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Systems thinking: Peter Senge on the limits of learning from experience

The most powerful learning comes from direct experience. Indeed, we learn eating, crawling, walking and communicating through direct trial and error – through taking an action and seeing the consequences of that action; then taking a new and different action.

But what happens if we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions? What happens if the primary consequences of our actions are in the distant future or in a different part of the larger system in which we operate?

We each have a “learning horizon,” a breadth of vision in time and space within which we assess our effectiveness. When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.

Herein lies the core learning dilemma that confronts organizations: we learn best from experience but never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.

The most critical decisions made in organizations have system wide consequences that stretch over years or decades. Decisions in R&D have first-order consequences in marketing and manufacturing. Investing in new manufacturing facilities and processes influences quality and delivery reliability for a decade or more. Promoting the right people into leadership positions shapes strategy and organizational climate for years.

These are exactly the types of decisions where there is the least opportunity for trial and error learning. Cycles are particularly hard to see, and thus learn from, if they last longer than a year or two. As systems-thinking writer Draper Kauffman, Jr., points out, most people have short memories…

Peter Senge: The Fifth Discipline

See also:
David Epstein on kind and wicked learning environments

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