Senge’s Fifth Discipline

Peter M. Senge The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organisation Century 1993 (1st Ed. 1990)

Senge seeks to reform leadership in business, away from controlling towards designing and, enabling and fostering learning organisations.

Part I: How Our Actions Create Our Reality … and How We Can Change It

1 “Give me a lever long enough … “

   Practicing a discipline is different from emulating “a model”. All too often, new management innovations are described in terms of the “best practices” of so-called leading firms.

A learning organization is a place where  people are continually discovering how they create their reality.

[I]n everyday use, learning has come to mean “taking in information”.

“[A]daptive learning” must be joined by “generative learning,” learning that enhances our capacity to create.

2 Does your organization have a learning disability?

[W]e learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.

Cycles are particularly hard to see if they last longer than a year or two.

3 Prisoners of the system, or prisoners of our own thinking?

This describes ‘the beer game’, in which experienced and seemingly rational and sensible players in roles from shop-keeper to brewery aim to satisfy demand. Senge shows how a short increase in demand create a shock that is magnified as it travels through the system, leading players to vastly over-order. Senge shows how ‘systems thinking’ can help.

Part II The Fifth Discipline: The Cornerstone of the Learning Organization

4 The laws of the Fifth Discipline

As in Wikipedia.

5 A shift of mind

   Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots”. It is a set of general principles … .

[We should consider] dynamic complexity, situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious.

Where the same action has dramatically different effects in the short and the long, there is dynamic complexity. When an action has one set of consequences locally and a very different set of consequence 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.

What we see depends on what we are prepared to see. Western languages, with their subject-verb-predicate structure, are biased towards a linear view.

Hence the need for a systems language.

6 Nature’s Templates: Identifying the Patterns that Control Events

Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner.

Don’t push growth: remove the factors limiting growth.

Part III: The Core Disciplines: Building the Learning Organization

9 Personal Mastery

“[We] believe that, over the long term, the more we practice the higher virtues of life, the more economic success we will have.”

Everyone has had experiences when work flows fluidly; when he feels in tune with a task and works with a true economy of means.

“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”

[Practically] all of us have a “dominant belief that we are not able to fulfil our desires.”

[In] “conflict manipulation” … we try to manipulate ourselves into greater effort what we want by creating artificial conflict, such as through focussing on avoiding what we don’t want.

Systems thinking may hold a key to integrating reason and intuition. Intuition eludes the grasp of linear thinking, with its exclusive emphasis on cause and effect that are close in time and space. The result is that most of our intuitions don’t make “sense”- that is, can’t be explained in terms of linear logic.
Very often, experienced managers have rich intuitions about complex systems, which they cannot explain. There intuitions tell them that … obvious solutions will produce more harm than good, and that short-term fixes produce long-term problems. But they cannot explain their ideas in simple cause-effect language. They end up saying “Just do it this way. It will work.”

[The above] intuitions can be explained when the underlying systemic structures are understood.

[Reintegrating] reason and intuition may prove to be one of the primary contributions of systems thinking.

[Senge commends] building an organization where it is safe for people to create visions, where inquiry and commitment to the truth are the norm, and where challenging the status-quo is expected – especially where the status-quo includes obscuring aspects of current reality that people seek to avoid.

[The] practices most conducive to developing one’s own personal mastery [are] developing a more systemic worldview, learning how to reflect tacit assumptions, expressing one’s vision and listening to others’ visions, and joint enquiry into other people’s views of current reality .. .

10 Mental Models

[A] deep belief evolved … : that decision-making processes could be transformed if people become more able to surface and discuss productively their different ways of looking at the world. But if this was so useful, why so difficult?

In traditional organisations, merit means doing what the boss wants, openness means telling the boss what he wants to hear, and localness means doing the dirty stuff that the boss doesn’t want to.

[Mental] models are always incomplete, and, especially in Western culture, chronically nonsystemic. … Beckett … poses systems thinking as a philosophical alternative to the pervasive “reductionism” in Western culture – the pursuit of simple answers to complex issues.

Scenarios … force managers to consider how they would manage under different alternative paths into the future.

11 Shared Vision

It may simply not be possible to convince human beings rationally to take a long-term view. People do not focus on the long term because they have to, but because they want to.

[Openness] requires the skills of reflection and enquiry within an overall context of trusting supporting each other.

The most effective people are those who can “hold” their vision while remaining committed to seeing the current reality clearly.

12 Team Learning

[There] are powerful forces at work in organizations that tend to make the intelligence of the team less than, not greater than, the intelligence of individual team members.

In dialogue, there is the free and creative exploration of complex and subtle issues, a deep listening to each other and a suspending of one’s own views.

“The purpose of dialogue” Bohm suggests, “is to reveal the incoherence of our thought.” there are there types of incoherence:

  1. “Thought denies that it is participative.”
  2. Thought stops tracking reality and “just goes, like a program.”
  3. And thought establishes its own standards of reference for fixing problems, problems which it contributed to creating in the first place.

Deep within the mental models of managers in many organizations is the belief that managers must know what’s going on.

The more effective defensive routines are, the more effectively they cover up underlying problems, the less effectively these problems are faced, and the worse these problems tend to become.

To retain their power, defensive routines must remain undiscussable.

Senge notes that there are many tools and frameworks, including competitive analysis, ‘total quality’ and scenario methods.

But none of these tools deals with dynamic complexity very well or at all.

If one member of a team sees a problem more systemically than others, that person’s insight will get reliably discounted-if for no other reason than the intrinsic biases towards linear  views in our everyday language.

Part IV: Prototypes

[Successful people] would be uncomfortable to have their [methods] held up as “models” for others to emulate. Rather, they are [experiments], where important questions are being addressed and new insights are forming.

13 Openness

Reflective openness starts with the willingness to challenge our own thinking, to recognize that any certainty we ever have is, at best, a hypothesis about the world.

A simple exercise: We cover a large wall with blank paper, and then ask the group to map out all the feedback relationships in a particular problem … . ..[Those] who can face the “un-figure-able-ness” of it all will often … realize some spring has sprung.

To search for understanding, knowing that there is no ultimate answer, becomes a creative process – one which involves rationality but also something more.
This is, of course, the state of being open.

The “compartmentalization of knowledge” creates a false sense of confidence. … The boundaries … are fundamentally arbitrary.

Divergent problems have no “correct” solution.

People … are prisoners of a deeper and more insidious form of bondage-they only have one way of looking at the world.

14 Localness

   Tragedy of the Commons structures are most insidious when the coupling from individual action to collective consequence is weak in the short run, yet strong in the long run.

15 A manager’s time

[In] the schoolroom, learning becomes synonymous with absorbing information, synonymous with absorbing information dished out by an “expert,” .. .

Typically, managers … adopt a strategy, then as soon as the strategy starts to run into problems, they switch to another strategy, then another and another.

17 Microworlds: the technology of the learning organization

[“Learning by doing”] only works so long as the feedback is rapid and unambiguous. When we act in a complex system the consequences of our actions are neither .. .

Now a new type of microworld is emerging [1990]. Personal computers are making it possible to integrate learning about complex team interactions with learning about complex business interactions. These new microworlds allow groups to reflect on, expose, test and improve the mental models upon which they rely in facing difficult problems. They are settings for both crafting visions and experimenting with a broad range of strategies and policies for achieving those visions.

Because service quality is intangible, there is a strong tendency to manage service businesses by managing what is most tangible: such as numbers of customers served, … But focussing on what’s easily measured leads to “looking good without being good”. … Work gets done but at a steadily poorer quality, by servers who are increasingly overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated.
Entire industries are actually more vulnerable to this drift to mediocrity than individual firms. …
Oftentimes, the only way this “trance of mediocrity” gets broken is when a completely new firm enters the market … .

[Microworlds help] managers develop a “theory” of business operations and the strategic implications of basic changes in operating policies.

It is simply not possible to assess capacity separately from quality in a service business.

The unique power of microworlds lies in surfacing hidden assumptions, especially those lying behind key policies and strategies, discovering their inconsistency and incompleteness, and developing new, more systemic hypotheses for improving the real system.

Representation is the tool for adapting, simulation is the tool for creating.

18 The Leader’s new work

   The new view of leadership [is that] leaders are designers, stewards, and teachers. They are responsible for building organizations where people continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models – that is, they are responsible for learning.

Leaders in learning organizations have the ability to conceptualize their strategic insights so that they become public knowledge, open to challenge and further improvement.

[Creative] tension is generated by holding a vision and concurrently telling the truth about current reality relative to that vision … .

The dogma of process leaves no room for freedom … .

Part V: Coda

A sixth discipline?

Senge notes the seminal role of radar and jet engines in post-war air transport development.

[The] immediate task is to master the possibilities presented by the present learning disciplines, to establish a foundation for the future.

Rewriting the code

[Language] programs the subconscious. … the way the subconscious organizes and structures the content it holds.

If all we have is a linear language, then we think in linear ways, and we perceive the world linearly – that is, as a chain of events.

[For systems thinkers:] Alternatives that are impossible to see linearly are surfaced by the subconscious as proposed solutions.

Yet today the primary threats to our survival are slow, gradual developments that are complex both in detail and dynamics. The spread of nuclear weapons is not an event, not is the “greenhouse effect,” … the economic cycles that undermine our quality of life, and most of the other large-scale problems in our world.

The indivisible whole

   Something new is happening. And it has to with it all – the whole.

Appendix 2: Systems Archetypes

Limits to Growth

Description: A process feeds on itself to produce a period of accelerating growth or expansion. Then the growth begins to slow (often inexplicably to the participants in the system) and eventually comes to a halt, and may even reverse itself and begin an accelerating collapse.
The growth phase is cause by a reinforcing feedback process (or be several reinforcing feedback processes).  The slowing arises  due to a balancing process brought into play as a “limit” is approached. The limit can be a resource constraint, or an internal or external response to growth. The accelerating collapse (when it occurs) arises from the reinforcing process operating in reverse, to generate more and more contraction.



Senge provides a useful discussion of dynamic complexity, the challenge it gives to a certain kind of ‘traditional’ organization and some of the underlying pathologies. He also provides a useful description of an alternative ‘learning’ organisation. But from the perspective of a British ex-Boffin his characterisation of the ‘bad’ organisation as commonplace whilst the learning organization is novel and ‘up and coming’ does not chime with experience, quite the reverse.

From a crisis management perspective the description in ‘rewriting the code’ of slow-burn under-ground build up to crises, overlooked before the crisis but all too obvious afterward is very apt, as is the description under ‘limits to growth’.

Much of the material here is insightful and important, but perhaps should be complemented by a discussion of uncertainty and Holism. It would also be good to understand why the anticipated organizational reforms have not taken place (or have I missed something?).

Free markets

Senge argues that intense competition can focus attention on the short-run, at the cost of long-run factors, such as learning. In theory competition from those who are not so myopic might weed out such businesses, but Senge shows how entire industries (such as insurance or automobile manufacture) can become myopic and sustain it for quite long periods. Thus free markets do not ensure overall efficiency in any useful sense.

Theory versus pragmatism

Theories, such as ‘systems theory’, can help one to ‘stand back’ from the short-run thing. But one may still need to be able to accept short-term losses in exchange for longer-term gains. Thus one needs a strategy that is not narrowly pragmatic.

Learning under stress

When I first read this I had been working in a learning organisation with pretty much the style of leadership that Senge advocates, and so little of the book made any impression. Re-reading it the book does seem to ‘speak to’ many of our current problems. However, when it came out the cynics took the view that the real need was for enabling leadership and learning organisations to survive hyper-competition and ‘accountability’. Senge offers nothing here, only stimulating the thought that one could try educating those who hold the power (e.g. pension funds)  in ‘system thinking’. I am unconvinced that if Gordon Brown had understood systems thinking better we might have avoided the financial crisis. Something more seems needed.

Role of technology

Senge advocates the use of simulations including computers to allow decision-makers to exercise and gain insights. At the time cynics (myself included) had, based on hard-won experience, been taking the view that computer technology consisted of a competence-multiplier. That is, certain types of organisation would benefit in both efficiency and effectiveness, while others might have short-term efficiency benefits but would become even less effective in the kinds of factors that Senge emphasises. My own experience is that where Senge’s approach has been taken forward it has been very effective, but many organisations have simply used computer technology to entrench the type of ‘management by numbers’ that Senge derides.

Role of intuition

Senge, rightly, recognizes that logic and mathematics have limits for finding satisfactory ways forward in complex dynamic situations. But (‘rewriting the code’) he advocates the use of ‘trained intuition’ instead. My own experience is that while leading practitioners do seek, successfully, to train their intuition, they do not rely on it alone, but also seek to develop their logical and meta-mathematical skills, and above all have developed a way of using intuition (‘experience’) and logic together most reasonably. This seems more complex and dynamic than Senge’s dualist split.


Senge distinguishes between ‘frame’ and content. But it seems to me that one person’s frame may be another’s content, and so a desire to collaborate at one level may be seen by an other as beside the point, and not collaborative. This seems to me to be true even of organizations that have sought to follow Senge’s advice.


Senge notes that, often, most employees are not really committed to anything. It seems to me that the minimum needed is a commitment not to thwart the positive vision, or those with such a vision.

See Also

My notes on rationality and uncertainty.

Dave Marsay

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