The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization

by Peter M. Senge

Senge writes, “I believe that, the prevailing system of management is, at its core, dedicated to mediocrity. It forces people to work harder and harder to compensate for failing to tap the spirit and collective intelligence that characterizes working together at their best.”

The subtitle is about the learning organization, but the book is also very much about systems thinking. 

A learning organization “is continually expanding its capacity to create its future” with the five disciplines:

  1. Systems Thinking… Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the ‘structures’ that underlie complex situations, and for discerning high from low leverage change. That is, by seeing wholes we learn how to foster health. To do so, systems thinking offers a language that begins by restructuring how we think.”
  2. Personal mastery… An organization’s commitment to and capacity for learning can be no greater than that of its members.”
  3. Mental models. Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”
  4. Building shared vision… At its simplest level, a shared vision is the answer to the question, ‘What do we want to create?’… that [fosters] genuine commitment… rather than compliance.”
  5. Team learning… When teams are truly learning, not only are they producing extraordinary results, but the individual members are growing more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise.”

SYSTEMS THINKING. “Living systems have integrity. Their character depends on the whole. The same is true for organizations; to understand the most challenging managerial issues requires seeing the whole system that generates the issues… As the fifth discipline, systems thinking is the cornerstone of how learning organizations think about their world.”

“Sadly, for most people ‘systems thinking’ means ‘fighting complexity with complexity,’ devising increasingly ‘complex’ (we should really say ‘detailed’) solutions to increasingly ‘complex’ problems. In fact, this is the antithesis of real systems thinking.”

“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 rather than snapshots.”

“The essence of mastering systems thinking as a management discipline lies in seeing patterns where others see only events and forces to react to… High-leverage changes are usually highly nonobvious to most participants in the system [because] they are not ‘close in time and space’ to obvious problem symptoms.”

DYNAMIC COMPLEXITY VS. DETAIL COMPLEXITY. “Sophisticated tools of forecasting and business analysis, as well as elegant strategic plans, usually fail to produce dramatic breakthroughs in managing a business. They are all designed to handle the sort of complexity in which there are many variables: detail complexity… Following a complex set of instructions to assemble a machine involves detail complexity, as does taking inventory in a discount retail store. But none of these situations is especially complex dynamically.” I believe what Senge calls detail complexity, Rick Nason would refer to as complicated.

“But there is a second type of complexity. The second type is dynamic complexity, situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious. Conventional forecasting, planning, and analysis methods are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity.”

“When the same action has dramatically different effects in the short run and 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 nonobvious consequences, there is dynamic complexity.”

“The real leverage in most management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity, not detail complexity. Balancing market growth and capacity expansion is a dynamic problem. Developing a profitable mix of price, product (or service) quality, design, and availability that make a strong market position is a dynamic problem. Improving quality, lowering total costs, and satisfying customers in a sustainable manner is a dynamic problem.”

“Unfortunately, most systems analyses focus on detail complexity not dynamic complexity. Simulations with thousands of variables and complex arrays of details can actually distract us from seeing patterns and major interrelationships.”

“Systems thinking does not mean ignoring detail complexity. Rather, it means organizing detail complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the causes of problems and how they can be remedied in enduring ways.”

STRUCTURES. “One of the most important, and potentially most empowering, insights to come from the young field of systems thinking is that certain patterns of structure recur again and again. These ‘systems archetypes’ or ‘generic structures’ embody the key to learning to see structures in our personal and organizations lives.”

“Structure influences behavior. When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.” This reminds me of Deming.

“If reinforcing and balancing feedback and delays are like the nouns and verbs of systems thinking, then the systems archetypes are analogous to basic sentences or simple stories that get retold again and again.”

“Archetype 1: Limits on Growth… Management principle: Don’t push growth; remove the factors limiting growth… In a limits to growth structure, the worst thing you can do is push hard on the reinforcing process…. In a limits-to-growth structure, the leverage lies with the balancing process.”

“Archetype 2: Shifting the burden… Management principle: Solutions that address only the symptoms of a problem, not the fundamental causes, tend to have short-term benefits at best… The shifting the burden structure explains a wide range of behaviors where ill-intended ‘solutions’ actually make matters worse over the long term… Meanwhile, the underlying problem remains unaddressed and may worsen… Shifting the burden structures often underlie unintended drifts in strategic direction and erosion in competitive position.”

“Start by identifying the ‘problem symptom.’ This will be the ‘squeaky wheel’ that demands attention—such as stress, subordinates’ inabilities to solve pressing problems, falling market share. Then identify a fundamental solution (there may be more than one)—a course of action that would, you believe, lead to enduring improvement. Then, identify one or several symptomatic solutions that might ameliorate symptoms for a time.”

SYSTEM BOUNDARY. “The ‘principle of the system boundary,’ is that the interactions that must be examined are those most important to the issue at hand, regardless of parochial organizational boundaries… What makes this principle difficult to practice is the way organizations are designed to keep people from seeing important interactions. One obvious way is by forcing rigid internal divisions that inhibit inquiry across divisional boundaries, such as those that grow up between marketing, manufacturing, and research. Another is by leaving problems behind us, for someone else to clean up.” See also Boundary Spanning.

ALIGNMENT. “Jazz musicians know about alignment. There is a phrase in jazz ‘being in the groove,’ that suggests the state when an ensemble ‘plays as one’ … The fundamental characteristic of the relatively unaligned team is wasted energy… To empower people in an unaligned organization can be counterproductive.”

INTUITION. “Intuition in management has recently received increasing attention and acceptance, after many decades of being officially ignored. Now numerous studies show that experienced managers and leaders rely heavily on intuition—that they do not figure out complex problems entirely rationally. They rely on hunches, recognize patterns, and draw intuitive analogies and parallels to other seemingly disparate situations… Their intuitions tell them that cause and effect are not close in time and space, that obvious solutions will produce more harm than good, and that short-term fixes produce long-term problems… Intuition eludes the grasp of linear thinking.”

ADVOCACY AND INQUIRY. “The most productive learning usually occurs when managers combine skill in advocacy and inquiry… When operating in pure advocacy, the goal is to win the argument. When inquiry and advocacy are combined, the goal is no longer ‘to win the argument’ but to find the best argument… When there is inquiry and advocacy, creative outcomes are much more likely… Practicing inquiry and advocacy means being willing to expose the limitations in your own thinking—the willingness to be wrong.”

DIALOGUE AND DISCUSSION. “The discipline of team learning involves mastering the practices of dialogue and discussion, the two distinct ways that teams converse. In dialogue, there is the free and creative exploration of complex and subtle issues, a deep ‘listening’ to one another and suspending one’s own views. By contrast, in discussion different views are presented and defended and there is a search for the best view to support decisions that must be made at this time. Dialogue and discussion are potentially complementary, but most teams lack the ability to distinguish between the two and to move consciously between them.”

David Bohm suggests, “‘The purpose of dialogue is to reveal the incoherence in our thought.’ … Dialogue can occur only when a group of people see each other as colleagues in mutual quest for deeper insight and clarity.” Bohm notes, “‘Hierarchy is antithetical to dialogue, and it is difficult to escape hierarchy in organizations.’”

CONFLICT. “Contrary to popular myth, great teams are not characterized by an absence of conflict. On the contrary, in my experience, one of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas. In great teams, conflict becomes productive… Even when people share a common vision, they may have many different ideas about how to achieve that vision. The loftier the vision, the more uncertain we are how it is to be achieved. The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own. Conflict becomes, in effect, part of the ongoing dialogue.”

Chris Argyris and his colleagues have studied the dilemma of why bright, capable managers often fail to learn effectively in management teams. Their work suggests that the difference between great teams and mediocre teams lies in how they face conflict and deal with the defensiveness that invariably surrounds conflict.”

MISTAKES. “The idea of practice fields comes from a simple fact: it is very difficult to learn anything new without the opportunity for practice… Classroom learners are usually passive. The classroom usually concerns mostly listening and thinking, not doing. For many people, classroom imagery evokes strong feelings of the need to avoid errors and the importance of getting ‘right answers.’ Real learning processes, in contrast, are defined by trying something new and making many mistakes… Ed Land, founder and president of Polaroid for decades and inventor of instant photography, had one plaque on his wall. It read: A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage.”

ECOLOGY OF LEADERSHIP. “The very word ‘leader’ has come to refer largely to positional authority, a synonym for top management… That message is that the only people with power to bring about change are those at the top of the hierarchy, not those further down…. We began to think in terms of an ‘ecology of leadership.’” Intel manager Ilean Galloway adds, “‘When you build a team that believes that change from any place in the system is possible, significant change can sprout from even the tiniest of seeds.’”

“Network leaders… are helpers, seed carriers, and connectors… They are vital for spreading new ideas and practices from one working group to another and between organizations, and for connecting innovative line leaders with one another. They build larger networks that diffuse successful innovations and important learning and knowledge.”

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Revised edition. Currency Doubleday, 2006. Buy from

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A selection of books mentioned in the text:

The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action by Donald A. Schon (1984)

The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management by Art Kleiner (2008)

The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in a Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge and George Roth (1999)

Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition by Robert K. Greenleaf (2002)

Relevance Lost: The Rise and Fall of Management Accounting by H. Thomas Johnson and Robert S. Kaplan (1991)

Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results through Attention to Work and People by H. Thomas Johnson and Anders Broms (2000)

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future by Peter M. Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers (2008)

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