“Why do these things always happen to me!!!!!!” You may have spoken those words yourself – you certainly have heard them spoken by someone. A problem appears seemingly out of the blue with devastating effect – we call them Godzillas. But are they really that surprising? Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline states that thinking is the problem – and the solution.

Senge believes that there are five disciplines that help us to understand the consequences of our behaviors and the influences that our social structures have on our behavior. If we ignore any one of these disciplines, we court results that will be inspire the reaction that we started with.

The five disciplines are:

  • Systems thinking
  • Personal mastery
  • Mental models or paradigms
  • Shared visions
  • Team learning

Systems thinking really came to be in the 1950’s and 60’s as really large, complex endeavors were being pursued – the Polaris program, NASA’s race to the moon are classic examples. Failing to understand how the many parts interacted together would result in disaster – as NASA learned with the Challenger and Columbia decades later.

Personal mastery is an ancient concept but has been demonstrated time and again that successful people are required to master themselves first before they can achieve success in the world. Sometimes, what’s old is new – as “do your own thing” has been taken to mean that you can do what you want – but there are always consequences. If you don’t want the consequence, you have to behave accordingly.

Mental models or, as they were popularized by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigms are simply the mental rules that we create in our minds that allow us to take shortcuts in our decision-making processes. In a situation that consists of A, B and C, then D is the reason and E is the result. Paradigms allow us to function in a complex world with hundreds and thousands of inputs being received daily. Generally, they are good so long as the conditions they were based on are valid, but when the paradigms are applied to situations where the conditions are not valid, you end up with Otto Zehm [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Otto_Zehm] dying in police custody even though he did nothing wrong. Simply put, we act based on our paradigms.

Shared vision is the process whereby everyone involved in an endeavor, whether in an isolated incident or an ongoing organization, operates from a common understanding of what the goal is, the means to achieve the goal, and everyone wants the goal.

Team learning is not getting everyone together and presenting them the same material. It’s learning that invokes a suspension of personal assumptions, engaging in dialogue so that everyone can understand each other and knows that they are understood as well – Senge calls this entering in a “genuine thinking together.”
When these five disciplines are practiced within a team or organization, you may not reduce the number of problems, but you will face them as a united group. And “many hands make a light burden.” Senge speaks of Metanoia, meaning a “shift of mind.” (meta -above or beyond, noia from nous, of mind)

So, your old thinking is the problem that allows problems to occur with disastrous results. To solve the problem, you have to change your thinking. But you need to understand that this isn’t wishful thinking or positive thinking or any of the other new age crap that is proposed too often. It is seeking to understand the behaviors and situations that create the problems, so you can identify what will cause problems, change the behaviors and situations to prevent or minimize the problems, and respond more appropriately if a problem does occur.

In the weeks ahead, we will examine learning disabilities that lead to wrong thinking – and what you can do about them.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.