Book Review: Peter Senge's “The Dance of Change”

Book Review by Cora Llera

In The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, Peter Senge et al present strategies for overcoming the common obstructions that derail organizational change initiatives.  The structure of the book lends itself to dipping in and out, reading sections as they become relevant to the organization’s stage in the learning process.  The contents range from transcripts of roundtable discussions, to memoir-style essays, to step-by-step team-building and learning exercises, contributed by a wide range of sources, including CEOs, learning coaches, counselors, and classical musicians.  Written as a complement to Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, the book can also stand on its own as a resource for managers seeking to approach change not just as a retooling of production methods or governance structures, and as a guide to personal growth for the individuals in their organizations.

The structure of the book is grounded in the systems thinking presented in The Fifth Discipline:  Each chapter lays out a particular challenge, such as the feeling among change initiative participants that they don’t have enough time to devote to anything other than “real work,” or that they are true believers in an organization of the unenlightened.  The chapter then shows how that particular problem disrupts the loops of learning and reinforcement that cultivate lasting change. 

There appear to be two objectives to this approach.  First, it teaches managers how to understand setbacks in the change process within the context of the larger structure of the change initiative; not how one person’s or one project’s failure ruin the whole initiative, but how those failures are a result of the functioning of the system, and how they feed back into the system.  Second, it demonstrates how to guide change initiative participants towards systems thinking.  Participants who understand new projects and procedures within the context of the whole organization are better equipped to recognize and respond to flaws in the system and to act for positive change.

The real value of the book lies in its exploration of what systems thinking requires on the part of individuals.  In order to understand a system, one needs to recognize how he or she individually affects that system.  This requires in turn that he or she understand the systems of thoughts, expectations, unconscious reactions, and relationships that shape his or her behavior.  The Dance of Change approaches change as a deeply human process of growth, rather than the mechanistic adjustment of cogs in a machine; presumably, the approach is ultimately more effective, but also harder, messier, and much more delicate.  

The book takes on shades of a sociology or psychology text, as it seeks to guide managers to understand their own systems of thought and the resistance that arises against change initiatives.  The authors then give managers tools and activities designed to create space for frank, reflective conversation, doubt, and the development of trust.  These goal of these activities is to help people be the biggest, most self-aware, most challenged, satisfied, and serene versions of themselves.  The team-building and dialoguing exercises the book contains are useful, and the anecdotes and essays from CEOs who have successfully implemented change are a great source of perspective.  But the inspiring aspect of the book is the potential it looks for in the individuals who live through organizational change.