I wasn’t expecting that to happen

I am confident that if I asked all the readers of this blog, “do you focus on the common good of your organization?” the overwhelming response would be, “Yes!” The reality is that most of us believe our actions contribute to the common good, and we are trying to look at our organization as a system. Yet over time many well-intentioned actions can actually end up in conflict with the mission of our organizations. How can that be?

Peter Senge, named “strategist of the century,” answers this question in his classic book, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Many of you may remember (or have nightmares about) the loops and diagrams used to illustrate systems thinking. loopsSenge encourages leaders to use archetypes, or common patterns of behavior, to diagnose why we get unexpected results that don’t support the common good.


You can find detailed descriptions of archetypes on pages 121-161 in the fieldbook. I want to highlight the three that best describe the organizational challenges leaders face and potential actions to take.

  1. “Fixes That Backfire” – this archetype can explain why issues continually resurface or get solved in one area only to pop up somewhere else. It describes the unintended consequences of decisions made on either long-term outcomes or other parts of the organization. Key leadership actions are:
    • understand both the short and long-term consequences of actions
    • explore the potential outcomes outside your sphere of influence
    • challenge the need to take immediate action
    • dig deeper to expose the root issue
  2. “Shifting the Burden” – this occurs when leaders are driven to solve a problem they face, and the relief causes the organization to get distracted from addressing a greater underlying issue. Key leadership actions include:
    • recognize the limitations of fire-fighting responses
    • take time to explore alternative solutions
    • seek input from other areas of the organization
    • clarify organizational goals and long-term expectations
    • build capacity for growth
  3. “Accidental Adversaries” – this describes a situation where groups that would benefit from collaborating end up competing or even fighting. It happens naturally when one group makes a choices that improves their own results and it has an unintended negative consequence for the other group. Instead of changing a “successful” choice each group tries to explain or convince the other to see it their way. The unintended consequences continue and communication deteriorates. Leaders can help break this archetype if they:
    • bring groups together to understand the local pressures each face to succeed
    • include multiple stakeholders when making decisions
    • ask questions about how a decision in one area will affect another area
    • establish on-going dialogue across groups to identify unintended consequences early

The Fifth DisciplineI still have a love/hate relationship with the loops and diagrams but the ideas and actions Senge shares provide insight time and again when addressing system issues.

Todd Thorsgaard


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