Senge and sensibility

2008

From The Fifth Discipline to his latest book, The Necessary Revolution, Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has ploughed a unique and groundbreaking furrow.

The Necessary Revolution explores the environmental challenges facing business and outlines the steps that we need to take towards creating a more sustainable world He explains to Stuart Crainer why this change is imperative.

People who work in organizations, aren't natural revolutionaries. While people understand the argument, are they prepared to act?

Well, we all act to the degree of which we're capable and willing. Almost all the stories and examples in the book involve people and organizations with which a bunch of us have had a long-term involvement.

One of the hardest things about this book ó and it was very different in many ways from The Fifth Discipline ó is that almost all of the stories are out of date by at least a year or two already because of the inevitable delays in writing and editing, revising and all that; so there are much better stories today about how a lot of those projects have continued to unfurl.

Do you think that the economic downturn will halt people's enthusiasm for some of these ideas?

Obviously, resources of many sorts are going to be constrained. With innovation, at some level there's always an investment process. You're investing time, energy, money and other kinds of resources now for some bigger benefit down the road. So investment just gets harder.

On the other hand, I think most people are pretty clear that we're at the very beginning of much bigger changes; and the problems that are happening, whether they're purely economic, natural disasters or social instabilities, most of them pretty much tie right back into the reasons we're doing this in the first place.

So, I think the downturn will have an effect, but I believe that all real, deep change comes out of people making choices, often profound choices.

There is an old joke that gravity is not negotiable. These are not matters in which human beings can go 180 degrees opposite to the way nature works. So, in that sense, I think that the bubble is collapsing and most of the major issues we face in the world tie back to that. The impetus doesn't get less: it gets greater.

There are exciting things and interesting stories from around the world in the book. Is there a sense of a movement, some sort of commonality that unites them?

I think so. All these issues reflect our inability to see interdependence. We've created this incredible Web around the world, and yet we're mostly blind to it. Naturally we're blind to how it operates beyond just what it gives us in the immediate sense; and when something goes awry, we're suddenly shocked.

If you look back over several hundreds of years, I think there has been a paradoxical decline in our ability to understand interdependence. Never before in history have day-to-day choices made by individuals been so affected by people on the other side of the world.

I think that when we lived in an agrarian culture, we had to be much more aware of our interdependence with the soil, rain, wind, weather and all that stuff. Probably if you go back even further, into tribal cultures, before the agricultural revolution, that sense of interdependency was even greater.

I read not too long ago that many American kids think their food comes from the grocery store, and the concept of seasonality in fruits and vegetables has no meaning. We've so cut off our sense of even the most obvious dependence on the natural world to create our food. So we've got this extraordinary irony: the Web gets thicker and our awareness of it gets less.

How do you describe yourself? You're not a consultant ó are you an academic?

Obviously I've been associated with MIT forever, but MIT is also very eclectic; I always call myself a hanger-on. Academic institutions can be extraordinarily political, and I was just not interested in that, so the best term I could use would be something like "community organizer".

I remember reading a book that had a huge influence on me when I was in college and trying to do some community projects, Reveille for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. It's quite a famous book in the US in the history of community organizing, and a lot of what I learned from that book has really worked well.

When all is said and done, the work of good community organizing comes down to people having a high level of responsibility for their own efforts; and, while they might thank you for your help, at another level they know they don't need you. Then, of course, you're always trying to get all these diverse parties, often including those that have very low trust and maybe a high level of antipathy for one another, to actually work together for the benefit of the community. So, it's the best kind of professional label I've been able to figure out. It is pretty close to what I do.

A lot of my time is spent talking to people and saying, you should talk to so and so. I'm a referral agent, trying to get people connected. Then projects start to take off, and I may help and advise, show up at different meetings; and a lot of times, I will be honest with you, I think I'm an excuse. I'll come to one of these meetings, and then more people show up because I'm there; but in my mind, I'm almost incidental, because the real work is the organizing before and afterwards, and who they invite and how they get the right kind of people to show up.

I'm there for two days, and I maybe give a half-hour presentation and participate in the dialogue. Of course, I love it, because I know that something can really happen when a lot of people get involved, because one person can't do it alone. But start a network of effective organizers and get the involvement of the key companies in the region, and some of the governments, and then things can really start to happen.

Your career seems to have moved to a different beat from other business thinkers.

That's probably true. I think it's partly that business was always a vehicle for me. My background was systems, and my patch (and that's one of the reasons it's really nice for me to be able to work like I do) was at Stanford when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968; my roommate worked in his population biology laboratory. I came to MIT, and so I grew up with these issues. I realized that all the people I knew were basically writing books and doing reports and getting everybody concerned about these issues; but I felt we didn't understand very much how change can occur, and that's how I got drawn into business.

It seemed to me that was a great learning space, a learning laboratory for understanding how the hell you could actually start to bring about systemic change, and I basically had to wait about 25 years until enough people in the business community started to get passionate about these issues. That was a long wait.

Do you feel optimistic?

I purposely spend very little time thinking about optimism or pessimism or feelings. I feel the way I feel. I would say we're in for a tough couple of decades, maybe longer if we don't get our act together. It's hard for me to imagine the depth and breadth of speed of change occurring in the time we've got.

That's, of course, the way we use the climate change dimension ó as a time clock, even more than we wrote in the book; because this whole consensus in the climate science community has been shifting so rapidly.

There is extraordinary inertia in the system. In the last two years, the estimates for 2005Ė2006 actual global emissions exceeded all of the forecasts both years, so we're still not even beginning to turn the ship.

The conviction that humans are stupid, selfish, will never get their act together, disaster lurks at every corner ó well, that doesn't produce a lot of imagination or commitment; it doesn't produce the energy and spirit and kind of work we need. Obviously that's one of the things we're really aiming for in this book, to be as candid and accurate as possible in reflecting the reality of our circumstances.

Dee Hock, founding CEO of Visa, said it beautifully: it's far too late and times are far too desperate for pessimism.

What are you going to work on next? Do you plan ahead?

Well, hopefully not any books for a while. This has been a very unusual time, because for about five or six years I've been spending much more time than I would prefer in writing books, and my head is still spinning. My real interest is always the projects, so I'm looking at the food lab and trying to get some good stuff going in the energy area, and I imagine some new things will start to come together. I also have a deep interest in traditional Chinese culture.

The biggest single frustration about The Necessary Revolution is all the great stuff that's not in there. About a month ago, I went out to participate in a meeting of Satyam Corporation. I'd never even heard of these guys ó an Indian outsourcing organization, 50,000 employees, about $3 billion in foreign sales, 22 years old ó and they are working to create the first 911 integrated emergency service throughout India. One of their corporate goals is to save a million lives a year.

I think the innovation that's occurring already in some of these Indian companies is fascinating. Doing this is part of their business; they're not making any money in it. But they say, we have four stakeholders, and community is one of them, and we make all of our decisions based on all four stakeholders. Very matter of fact, very low key, very Indian, very soft-spoken.

About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.