thinking helps us with making sense of the complexity around us. To find some answers in search for causes of project problems. You need some clues to introduce the proper intervention.
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Photography by Lovelypetal.
Shared Vision is a group effort, as opposed to the earlier three disciplines that we have discussed so far. This discipline requires the project team to ask the Five Whys
about the project in order to be clear about the underlying tenets of the work in hand. This also helps in establishing the boundaries of the project and to articulate metrics against which success of the project shall be measured. The end result of this exercise shall be an “Initial Vision” state that the team shall have reached.
This vision is then “sold” to all the stakeholders, through status meetings, emails, etc. Perhaps an exclusive Web site that details the project in full, and is packed with all the relevant information – which all the stakeholders have access to – would help too. The idea here is to transform the “initial” vision to a “shared” vision, where everybody is aware of how the project has to perform and go.
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Return Of The Project Goals Video
Photography by Veni Markovski.
Like the Shared Vision, Team Learning is a group-centric discipline in Senge’s scheme of things. Team Learning has its roots in fostering creativity amongst the team members through three dimensions:
- Thinking insightful on issues that are inherently complex;
- Taking innovative and coordinated action on specific tasks; and
- Creating a network that encourages other teams to participate and take action as well.
By picking members for a software project that have the right mix of skills and mindset – whose Personal Mastery is such that there is no possibility of working at cross-purposes – and putting them through the process of Systems Thinking and Mental Modeling, one gets to the stage where a cohesive team has been built. A Shared Vision follows. When all the team members are on the same wavelength so far as the software project goes, contributing their ideas on a particular problem in a group becomes easy. Ideas start building seamlessly upon one another, and the entire team learns through this process.