Peter M. Senge, “Creating Desired Futures in a Global Society
in Northeast Sun magazine, Spring 2004 issue
Pages 11-19

Understanding your constraints frees you to create.

One of the things that distinguishes the master from the novice is an appreciation of the constraints of his or her medium. Or as Fritz put it, "No painter paints on an infinite canvas."

John Elter, a former vice president at Xerox who led development of the company's first fully digital product, used this principle to great effect. Early on in a multi-year product-development process to create a new generation of digital copiers, Elter took his team on a two-day wilderness expedition in the New Mexico desert. On the way back, they happened to walk by a dump - at the bottom of which they discovered a Xerox copier. It was a revelation. They returned to work with a new vision for the product and their entire enterprise: "Zero to landfill, for our children."

Says Elter, "Most of the constraints engineering teams deal with are management claptrap. All the managers make it up: The product has got to grow revenue by this amount. It's got to achieve these cost targets." However, after their epiphany in the desert, says Elter, "We discovered our real constraint-that nothing from this product should ever go into a landfill." The product they designed was ultimately 94 percent re-manufacturable and 98 percent recyclable, and met or exceeded all its sales targets. The team created a great product - and probably saved the company from bankruptcy or takeover - by redefining the constraints they worked against.

As Elter and his team showed, increasingly, the constraints that will enable creativity will come from appreciating the environmental and social realities of an increasingly interdependent world. Nature produces no waste. Why should business be different? But, by and large, we fail to see these constraints, because we fail to see the interdependence out of which they arise….

Systemic imbalances fail to compel our attention because we simply do not see them in the same way we see more immediate and local problems. And, we fail to see them because we define urgency by what is immediate. We are victims of a self-reinforcing crisis of perception, a crisis of our own making. If it persists, we doom ourselves to continued passivity. Only catastrophe will compel action, which, given the growing social divide that distributes problems like global warming unevenly between rich and poor, is likely to manifest as social and political disruption-not unlike what we are already seeing around the world over the past few years.

My view is that nothing short of a radical shift in our dominant western materialistic worldview is likely to dislodge this crisis of perception. How can diverse people from different parts of the world come to a fuller sense of the whole-that is, the social, economic and ecological systems we share? Perhaps when we start to appreciate together the exquisite web of interconnectedness that enables life in the universe wherever we stand - and the role of our own consciousness in that web.