Release year: 2008

Author: Peter Senge

Link to my handwritten notes

Buy this book (note: affiliate link)


This is the second book I read from Peter Senge, and his signature style is back. In The Necessary Revolution, he applies Systems Thinking (see The Fifth Discipline and Thinking in Systems ) to the ongoing environmental crisis.

As we all know, there is climate doom staring us right in the face. This has been the case for decades. We feel deep existential dread and helplessness at the same time when it comes to the future of our environment. Climate changes become more and more evident as time passes, whether it’s the mild winters or the summer forest fires. Reading the first chapters of this book brought some old painful feelings back, because it details the extent to which we’re screwing our environment and ourselves. Yet, we can’t help it. There is a knot the size of the Earth that needs to be untangled and we don’t know where to start. It’s as if no one even has enough time to get started.

I remember a period growing up with my brother when he was dreaming of driving a fully electrical Hummer. This was during a phase when our schools were telling us about the importance of solving global warming. My brother was already picturing how the future electrification of vehicles would make something as paradoxical as an all-electrical Hummer possible. I remember vividly thinking he was nuts. This was around 2007, right about when this book was being written. Only 17 years later, my brother could now go to the store and buy exactly what he was dreaming about.

My brother wasn’t crazy. He was a visionary!

En electrical Hummer

The Necessary Revolution was written for those among us who can’t imagine what the future of sustainability will look like. Indeed, saving this planet will require tremendous collective effort, the likes of which we have never yet seen in our lifetime. However, saving the world won’t strip everything we have away. There is a future for us where we can live even more plentiful lives than we currently live. We “simply” have to identify what can be the first meaningful and significant step on this journey. In fact, each of us will have to change something in ourselves before we can start solving this problem. The question is, what is that thing?

As a society, we got into this mess because of the overproduction and overconsumption made possible by the Industrial Age. For a long time, companies would put the environmental blame on consumers of their goods. “Put it in the recycling bin after you’re done eating your yogourt,” is something you would hear anywhere. To this day, even after learning that plastic recycling is mostly a scam , I still feel terrible when my trash skips the recycling bin.

The key to solving the climate crisis perhaps lies in changing how we think about waste. As the old saying goes, someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure. Put another way, “There is potential value in a waste stream that may have never been considered before.” Not only can this approach make your organization richer (i.e. by selling your waste instead of paying people to take it away), it directly reduces your environmental footprint.

Transforming waste into value is an immense challenge. It requires expanding the scope of our business, keeping track of what comes in and out of our doors, and measuring how it affects the exterior. After reading this book, I believe that it can’t be done alone. No single human, team, or company can do this by themselves. We are pieces of a puzzle that have to connect to each other.

How can we connect to each other? This is the main focus of the book. It focuses on who should sit at the table, suggests how to approach certain topics, and gives examples of how companies like Coca-Cola was able to partner with NGOs like WWF to help ensure healthy, thriving freshwater basins around the world.

I’ll be honest and say that a lot of the book flew above my head. I have never been in a seat where I felt like it was my responsibility to push the sustainability mission forward. Even as I’m writing this, I feel helpless to make meaningful change on that front. However, I find it fascinating to realize that the biggest obstacle to change is the mental model of the people at the top. “Your ability to foster commitment will never be greater than your own commitment.” One particular passage in the book stands out to me, where a CEO sees his mental model shifting and realizes that he had a role to play in both the problem and the solution:

He started reading about environmental issues and thinking about them, until he realized: “I was running a company that was plundering the earth.” So instead of talking about environmental regulation and compliance, he focused on his realization that “only one institution was powerful enough and pervasive enough to turn these problems around, it’s the institution causing them in the first place: Business. Industry. People like us. Us!

(p. 116)

Once mental models start changing, a toolbox of frameworks opens up for us:

  • The path to full integration of sustainability into the organization’s strategy and purpose (p. 115)
  • The four elements of shareholder value (p. 120)
  • The four factors that influence any situation (p. 173)
  • The iceberg of ways of explaining reality (p. 174)
  • How to make the current boundaries in thinking explicit (p. 184)
  • The four types of conversation (p. 253)
  • The ladder of inference (p. 255)
  • The four types of conversational action (p. 276)
  • The patterns of stuck teams (p. 279)

The book is brimming with ideas to making your conversations more productive, once you have all the players sitting at the table. This is the part I enjoyed most in the book: while I can’t know for sure that I’ll get to turn a business around and make it both profitable and sustainable, these tools are useful in any problem-solving and idea-creating collaboration. Thus, even if, like me, you feel powerless when it comes to environmental issues, I still recommend you give this book a look. Not only might it make you more optimistic and energized when thinking about our collective future, but it also contains tools that I am convinced will help you bridge the gap between different perspectives and unleash enormous additional energy by aligning purpose and mission with the core values people hold.

Félix rating:

⭐ Star quotes:

  1. (p. 34) During a period of expansion, two parallel realities develop, one inside the bubble and one outside. The more the bubble grows, the more people are drawn into its powerful reinforcing beliefs and perceptions. Eventually, those inside the bubble become so absorbed by their reality that they literally can no longer understand the point of view of those outside.
  2. (p. 38) A core principle of a regenerative society is that life creates conditions for life.
  3. (p. 46) If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.
  4. (p. 49) A common reason for the shortfall of successful collaboration is the return of well-established bad habits that eventually take over, such as:
    • avoiding conflict
    • launching into debates that merely reinforce previously held views
  5. (p. 76) ⭐ How we make our decisions is as important as the decisions themselves.
  6. (p. 115) The path to full integration of sustainability into the organization’s strategy and purpose (1 -> 2 is reactive, 3 -> 4 is pro-active. The most significant jump is to move beyond stage 3):
    1. Non-compliance
    2. Compliance
      • Regulatory demands / enforcement
      • Public pressure
    3. Beyond compliance
      • Eco-efficiencies
      • Regulatory threat
      • PR crisis
    4. Integrated strategy
      • Business opportunities
      • Risk management
    5. Purpose / Mission
      • Align with core values
  7. (p. 120) The four elements of shareholder value:
    • (Internal-Today) Cost & risk reduction
    • (External-Today) Regulation and legitimacy
    • (Internal-Tomorrow) Innovation and repositioning
    • (External-Tomorrow) Growth path and trajectory
  8. (p. 122) The Sustainable Value Framework, which goes into more details than the four elements listed above: image
  9. (p. 132) If experimental and societal good come at the expense of a company’s financial performance, then it is not practicing a sustainable business strategy.
  10. (p. 133) What’s good for business must be good for the environment and for people worldwide or you are not moving toward sustainable growth.
  11. (p. 171) Give a man a fish and he will be fed; Teach him how to fish and he will feed himself; Give him a fishing business and he will overfish.
  12. (p. 174) The iceberg of ways of explaining reality (from surface to deeper, increased leverage and opportunity for learning):
    • Events (React, above surface)
      • “What just happened?”
    • Patterns/trends (Anticipate, surface level)
      • “What’s been happening?”
      • “Have web been here or some place similar before?”
    • Systemic structures (Design, below surface)
      • What forces are at play contributing to these patterns?
    • Mental models (Transform, bottom iceberg)
      • What about our thinking allows this situation to persist?
  13. (p. 184) Say your assumptions out loud (e.g. “We are assuming that there will be no tax on emissions, or that if there were, airlines would be exempt.") Then ask yourself, What would happen if that assumption turned out to be wrong?
  14. (p. 184) Inquiry is a far more effective strategy than advocacy in expanding the boundaries of people’s thinking.
  15. (p. 184) Questions for making the current boundaries in thinking explicit:
    • What are the key factors in the problem we are facing?
    • What is going on right now and what forces are likely to shape the future?
    • Who are the key actors or decision makers in the system, including those with less authority?
    • In what ways are we imposing arbitrary boundaries?
    • Why do we assume that a certain person is the decision maker? Is it because the most obvious problem symptoms are in their organization?
    • What is the implicit time horizon built into the current definition of the problem you’re facing? How would this shift if you doubled that time frame, or made it 10 or 20 years longer?
  16. (p. 186) Help people get a feeling for challenging their own assumed boundaries and they will usually start doing it on their own more regularly.
  17. (p. 212) Technical nutrients are materials that can circulate back into the creation or use of other products.
  18. (p. 215) There is potential value in a waste stream that may have never been considered before.
  19. (p. 236) Once 20% of a population begin moving in the same direction, they act as a tipping point for more change in that direction.
  20. (p. 243) While it might be a natural instinct to try to convince those who show little interest in the questions you are pursuing, or to obsess about particular people or roles you feel are crucial, it is usually more effective to look for those who seem to understand the importance of the issue right away. Look for those with whom you sense “a connection”, and who are willing to “go deeper.”
  21. (p. 245) Make your own concerns and aspirations clear and come to learn, rather than to advocate or sell your ideas. The person with whom you are about to talk could really be a teacher for you.
  22. (p. 255) When teams or working groups get stuck in unproductive conversations, it is because members have moved up their ladder of inference and cannot get back down:
    • I take actions based on my beliefs
    • I adopt beliefs about the world (note: our beliefs affect what data we select next time)
    • I draw conclusions
    • I make assumptions based on the meaning I added
    • I add meaning (cultural and personal)
    • I select data based from what I observe (and my beliefs)
    • Observable data and experiences, as would be recorded by a camera.
  23. (p. 268) Your ability to foster commitment will never be greater than your own commitment. The key in fostering shared commitment lies in connecting to what you care about and what the organization cares about, and gradually knitting the two together.
  24. (p. 275) The work of innovators comes down to helping people recognize that seeing systems ultimately means seeing one another.
  25. (p. 276) The Four Types of Conversational Action:
    • Mover – Initiate a sequence of actions (provides direction)
    • Opposer – Oppose an action (provides correction)
    • Follower – Support an action (provides completion)
    • Bystander – Observe, ask questions, make comments (provides perspective)
  26. (p. 279) Stuck teams typically fall in one of these patterns:
    • Yes-men: One or two powerful figures emerge, and the rest follow their lead without questioning
    • Death by meeting: A few people do all the talking, transforming the rest of the group into disabled bystanders
    • “What are we doing here?": No one takes a stand on an issue (i.e. no effective movers), so there is no clear path forward
    • The debating society: People get stuck in “move-oppose” dynamics and rarely suspend or shift predetermined positions
  27. (p. 286) No matter how difficult the design challenge, natural systems provide 3.5 billion years of experimentation we can draw on.
  28. (p. 293) Fear cramps imagination: Change strategies based on reacting to threats limit the commitment, imagination, and collective intelligence needed for ongoing innovation.
  29. (p. 297) Doing less harm differs from working to create what we truly seek. If a car is heading south, slowing does does not cause it to go north. No matter how “less bad” you are, it will not make you “good.”
  30. (p. 324) It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does: People and groups obsess about “getting the vision right,” but often miss the whole point of vision as an active force, not just a set of words.
  31. (p. 326) Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. You need it to survive. Unfortunately, most businesses operate as if their purpose is breathing.
  32. (p. 332) At the end of the day, ask yourself, “How did our vision influence our actions?” If the answer is “It didn’t,” the vision is just words.
  33. (p. 337) When managers and staff members are aligned, they aren’t working at cross-purposes. They’re working toward the same end but with different accountabilities and authorities, designed so all contributions have a tangible positive impact.
  34. (p. 339) Organizations get the results they are designed for, and no more.
  35. (p. 368) The opposite of fatalism is deep conviction in the power of personal choice.