Team Learning – Seeing & Recognizing Our Systems

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(Senge, Fieldbook, 352)

Senge finds that “teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning units in modern organizations.”  Because of the long-standing experience which many organizations have with group dynamics and team building, many of us believe that we have been practicing a version of this discipline for years.  However unlike team building, team learning is not a discipline of improving team members’ skills, or teamwork not even communication skills .

For many years, we have used the concept of alignment as distinct from agreement, to capture the essence of team learning:

alignment əˈlʌɪnm(ə)nt/ noun

  1. 1.
    arrangement in a straight line or in correct relative positions.
    “the tiles had slipped out of alignment”
  2. 2.
    a position of agreement or alliance.

    “the uncertain nature of political alignments”

alliance əˈlʌɪəns/ noun
noun: alliance; plural noun: alliances
  1. a union or association formed for mutual benefit, especially between countries or organizations.
    “a defensive alliance between Australia and New Zealand”
    synonyms: association, union, league, treaty, pact, compact, entente, concordat; More

    • a relationship based on similarity of interests, nature, or qualities.
      “an alliance between medicine and morality”
      synonyms: relationship, affinity, association, connection, closeness, kinship, propinquity

      “an alliance between medicine and morality”
      antonyms: distance, separation
    • the state of being joined or associated.
      “his party is in alliance with the Greens”

      a group of closely related plant associations.

affinity af·fin·i·ty (ə-fĭn’ĭ-tē) n. An attraction or force between particles that causes them to combine. The attraction between an antigen and an antibody.

And so the meaning that would apply here for alignment means “functioning as a whole” as a result of an attraction by the parts that causes them to combine relative to each other and by doing so, the whole becomes more than just the sum of the parts.

The best way I can present the idea of “alignment” is to compare the idea with the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle.   Each piece usually has a small part of a picture on it; but when complete, a jigsaw puzzle produces a complete picture that no one piece by itself could have suggested what that bigger picture would have been.  Not unless all of the other pieces also come together.  No one us could have been sure by each of our respective worldviews know what would have been that complete picture unless we bring our piece to the table.

When the focus of the team’s learning efforts is on understanding current reality we are now also applying systemic thinking and when the discussion focuses on the future we are now building shared visions.

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Building alignment (you never “get there”) is about enhancing the team’s capacity to think and act in new synergistic ways, with full coordination and a sense of unity, because team members know each other’s hearts and minds.  As alignment develops, people don’t have to overlook or hide their disagreements; indeed, they develop the capacity to use their disagreements to make their collective understanding richer.

Preparing the ground for skillful discussion

  • Create a safe haven for participants: “Turf” of the meeting belongs to no one. All participants should expressly agree to “treat each other as colleagues.” Curiosity, respect of, and support for each other’s opinions and feelings are essential.
  • Make openness and trust the rule rather than the exception.
  • Encourage and reward the injection of new perspectives. Right and wrong are not of concerns.  The exchange of perspectives and points of view, not the selling of them, is the issue.
  • Plan the agenda, time, and context to allow for concentrated deliberation. Agendas should be developed and agreed upon in advance.  Also, creative discussion takes time.  Less than two hours is often unacceptable, even for the most experienced groups.  Keep distractions – especially phone calls, other appointments, and interruptions – to a minimum.  See pg 10-11 of the Facilitator Handbook.

As we move down this list, the ratio of advocacy to inquiry shifts progressively from advocacy to inquiry:

Debate:    Contention in words, reasoned argument (root: to beat down).  To show somebody else is wrong and how right I am.  It used to be a mechanism to get the best thinking out.  Now it has evolved into right and wrong thing (the thinking is, “Unless I can present how right I am, there was no way for the other to know how wrong they were!”).  It can be helpful in getting ideas out.  There are some other forms of conversation to consider.

Discourse:    Polite conversations or discussions – Examination of pros and cons (root: to shake apart).  The word discussion comes from the Latin discutere which meant “to smash to pieces”.  It is a conversational form that promotes fragmentation arising often out of us engaging in “advocacy wars” of one-upmanship.

Skillful Discussion:    Skillful discussion differs from unproductive discussion.  They develop a repertoire of techniques (encompassing collaborative reflection and inquiry skills) for seeing how the components of their situation fit together and they develop a more penetrating understanding of the forces at play among the team members themselves.  Intentional exchange of ideas, thoughts and feelings with intended outcome (root: to turn together)

In skillful discussion, you make a choice; in a dialogue, you discover the nature of choice.  Dialogue is like jazz: skillful discussion is like chamber music.

Dialogue:    Collective exploration in which truths and meanings are uncovered and emerge among participants (root: flow-through of meaning).


Purpose:  To illustrate the experience of doing Double-loop Learning – to uncover their own mental models in their reflections in the check-in earlier in the day.  This is often easier the second time because of their experience doing the LOI on the day before.

Activity I:

Advocacy = I am telling you what I think.  If I am good at this, then you will really know what I am thinking.

Advocacy coaching questions: Find a partner that you are not familiar with.  Take turns at doing the following:

  1. State a view
  2. Say why you think that
  3. Give data supporting your view
  4. Give an example, if possible
  5. Invite others to test your thinking

Q: How did that feel for you?

  • Felt like I was understood
  • The quality of the conversation improved. I actually listened
  • The more passion I have with a topic, the easier it is to follow the steps outlined
  • By using data, you actually have to think better in formulating your thoughts
  • The process forces me to be accountable for what you have to say, to communicate clearly
  • True advocacy means that we are willing to let our opinions be challenged, and perhaps e changed by others
  • People do their best speaking when people are really listened to – by following these steps, you have a better chance of really being listened to.


Activity II:

Inquiry = the probing into the thinking of others

Inquiry coaching questions:

  1. What leads you to think that? Give data please
  2. What do you mean by that?
  3. Could you give an example?
  4. Could you say more about that?
  5. How do you feel about that?
  6. What might the views of the other be?
  7. What might the data of others be that leads them to think differently?
  8. What might you be missing by looking at the issue this way? The reason I am asking is …

Q: How did that feel for you?

  • It helped me with my thinking
  • I was able to have my views challenged without feeling defensive
  • How I approach asking a question really matters, i.e. in this kind of environment, I am structuring my questions in a positive, as opposed to combative manner
  • When one inquires, one expects to be listened to and is making a tacit commitment to listen to the response
  • What does it take to create spaces for these kinds of conversations – some people have worked in organizations where the culture did not support question making
  • Questions can be an indication of our intent – questions might not be what they seem – sometimes questions can be more of a statement
  • Advocacy and inquiry can be difficult in situations where you are in a conversation with a competitor. Compassion is a prerequisite for this process to be effective



The use of heuristics. Interrupting behavior patterns that occur automatically and bridging the gap between insight and action are two of the hardest tasks in learning Model II. Heuristics are designed to help people substitute new, more effective actions for old patterns of behavior.

A heuristic is a mini-program that can be used to replace a segment of a current behavior pattern. It is a brief, easily remembered tool for acting more effectively. A heuristic has three components: a “flag” or clear specification of when it should be used; a recognition of what is going on in the situation at a correct level; and a concise, usable prescription for what to say or how to act to another person. If possible, an allusion to the theory underlying the prescribed action should be made. The specification of when the heuristic should be used serves as a cognitive reminder flag to help people recognize that they should interrupt their behavior and try to change the theory-in-use producing it. In some senses, a good heuristic represents a piece of the theory-in-use to be learned.

Heuristics presented in the early stages of learning are designed to help users test the applicability of the theory-of-action to their won behavior. Subsequent heuristics help them break automatic Model I action patterns and enact Model II strategies. Heuristics enable production of short segments of Model II behavior so that users can form their own judgments about the effectiveness of the alternative theory-of-action. In the last stage of learning, users learn to design their own heuristics for situations specific to their institutions. They also return to heuristics the instructor used at the beginning of the seminar and use them to teach the skills they have learned to their colleagues.

A good heuristic is very powerful, because with its aid a person can learn to recognize counterproductive behavior, then follow through to effective action. The heuristic specifies the connection between recognition and action and provides a behavioral prescription for what to do. This makes it easier for a beginner to enact a segment of Model II behavior and test its effectiveness.


Make Participants Aware of Their Use of Abstractions

Flag: When participants discuss important events at an abstract level,

Recognize that abstract, unillustrated discussions are not tied to any specific behaviors and thus preclude effective action.

Say: I see this discussion as very abstract. While it may be very interesting, it is hard to move from these abstractions to recommendations that would help the president improve his effectiveness. To avoid this, I’d suggest that we move the discussion to the specifics of his actual behavior.


You’ve said he “really reared back and clobbered him.” I see this as an inference. That interpretation may be perfectly correct. My problem is that because it is abstract/ it could mean one thing to you and another to me. I believe it’s important to avoid the possibility of any misunderstanding. Can you tell me what he did or said that led you to your inference?

Dealing with the Consequences of Abstract Arguments

Flag: When participants argue for a position at an abstract level,

Recognize that continuing at an abstract level establishers win-lose dynamics, further commits each person to one position, and increases the need for saving face.

Say: To resolve your disagreement, I would like to recommend that we test these interpretations by going to the data. What else do you see in the case that is either consistent or inconsistent with your positions?

Dealing with Irresolvable Conflict

Flag: When win-lose arguments develop,

Recognize that participants need some alternative method for resolving disagreements and that specifying the information that would settle the issue is one such method.

Say: I do not see how we can settle this disagreement with the information available. If you agree that we cannot solve the problem without more information, what kind of information could we gather that you would accept as disconfirming your interpretations? What could we do to get that information?

Creating Awareness of Defensiveness

Flag: If someone avows his determination to ignore information,

        Recognize that the person has made a statement about his unwillingness to learn and that he may not be aware of it. His emotional reaction may be affecting his judgment.

Say: That presents a serious problem for me. It does seem that we can clarify this issue by getting more information about the situation or about people’s reaction to it. I hear you saying that you will ignore whatever information we may develop. If that is true, then I must conclude that you are more interested in defending your own position that in testing it. What is your reaction to my inferences?

Experiencing the Robustness of One’s Theory-in-Use

Flag: When participants assert that they now understand and can produce Model II behavior,

Recognize that they have learned to identify aspects of Model I behavioral strategies in their actions, but that they have not experienced the difficulty of producing actions inconsistent with their existing theory-in-use.

Say: You may be right. However, my experience and the theory suggest it will be very hard for you to do so. But we can test this possibility. For example, one thing we can do is to have you take the role of the president in our current case. What would you say in his place that would be more effective in addressing the problems you have identified in the interaction?

Demonstrating the Possibility of an Alternative Theory-in-Use

Flag: When participants are repeatedly unable to design effective actions,

Recognize that they may believe Model II actions are impossible to achieve and that this belief creates frustration. Frustration can be useful if it motivates further learning. Participants now need to observe a Model II intervention to see what it is like and how it produces different second-level meanings and consequences.

Act by demonstrating a Model II intervention. Then have participants analyze it as they have other interactions.|


Connecting Abstractions to Directly Observable Data

Flag: When you hear others make unillustrated inferences, attributions, or evaluations,

Recognize that they may create errors because of different possible interpretations. Attend to and test these abstractions before attempting to deal with anything else.

Say: What is it that you heard or saw that led you to (the abstraction)?

Overcoming Initial Barriers to Change

Flag: When you find you have designed sequences of action that are too long, or you are paralyzed by indecision about where to begin,

Recognize that you are inhibited by trying to address too many aspects of a complex situation. You can only deal with one aspect at a time.

Act without trying to be perfect or complete.


Avoiding “Lawyering”

Flag: If you find yourself rehearsing a series of questions and planning additional questions on the basis of anticipated responses,

Recognize that you are planning to control others by leading them to a conclusion you have already reached.

Act by stating the conclusion and the data you used to get there. Then ask, “What are your views on this?”

Ensuring that Your Evaluations Do Not Obscure Information

Flag: If you find yourself thinking such things as, “This person is off on some tangent” or “That is irrelevant and silly,”

Recognize that these are both evaluations. The other person may feel he is providing important information that you are missing. Part of your reaction may reflect your own inability to see the value of that information.

Say: I’m having difficulty seeing how (what other said) is relevant to the point under discussion. Can you help me see the relevance?

Substituting Valid Information/or Minimizing Negative Feelings

Flag: When you feel anxious or concerned about how an individual is likely to react to your Model II action,

Recognize that these fears represent protective strategies for minimizing your own and others’ negative feelings. If you respond to these fears, you will decrease the effectiveness of your action and prevent others from gaining valid information that they might find important and useful.

Act: Go ahead and enact the Model II behavior you had planned. You may be wrong about others’ reactions. They may not be as vulnerable or brittle as you have inferred.


If you are certain that what you say will produce negative feelings that will be counterproductive, acknowledge that possibility but state your reasons for proceeding.

Say: What I am about to say may upset you. If so, that is not my intent. I am saying it because I believe that we cannot effectively deal with the issue unless we consider (the upsetting information).

Responding to Emotional Reactions

Flag: When others react to what you say with hurt or anger,

Recognize that they may have good reasons for the reaction. Also recognize that if you try to immediately minimize the hurt or anger, you are colluding to prevent that person from learning. You are also allowing others to control your actins through your fear of how they might react. This eliminates your freedom to act in ways that might be important for increasing effectiveness. If the hurt or anger seem justified,

Say: It seems to me that you were hurt (or angered) by (what I said). My intention was not to make you angry, but to deal with the issue before us. We cannot do that without talking about some things that I infer you would prefer not to hear. While it may be upsetting to do so, I believe that it is important for us to continue. What are your views?


If the reaction is sufficiently strong to stop further discussion/ yet you don’t know what is causing it, first discover its source and deal with it.

Say: (Other), help me understand. I am unable to see the reason for your hurt (anger). What is it about this situation or about what I did or said that makes you hurt (angry)?

Say: I now see why you are hurt (angry). I would feel the same if I were you. However, I believe that if we respond to your hurt (anger) by stopping this discussion, we may be unable to deal effectively with the problem. Is it your wish or intent that we drop work on the problem?


A Personal Heuristic

Flag: When the dean asks for help,

Recognize that doing as he asks makes him dependent on you and forces you to assume his responsibilities and take initiatives for him.

Act: State and illustrate the consequences of complying with his request. Make explicit that those consequences are the real problem as you see it.

Say: Dean, the question you ask illustrates one of the problems I have. You ask me to take initiatives and responsibility for you.


Attribution to Action Design

Defensive Reasoning Productive Reasoning
Uses soft data Use hard data
Keep inferences tacit, private Make premises explicit
Use self-referential logic Make inferences explicit
Avoid testing conclusions publicly Make conclusions publicly testable?
Soft data are data that cannot easily be accepted as valid by individuals with contrasting views Hard data are data that can easily be accepted as valid by individuals with contrasting views.

Productive reasoning is a term that comes from Chris Argyris and is based on the idea that how we reason is fundamental to our ability to act effectively.  Key ideas include:

  • Human beings use reasoning processes to diagnose situations and to act,
  • These reasoning processes are a kind of “master programme” that we use skillfully, without thinking about how we are doing it
  • We are typically unaware of our own reasoning processes,
  • Productive reasoning enables us to act effectively and to detect and correct error,
  • In technical disciplines such as strategy or finance we are trained to use productive reasoning
  • Under conditions of potential threat or embarrassment, we often use defensive reasoning,
  • Defensive reasoning is especially prevalent in the interpersonal realm,
  • A fundamental feature of defensive reasoning is that it keeps us unaware that w are using defensive reasoning,
  • The key to becoming more capable is to reflect on our reasoning processes and to learn new ways of reasoning about our behavior.

The risk of “Productive Reasoning” as a name for this work is that it can foster certain misconceptions, such as the idea that emotion and intuition have no place.  Keep in mind: the heroic “Loner Resoner” is not what the work is about.  Rather, it is about human beings in relation with one another.  Your left-hand column can be a valuable resource for learning in the heat of the of the moment.  Below are steps you can take to build a better left-hand column when you are in a tough conversation:

  • Notice your reactions an get curious
  • Suspend quick judgments (notice judgments and conclusions on your ladder and wonder about it)
  • Assume others may have a logic, data, or concerns you don’t understand
  • Paraphrase your logic to yourself
  • Notice whether any data or reasoning is missing
  • Give yourself instructions that further learning.



(Adapted from the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Peter Senge, et al)

Excerpted from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, p.255-263

BALANCING ADVOCACY AND INQUIRY IS ONE WAY FOR INDIVIDUALS, BY themselves, to begin changing a large organization from within. You don’t need any mandate, budget, or approval to begin. You will almost always be rewarded with better relationships and a reputation for integrity.


 Make your thinking process visible (walk up the ladder of inference slowly)

What to do                                                      What to say
State your assumptions, and describe the data that led to them. “Here s what I think, and here s how I got there.”
Explain your assumptions. “I assumed that…”
Make your reasoning explicit “I came to this conclusion because… “
Explain the context of your point of view: who will be affected by what you propose, how they will be affected, and why.


Give examples of what you propose, even if they’re hypothetical or metaphorical, “To get a clear picture of what I’m talking about, imagine that you’re the customer who will be affected…”
As you speak, try to picture the other people’s perspectives on what you are saying.


 Publicly test your conclusions and assumptions

What to do                                                      What to say
Encourage others to explore your model, your assumptions, and your data. “What do you think about what I just said?” or “Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?” or “What can you add?”
Refrain from defensiveness when your ideas are questioned. If you’re advocating something worthwhile, then it will only get stronger by being tested.
Reveal where you are least clear in your thinking. Rather than making you     vulnerable, it defuses the force of advocates who are opposed to you, and invites improvement. “Here’s one aspect which you might help me think through… “
Even when advocating: listen, stay open, and encourage others to provide different views. “Do you see it differently?”



 Ask others to make their thinking process visible

What to do                                                      What to say
Gently walk others down the ladder of inference and find out what data they are operating from. “What leads you to conclude that?” “What data do you have for that?” “What causes you to say that?”
Use unaggressive language, particularly with people who are not familiar with these skills. Ask in a way which does not provoke defensiveness or “lead the witness” Instead of “What do you mean?” or “What’s your proof?” say, “Can you help me understand your thinking here?”
Draw out their reasoning. Find out as much as you can about why they are saying what they’re saying.


“What is the significance of that?” “How does this relate to your other concerns?” “Where does your reasoning go next?”


Explain your reasons for inquiring, and how your inquiry relates to your own concerns, hopes, and needs. “I’m asking you about your assumptions here because …”
Test what they say by asking for broader contexts, or for examples. “How would your proposal affect …?” “Is this similar to …?” “Can you describe a typical example …?”
Check your understanding that may emerge. Don’t concentrate on preparing to destroy the other person’s argument or promote your own agenda.


What to do                                                      What to say
Again, inquire about what has led the person to that view. “How did you arrive at this view?” “Are you taking into account data that I have not considered? “
Make sure you truly understand the view. “If I understand you correctly, you ‘re saying that…”
Explore, listen, and offer your own views in an open way. “Have you considered… “
Listen for the larger meaning that may come out of honest, open sharing of alternative mental models.
Use your left-hand column as a resource “When you say such-and-such, I worry that it means…”
Raise your concerns and state what is leading you to have them. “I have a hard time seeing that, because of this reasoning… “


What to do                                                      What to say
Embrace the impasse, and tease apart the current thinking. (You may discover that focusing on “data” bring you all down the ladder of inference.) “What do we know for a fact?”

“What do we sense is true, but have no data for yet?”

“What don’t we know?”

“What is unknowable?”

Look for information which will help people move forward. “What do we agree upon, and what do we disagree on?”
Ask if there is any way you might together design an experiment or inquiry which could provide new information.
Listen to ideas as if for the first time.
Consider each person’s mental model as a piece of a larger puzzle. “Are we starting from two very different sets of assumptions here? Where do they come from? “
Ask what data or logic might change their views. “What, then, would have to happen before you would consider the alternative?”
Ask for the group’s help in redesigning the situation. “It feels like we’re getting into an impasse and I’m afraid we might walk away without any better understanding. Have you got any ideas that will help us clarify our thinking? “
Don’t let conversation stop with an “agreement to disagree” “I don’t understand the assumptions underlying our disagreement.”
Avoid building your “case” when someone else is speaking from a different point of view.



What to do                                                      What to say
Strong views are expressed without any reasoning or illustrations … “You may be right, but I’d like to understand more. What leads you to believe…? “
The discussion goes off on an apparent tangent… “I’m unclear how that connects to what we’ve been saying. Can you say how you see it as Relevant?”
You doubt the relevance of your own


“This may not be relevant now. If so, let me know and I will wait. “
Two members pursue a topic at length while others observe… “I’d like to give my reaction to what you two have said so far, and then see what you and others think.”
Several views are advocated at once… “We now have three ideas on the table [say what they are]. I suggest we address them one at a time… “
You perceive a negative reaction in others… “When you said [give illustration] …I had the impression you were feeling [fill in the emotion]. If so, I’d like to understand what upset you. Is there something I’ve said or done? “
You perceive a negative reaction in yourself. “This may be more my problem than yours, but when you said [give illustration] …I felt…Am I misunderstanding what you said or intended?”
Others appear uninfluenceable… “Is there anything that I can say or do that would convince you otherwise?”



  • Preventing Debates (discussions) only
  • Preventing Group Thinking
  • Stimulating Skillful Discussion
  • Fostering Deep Listening (listening for the towers)
  • Creating the space for facilitation
  • Encouraging Dialogue – through reflection and inquiry
  • Diverge, Groan and Convergent Zones
  • Achieve the sense of occupying a collective sensibility, in which the thoughts, emotions, and resulting actions belong not to one individual, but to all of them together.



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