In a previous post, I endorsed the Fifth Discipline: the Art & Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge. In this post, I add some nuance to my endorsement.
To practice identifying my own mental models (and to avoid being hypocritical), I will explain my view rather than advocate for it.
How I Agree with Senge
Senge seeks to improve the learning capacities of organizations. This capacity, he argues, plays a fundamental role in the success (or failure) of an organization.
Internal introspection and identification of mental models by an organization’s individuals is most critical. He argues that looking outside of an organization for lessons is a dangerous game because application of “best practices,” without an understanding of contextual differences, can do more harm than good.
I completely agree.
Senge provides an example from a Toyota plant manager who hosted hundreds of tours for executives from other companies. Regarding the executives, the manager said: "They always say 'oh yes, you have a Kan-Ban system, we do also. You have quality circles, we do also. Your people fill out standard work descriptions, ours do also.'
"They all see the parts and have copied the parts. What they do not see is the way all the parts work together."
Or to put it another way: they have the candle, the box of thumbtacks, and the book of matches atop a table and next to a wall, but they have no idea how to attach the candle to the wall, light it, and prevent the wax from dripping onto the table
A Disagreement with Senge
Senge does “not believe great organizations have ever been built by trying to emulate another, any more than individual greatness is achieved by trying to copy another “'great person.'”
I believe this is overstated. Or at the very least, counterexamples immediately come to mind.
A few of them:
What about the Founding Fathers' creation of a Constitutional design drawing from Greek democratic principles and English notions of individual rights?
Or what about Cape Wind—first in the U.S. to seek and receive approval for offshore wind energy development—drawing technical and environmental lessons from European experiences?
In the first example, Americans wanted a balance between democratic principles and individual rights—and the Founding Fathers acted accordingly. And in the second, offshore wind energy developers drew lessons from Europe, but tempered them by understanding important differences between the U.S. and European countries.
House of Cards
Or to use an example from my last post:
Wasn't this precisely the Blockbuster Problem?
Blockbuster looked internally when they should have looked externally. If they studied Netflix's market sufficiently when it first began chipping away at their customers, they may've learned months earlier that their present course—their existing mental model—was leading them towards bankruptcy.
Who knows. If they'd identified their erroneous mental model earlier, maybe I'd instead watch an episode of House of Cards on a Blockbuster streaming device.
In an upcoming post, I will provide another example: energy efficiency, and why many businesses still can't wrap their heads around its benefits to their bottom lines.
UPDATE: Here is that post.