Senge, Merlin, and the Generation of New Paradigms

Edward M. Gurowitz Ph.D. is executive director of the Center for Management Design, Inc., based in Oakland, Cali- fornia Past clients have included American Express TRW, Monsanto, AT&T, B-P, General Dynamics, and Digital. He can be reached at the Cen- ter 6114 LaSalle Ave., Suite 401, Oak- land, CA 94611. Phone (510) 530-8658.

Ray Stata, chairman of Analog Devices, Inc., argued that the most serious com- petitive problem facing U.S. industry is a declining rate of innovation or creativity. He further asserted that this decline could be traced to a lack of creativity on the part of management. The lack of management creativity, in turn, he attributes to an inability on the part of large organizations to learn. Organizations tend to repeat past or- ganizational behavior, whether effec- tive or not, and seem incapable of learning what, for an individual, would be trivially simple. Stata saw this in- ability to learn as crippling for organi- zations in today’s competitive market- place and asserted that “the rate at which organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive ad- vantage, especially in knowledge- intensive industries.”

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, proposed the “learning organization” as a critical new paradigm for business. He asserts that “the old model, ‘the top thinks and the local acts,’ must give way to integrating thinking and acting at all levels.” Senge further distinguishes between adaptive learning and generative learning, the latter being critical in the development of the learning organization. He asserts that, while most executives today are clear about the need to develop learning organizations, few are able to do so. The cause of the in- ability, according to Senge, is a lack of access to the kind of leadership that is required to move an organization from a top-down paradigm of adaptive learning to a paradigm of generativity and continuous adjustment.

In Sloan Management Review, Senge writes, “Our traditional view of leaders-as special people who set the direction, make the key decisions, and energize the troops-is deeply rooted in the individualistic and nonsystemic worldview. Especially in the West, leaders are heros-great men (and occasionally women) who rise to the fore in times of crisis. So long as such myths prevail, they reinforce a focus on short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic forces and collective learning.”

The standard paradigm for leadership is based on a clear grasp of what has worked in the past and an ability to bring that to current situations and problems, add a modicum of creativity (or more accurately adaptability) to applying this to the present, and then convincing others to put it to work; thus the present becomes captive to the past, where past performance acts as a template for the future.

Compare this model of leadership with the legendary Merlin, King Ar- thur” ‘s court magician and wise man.

T. H. White, in The Once and Future King relates that when the boy who was to be King Arthur first stumbled upon Merlin’s cabin in the woods he found Merlin expecting him and the table laid for two. When he asked how Merlin knew he was coming, Merlin replied that, unlike most people who live their lives forward past to future-he lived his backward, from future to past. Standing in the future, it is easy to see what to do and how to go in order to have life get there from the past.

Similarly Kierkegaard observed that, while life can only be understood back- wards, it must be lived forwards.

It seems clear that, if any organization is to fulfill the possibilities confronting it, the ability of its executives to dismantle old paradigms of operation and to generate new ones as needed is of paramount importance.

A recent Booz, Allen and Hamilton survey of policy-making executives showed that executives’ objectives and strategies are most often lost and/or misinterpreted downstream. Only 37 percent of senior executives surveyed thought that other key managers understood new goals, and only 5 percent of CEOs and top executives thought that middle managers under- stood. Middle managers were perceived as implementing new strategies only marginally or not at all. The study findings are completely consistent with what could be expected to happen when a chief executive’s vision, objectives, and/or strategies go beyond the current (and by definition unexamined) paradigm.

To achieve these paradigm shifts, you need to begin with upper management’s visions and commitments. From there, those visions and commitments need to be realized throughout the organization in a manner that produces lasting outstanding results. If this is well implemented, it empowers managers in the areas of work design, productivity communication, and downstream empowerment. The result is an environment at all levels of the company that calls forth powerful commitment, action and results, in less time and with fewer resources.

Leave a Comment

* required fields