The Fifth Discipline

The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization


In The Fifth Discipline, Senge describes how companies can rid themselves of the learning “disabilities” that threaten their productivity and success by adopting the strategies of learning organizations—ones in which new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, collective aspiration is set free, and people are continually learning how to create results they truly desire.




Discipline in this context means the pursuit of mastery.


There are really two parts here, one is about the systems stuff, the second is about the learning organization. They feed into one another, but at this time they feel sort of separated.

  • Lots more to dig into
  • It’s important to think about the systems at work
    • Almost more important, then how to leverage the system
  • Once you have a identified the system
    • How do you want it to change?
    • Where is the leverage



There is a generation of change that needs to happen

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers–a price for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold starts–and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown, unknowable.” - Dr. Deming

Provides a benchmark for the prevailing system, find’s that it is still spread

What is the “prevailing system”

  • Management by measurement

    • Focusing on short-term metrics
    • Devaluing intagiables
      • “You can only measure 3 percent of what maters” - W.E. Deming
  • Compliance-based culture

    • Getting ahead by pleasing the boss
    • Management by fear
  • Managing outcomes

    • Management sets targets
    • People are held accountable for meeting management targets (regardless of whether they are possible within existing system and processes)
  • “Right Anwsers” vs “Wrong answers”

    • Technical problem solving is emphasized
    • Diverging (systemic) problems are discounted
  • Uniformity

    • Diversity is a problem to be solved
    • Conflict is suppressed in favor of superficial agreement
  • Predictability and controllability

    • To manage is to control
    • The “Holy turning of management” is planning, organizing, controlling
  • Excessive competitiveness and distrust

    • Competition between people is essential to achieve desired performance
    • without competition among people there is no innovation
  • Loss of the whole

    • fragmentation
    • local innovations do not spread
  • Which affirms the need for this book

Part 1: How our actions create our reality … and how we can change it

Chapter 1: “Give me a lever long enough … and Single-handed I can move the world”


  • We are conditioned to brea things into simpler parts
    • but that hides the complexity
  • We don’t need grand strategists if we have people who can learn
  • Lists the Disciplines
  • Metanoia
  • A good discussion of dialog


Why we need learning organizations

  • We try to break things down into simpler parts, but that breaks our ability to see the big picture
  • “The tools and ideas presented in this book are for destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces”
    • By giving this up, we can create a learning organization
  • Things are getting more complicated, so we need to be able to learn as we go
  • This is possible because we are learners by default
    • Something happens along the way that makes us not learn as well
  • This also seems to be just an evolution of the industrial revolution
  • “Perhaps the most salient reason for building learning organizations is that we are only now starting to understand the capabilities such organizations must possess”

There can be a gap between invention and sustainability

  • There was a 30 year gap between the invention of flight, and the economic sustainability of flight.
  • There was a set of critical elements that had to come together

Just like flight, there is a critical set of elements that are required to make a learning organization

Disciplines of the learning organizations

  • Systems Thinking
  • Personal Mastery
  • Mental Models
  • Building Shared Vision
  • Team Learning

They must evolve as an ensemble, which is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline. It integrates the other disciplines

Metanoia – A shift of mind

“When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is th meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.”

Metanoia means fundamentally shift, to the greeks it meant transcendence.

We need to be able to continually learn, to be part of generative experiences.

“This book is for the learners, especially those of us interested in the art and practice of collective learning.”

Chapter 2: Does your Organization have a learning Disability?

“Few large organizations live even half as long as one person”

“In most companies that fail, there is abundant evidence in advance that the firm is in trouble”

Perhaps this okay at large, survival of the fittest and all, however painful for the participants.

But, maybe there is widespread learning disabilities that prevent companies from being truly excellent, and doom most companies to mediocrity.

From Trojans, to French Monarchs we can find evidence of doing things that are not in self-interest.

We should not be surprised that we find the same behavior on smaller scales

But no less impactful on the individuals involved

Some Learning Disabilities

1. I am my position

“When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all position interact. Moreover, when results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why. All you can is assume that “someone screwed up””

2. The Enemy is out there

“There is in each of us a propensity to find someone or something outside ourselves to blame when things go wrong.”

We can be blind to where the real problem lies. Like GM not realizing that Toyota was on to something.

3. The illusion of taking charge

  • Aggressive action taking, can sometimes harm, rather then help.
  • Just being proactive, so your are not reactive isn’t going help
  • Try and understand whats going on

4. The fixation on events

  • Attempts to break things down can sometimes lead to missing the whole
  • Not everything can be linearizable
  • You can get lost in the details
  • Process, over snapshots

“Generative learning cannot be sustained in an organization if people’s thinking is dominated by short-term events. If we focus on events, the best we can ever do is predict an event before it happyens so that we can react optimally. But we cannot learn to create”

5. The parable of the boiled frog

“Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic”

6. The Delusion of Learning from Experience

It’s hard to learn from experience if the actions, and results are very far apart, or indirectly linked.

“Herein lies the core learning dilemma that confronts organizations: we learn best from experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions”

7. The Myth of the Management Team

  • They attempt to create this party line
  • But, play politics
  • Thus any collective statement is watered down, least offending
  • Which breaks down under pressure
  • “Most managers find collective inquiry inherently threatening”
  • See. Chris Argyris of Harvard

Chapter 3: Prisoners of the System, or Prisoners of our own Thinking?

The beer game

Lessons of the beer game

  1. Structure influences behavior: different people in the same structure tend to produce qualitatively similar results
  2. Structure in Human Systems is Subtle
  3. Leverage often comes from new ways of thinkings: People have leverage that they do not exercise because they focus on them selves

“A truly profound and different insight is the way you begin to see that the system causes its own behavior” - Donatella Meadows

“For the investigation of the laws of history, we must completely change the subject of observations, must let kings and ministers and generals alone, and study the homogeneous, infinitesimal elements by which masses are led.” - Tolstoy

Tolstoy points out that by attempting to look at kings, and princes we don’t actually see the structure of history.

Eventually, people realize that they can’t blame one another, so they blame the system. A good first step

But, by doing some systems analysis you can find leverage to play the beer game well.

Part 2: The Fifth Discipline: The Cornerstone of the learning organizations

Chapter 4: The Laws of the Fifth Discipline

  1. Todays problems come from yesterdays “solutions”

    • story about snake under rug
      • keep pressing down on the bump it re-appears
      • Lift the corner, an angry snake comes out
    • “Often we are puzzled by the causes of our problems; when we merely ned to look at our own solutions to other problems in the past.”
    • Shifting the burden, doesn’t mean solving the problem
  2. The harder you push , the harder the system pushes back

    • sometimes pushing to make a system better only makes things harder somewhere else
    • Instead you might think about removing the limits to the system
  3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse

    • Sometimes short term interventions make things better
    • Sometimes then it just gets worse
    • The lengthy timeline can sometimes make it hard to understand the interactions
  4. The easy way out usually leads back in

  5. The cure can be worse then 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

    • “There are no simple rules for finding high-leverage changes, but there are ways of thinking that make it more likely.”
    • “Thinking in terms of processes of change rather then snapshots is another”
  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

Chapter 5: A Shift of Mind

  • Seeing in systems
    • Like drugs in sense of “The Wire”
    • Complexity can make it hard to understand
    • Terrorism as a perpetual cycle
  • Detail Complexity vs Dynamic Complexity
    • Conventional forecasting, planning, and analysis methods are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity
    • Following a complex set of instructions to assemble a machine involves detail complexity.
    • “When the same action has dramatically different effects in the shorten and the long, there is dynamic complexity. Same thing if action in one spot has consequences in a very far away spot you have dynamic complexity”
  • Seeing the cycle
    • Feedback
    • The human is apart of the system not separate

Chapter 6: Nature’s Templates: Identifying the Patterns That Control Events

  • Story of the fishing village for why systems are counter intuitive
    • Need to stop illegal fishing
    • Build a soccer field, bring the parents in and talk with them
    • teach them how to raise organic produce
    • Help the town thrive
    • Watch illegal fishing dissipate
  • There are system archtypes we can recoginize
  • “One of the most import, and potentially most empowering, insights to come from the young field of systems thinking is that certain patterns of structure recur again, and again.”
  • “For learning organizations, only when managers start thinking in terms of the systems archetypes, does systems thinking become an active daily agent, continually revealing how we create our reality.”
  • Archetypes
    • The limits to growth
      • Don’t push growth; remove the factors limiting growth
    • Shifting the burden
      • Beware of symptomatic solution. Solutions that address only the symptoms of a problem

Chapter 7: Self-Limiting or Self-Sustaining Growth

“In effect, the art of systems thinking lies in seeing through the detail complexity to the underlying structures generating change. Systems thinking does not mean ignoring detail complexity. Rather, it means organizing detail complexity into a cohernt story that illuminates the causes of problems and how they can be remedies in enduring ways.”

Part 3: The Core Disciplines: Building the learning organization

Chapter 8: Personal Mastery

“Organizations learn through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organization learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs”

Managers need to get out of the way

“Managers must redefine their job. They must give up ‘the old dogma of planning, organizing and controlling’, and realize ‘the almost sacredness of their responsibility for the lives of so many people’ Managers' fundamental task, according to O’Brien is ‘providing the enabling conditions for people to lead the most enriching lives they can’”

“‘Learning’ in this context does not mean acquiring more information, but expanding the ability to produce the results we truly want in life. It is lifelong generative learning. And learning organizations are not possible unless they have people at every level who practice it.”

Those with personal master no how to work with the system to get the results they are looking for. They don’t see the current state as an enemy.

Chapter 9: Mental Models

“One thing all managers know is that many of the best ideas never get put into practice … A pilot experiment may prove to everyone satisfaction that a new approach leads to better results, but widespread adoption of the approach never occurs.”

“This isn’t from weak intentions, wavering will, or even nonsystematic understand, but from mental models. More specifically, new insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. That is why the discipline of managing mental models-surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works- promises to be a major breakthrough for building learning organizations”

  • Good ideas fail to get implmented, why?
    • The ideas run contrary to the existing mental models
  • Learning how to utilize mental models is the foundation of a learning organization
  • Why are mental models so powerful?
    • Our mental models determine not only how we make sense of the world, but how we take action
    • “Al though people do not always behave congruently with their espoused theories (what they say), they do behave congruently with their theories-in-use[their mental models]” - Chris Argyris
    • Mental models are active, they shape how we act
  • Why do they affect what we do?
    • They affect what we see
    • Two people with diff mental models can observe the same event and describe it differently
    • They looked at different details
  • Problem with car makers
    • They visited toyota
      • Said, “Those aren’t factories”, those are show rooms
      • Those factories didn’t have enough inventory to be real
      • They couldn’t understand just-in-time manufacturing
      • The failed to see the power
  • Mental models aren’t always right, or wrong though
    • What you need to pay attention to is when they become implicit
    • When the exist below our level of awareness
  • How shell utilized mental models
    • Before opec, shell had built out a way of doing international business
    • They were a distributed decision making company
    • During the run up to the dawn of OPEC central planing forecasted opec
    • They needed to get their distributed decision makers to understand the new future
    • Central planning tried to give their scenarios to the branch
      • Such a big difference between branch managers thinking
      • Branch managers discarded the ideas
    • Central realized they needed to try something else
    • They developed a set of scenarios
      • forced branch managers to understand what needed to happen
      • branch manager realized it was unlikely for certain things to happen
    • They then built new more likely scenarios
      • then they helped them build a new set of scenarios
    • I really don’t understand how this worked
    • When oil embargo become a thing, Shell was ahead of the curve
    • 10 years later were #2 with Exxon
  • BP Had a similar story
    • Used networks of learning
    • Allowed them to continually question
  • Working with mental models in practice
    • Three facets to developing an organizations capacity to surface and test mental models
      • Tools that promote personal awareness and reflective skills
      • “Infrastructures” that try to institutionalize regular practice with mental models
      • A culture that promotes inquiry and challenging our thinking
  • The organization can be resistant to these facets
    • Need to increase openness to demonstrate that you are making decisions based on merit
    • Articulating these values to the business
    • Demonstrating the tools used to make the decisions
    • “Action science” helped
      • Multiple ways of thinking about the same things, different results, but not always bad
  • continual conversation with the goal of understanding implicit mental models
  • Tools and Skills
    • Two major skills
      • Skills of reflection
      • Skills of inquiry
    • Skills of reflection
      • Slowing down our thinking process
      • become more aware of how we form our mental models
      • how they influence our actions
    • Skills of inquiry
      • How we operate face to face
      • Especially in complex and conflicting issues
    • The core of mental modes
  • The Tools based on reflection, and inquiry
    • Faceing up to distinctions between espoused theories and theories in use
    • Recognizing, “Leaps of abstraction”
    • Exposing the left hand column
    • Balancing inquiry and advocacy
  • Reflective practice
    • Effective work with mental models means bringing them to the surface
    • Understanding the mental models used by decision makers is vital
    • You have to develop in-house skills to understand others mental models
    • otherwise you can’t communicate effectively
    • Surface and challenge your own mental models is a good place to start
    • Learning from your own mental models
  • Espoused Theory vs Theory in use
    • Be more aware by finding the gap between the two
    • Once you identify the gap you can start learning
    • A gap isn’t always a defeniciy
      • Is it something I’d like to espouse, how do I get better
      • Do I not actually care, can I change my model
    • Finding the gap is hard, you’re gonna need help
    • Find nice ways of asking about gaps
  • Leaps of abstraction
    • Question generalizations, separate the data that lead to the decision
    • Lay your cards on the table and explain how you came to your decision
      • Allows others to help audit your decision making process
    • But, until we become aware of our leaps of abstraction we are not even aware of the need for inquiry
  • Left-Hand Column
    • When you communicate, you have internal dialog
    • Left hand column helps you understand what you are thinking when are speaking
    • Take a conversation, or conflict
    • Write out what was said on the right hand
    • Try and figure out what you were thinking on the left hand side
    • It’s hard to talk about what you are really thinking all the time, it could lead to defensiveness
  • Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy
    • Sometimes you need to know more to make a good decision
    • Sometimes you need to advocate
    • You can do one or the other all the time
    • The balance between the two is where learning happens
    • Being able to explain how you got to your idea will help break the escalation
    • The first stage is learning how to inquiry into others views
    • Some guidelines on page 186
  • Agreement
    • Having the mental models exposes is more important then agreement

Chapter 10: Shared Vision

  • Sparticus example

    • They were believers of the idea, not the man
    • The idea of freedom was worth dying for, because they didn’t want to go back - They didn’t do it for Sparticus
  • “A vision is truly shared when you and I have a similar picture and are committed to one another having it, not just to each of us, individually, having it.”

  • “Shared vision is vital for the learning organization because it provides the focus and energy for learning. While adaptive learning is possible with out vision, generative learning occurs only when people are striving to accomplish something that matters deeply to them.”

  • Abraham Maslow studied high-performing teams, one thing he noticed was their shared vision, and purpose.

    • “The task was no longer operate from the self… but rather he identified with the task so strongly that you couldn’t define his real self without including the task.”
  • Shared visions emerge from personal visions

  • As you develop personal mastery, your personal vision will emerge

    • Overtime your vision will intertwine with
  • Shared vision actually is comprised of everyones individual vision

  • “The first step in mastering the discipline of building shared visions is to give up traditional notions that visions are always announced from “on high” or come from an organizations institutionalized planning process”

  • “When visions start in the middle of an organization the process of sharing and listening is essentially the same as when they originate at the top. But it may take longer, especially, if the vision has implications for the entire organization.”