The Fifth Dicipline

Peter M. Senge,

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is divided into five parts. Part I is devoted to laying out the argument that we are the creators of our own reality, i.e.,that the solutions to the problems that we face are at our reach, that we have the power to control our destinies.

Chapter 1 discusses the concept of “a Lever,” or leverage points in a system –where the smallest efforts can make the biggest differences. It also introduces the five disciplines of the learning organization (systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision and team learning). It highlights systems thinking as the 5th discipline –the one which fuses them into a coherent body of theory and practice.

Chapter 2 contains a description of seven learning disabilities which are often responsible for organizational failure:

  1. I am my position
  2. the enemy is out there
  3. the illusion of taking charge
  4. the fixation on events
  5. the parable of the boiled frog
  6. the delusion of learning from experience
  7. the myth of the management team

It relates these disabilities to the core disciplines, and argues how the disabilities can be overcome through mastering the disciplines.

Chapter 3crowns the argument through an example: the beer game –which shows how rational individuals that are part of a system but that act in isolation can get trapped in problems related to their own thinking and behaviors.

Chapters 1, 2 and 3 are essential to understand Senge’s argument. Some of the concepts which flourish out of these three chapters are:

LEARNING ORGANIZATIONS.Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.

Today and in the future, the organizations that will truly excel will be the ones that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization. Learning organizations are fundamentally different from traditional authoritarian “controlling organizations.”

SYSTEMS THINKING. The world IS NOT created of separate unrelated forces. However, individuals have difficulty seeing the whole pattern. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change things effectively and with the least amount of effort–to find the leverage points in a system.

PERSONAL MASTERY.It is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively. The discipline of personal mastery starts with clarifying the things that really matter to us, of living our lives in the service of our highest aspirations.

MENTAL MODELS.They are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. the discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.

BUILDING SHARED VISION.The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared “pictures of the future” that foster genuine commitment and enrollment, rather than compliance.

TEAM LEARNING.The discipline of team learning starts with “dialogue,” the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine “thinking together.” (Dialogue differs from the more common “discussion,” which has its roots with “percussion” and “concussion,” literally a heaving of ideas back and forth in a winner-takes-all competition.) Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. “Unless teams can learn, the organization cannot learn.”

METANOIA –A SHIFT OF MIND.Systems thinking needs the disciplines of building shared vision, mental models, team learning, and personal mastery to realize its potential. Building a shared vision fosters commitment to the long-term. Mental models focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings in our present ways of seeing the world. Team learning develops the skills of groups of people to look for the larger picture that lies beyond individual perspectives. And personal mastery fosters the personal motivation to continually learn how our actions affect our world.

But systems thinking makes understandable the subtlest aspect of the learning organization –the new way individuals perceive themselves and their world. At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind –from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something “out there” to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.

STRUCTURE INFLUENCES BEHAVIOR.More often than we realize, systems cause their own crises, not external forces or individuals’ mistakes. In human systems, structure includes how people make decisions –the “operating policies” whereby we translate perceptions, goals, rules, and norms into actions.

The reason that structural explanations are so important is that only they address the underlying causes of behavior at a level that patterns of behavior can be changed. Structure produces behavior, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behavior. In this sense, structural explanations are inherently generative. Moreover, since structure in human systems includes the “operating policies” of the decision makers in the system, redesigning our own decision making redesigns the system structure.

Interestingly, in the beer game and in many other systems, in order for you to succeed others must succeed as well. Moreover, each player must share this systems viewpoint.

Part II is devoted to the Fifth Discipline, Systems Thinking, which Senge calls the cornerstone of the learning organization. Here the discussion becomes more technical, especially Chapters 5 and 6, where “positive” and “negative” feedback loops are discussed (Chapter 5), and where system archetypes are introduced (Chapter 6 and Appendix 2).

Chapter 4begins with a qualitative discussion of 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline:

  1. today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions”
  2. the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back
  3. behavior grows better before it grows worse
  4. the easy way out usually leads back in
  5. the cure can be worse than the disease
  6. faster is slower
  7. cause and effect are not closely related in time and space
  8. small changes can produce big results –but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious
  9. you can have your cake and eat it too –but not at once
  10. dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants
  11. there is no blame

All of which become clear once we let go of our linear, unidirectional causation way of thinking, and adopt the systemic perspective –where relationships are not always linear, and where causality may be traced through a feedback loops back to its original source and effect it, as well as be effected by it.

Chapter 5explains the concept of “feedback loops:”

[I]n systems thinking, feedback is a broader concept. It means any reciprocal flow of influence. In systems thinking it is an axiom that every influence is both cause and effect. Almost nothing is ever influence in just one direction.

It teaches people to draw them, and to see distinguish “reinforcing” from “balancing” feedback (“positive” and “negative” feedback loops, respectively). The chapter also illustrates the differing patterns of behavior of reinforcing and balancing phenomena. Finally, there is a discussion about delays and how they come into play to affect the behavior of systems which contain them.

Senge argues that systems thinking is needed more than ever because of the complexity of the interactions of today’s world. Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the “structures” that underlie complex situations, and for discerning high from low leverage points.

He discerns detail from dynamic complexity –the latter are situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious. He argues that conventional forecasting, planning, and analysis methods are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity.

He highlights that when the same action has dramatically different effects in the short-run and in the long-run, there is dynamic complexity. When an action has one set of consequences locally and a very different set of consequences in another part of the system, there is dynamic complexity. When obvious interventions produce non-obvious consequences, there is dynamic complexity.

The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view, and toward the expanded and non-obvious consequences of actions. The essence of the discipline of systems thinking lies in a shift of mind:

seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and

seeing processes of change (patterns) rather than snapshots (isolated events).

Chapter 6introduces Senge’s Systems Archetypes –generic structures which embody the key to learning to see structures in our personal and organizational lives. Two archetypes are discussed in the chapter: (1) limits to growth and (2) shifting the burden. The others are explained in Appendix 2:

  • balancing process with delay
  • shifting the burden to the intervener
  • eroding goals
  • escalation
  • success to the successful
  • tragedy of the commons
  • fixes that fail
  • growth and under-investment

When discussing each archetype, Senge illustrates the guiding structure, and the resulting behavior (or pattern) generated. He also highlights where in the system resides the leverage point(s). The discussion is enriched with practical examples.

Chapter 7underscores the principle of leverage, and discusses why the actions of nonsystemic thinkers often result in failure to achieve the desired objectives.

Chapter 8illustrates the ideas behind Part II with an example: the rise and decline of People Express –an illustration of the workings of the limits to growth archetype.

Part II contains the technical aspects and the tools needed for systems thinking. It goes beyond the concepts laid out in Part I to demonstrate the value and importance of systems thinking in practice, and to prepare the reader to use systemic analysis.

Part III devotes one chapter to each of the other four disciplines, and relates them with systems thinking and each other. These chapters are complementary, and ARE NOT essential to understand the core of Senge’s argument.

Part IV contains six prototypes which are useful, but which also ARE NOT essential.

Part V introduces a 6th Discipline: CODA –where the author discusses what lies ahead, after the foundation established by the five disciplines is laid out.

Page prepared by Aldo Santos.

cf.: Learning Organizations Homepage
cf.: The Learning Disciplines
cf.: Archetypes
cf.: The Beer Game Simulation


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