The Fifth Discipline

By: Jerry Acuff



When it was originally written, The Fifth Discipline was Peter Senge's shot across the bow of the management thinking of the day - namely that people should work harder and longer in order to produce better results.

His argument was that a learning organisation - one that seeks to facilitate and encourage learning at all levels of a company so that it can continually transform itself - provides a better way of doing things.

And while the theories of management have evolved since then (with a focus on things like Emotional Intelligence), the practice in some companies probably remains the same.

For that reason, and because our economy and marketplaces seem to change on a week to week basis, his message is just as relevant today as it was when it was published.

This is one of those books that takes a few times through to wrap your head around the argument and the solutions, but the payoff is worth it.

Let's get started.

Organisations are complex systems, and why that matters

At the core of Senge's argument is the fact that organisations are complex systems.

You've heard of the butterfly effect - usually described how the flapping of a distant butterfly's wings several weeks earlier could influence the path of a tornado - and conceptually understand what it means.

Small causes can have large effects.

But in business, these small causes are usually hidden in a complex system that none of us were trained to analyse and understand.

Senge makes the argument that the structure of the system influences the behaviour. More often than not, different people in the same structure tend to produce qualitatively similar results.

While it's easier to find someone or something to blame, the problem usually lies in how the game (or system) was set up in the first place.

To make things even more difficult, the structure in human systems - how we interact with one another - is very subtle because we are part of the system. We are the fish that don't know they are living in water.

But herein lies our salvation - because we are part of the system, we have the power to alter the structures in which we are operating.

Problems created by human beings (or, your organisation has a learning disability)

So now that we know we are living in a complex system that we have difficulty seeing, let's review some of the issues it creates.

Here are the 7 things that get in the way of organisations producing the results they want to achieve:

  1. I am my position. When we focus our efforts on the things listed in our job description and nothing more, we have little responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact (as they always do.)

  2. The enemy is out there. We all feel the urge to blame someone or something outside ourselves when things go wrong.

  3. The illusion of taking charge. Too often, being proactive is merely being reactive in disguise. True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems.

  4. The fixation on events. Almost all of our thinking is geared towards reacting to short-term events. So when we analyse situations, that's where we often focus our efforts.

  5. The parable of the boiled frog. You've heard this one before, but learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic.

  6. The delusion of learning from experience. We can only "see" the impact of our experience in the short-term. Cycles that last longer than a year or two are very hard to see, and thus very hard to learn from.

  7. The myth of the management team. Most "teams" break down under pressure, and when faced with complex issues.

So, that's the environment we all live in to some degree.

But now that you are aware of the problems that are caused by human beings participating in a complex system, you can start to understand how to get over them with the five disciplines.

The Fifth Discipline - Systems Thinking

Out of the 5 disciplines required to create a learning organisation, systems thinking is the glue that holds it all together. Senge calls this the Fifth Discipline for that reason.

Systems thinking can serve as a powerful lever by identifying leverage points: where the smallest efforts can make the biggest differences.

There are multiple levels of explanation for any complex situation - they are equally true in some sense.

First level: Events (whom did what to whom) lead to a reactive stance.

Second level: Patterns of behaviour focus on seeing longer-term trends and assessing their implications.

Third level: Systemic structure focussed on answering the question "What causes the patterns of behaviour?"

The right place to focus your efforts (if you are interested in actual results) is in the third, systemic level.

But in order to do that, you need to understand the ways that systems work. Luckily for us, Senge breaks it down into...

The 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline.

  1. Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions." More often than not, we shuffle problems around an organisation rather than deal with the root cause. Low sales this quarter are caused by jamming as much as you could at the end of the previous quarter, which was caused get the picture.

  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. This is called compensating feedback. In a smaller system, you can think of it like somebody who quits smoking, gains a bunch of weight, and then starts smoking again to deal with the stress of gaining weight. Now it's even harder to quit smoking than when you started. The system always has a response for your actions.

  3. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse. Low-leverage interventions (the ones that don't get at the root cause) often work in the short run, making it seem like you are solving the larger problem. You're not.

  4. The easy way out usually leads back in. We all find comfort in the easy solutions, but they often just lead right back to the problem.

  5. The cure can be worse than the disease. As an example, alcoholism often starts off with a drink or two at the end of the day to relieve work-related stress - the alcohol is a cure for the disease of the stress. Then, of course, the cure becomes the (even worse) disease. This non-systematic way of solving the problem often requires more and more of the solution, leading to inevitable disaster.

  6. Faster is slower. The optimal rate of growth in any system is slower than the fastest rate of growth. When we push too hard too fast, we fail.

  7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. This is one of the most important principles to understand. Because we don't often look beyond short-term events for root causes, we never find them.

  8. Small changes can produce big results - but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious. There are no rules for finding these high leverage changes, but looking at the underlying structures instead of short-term events is good start.

  9. You can have your cake and eat it too - but not at once. When we think of what is possible beyond a fixed point of time, we can uncover better solutions. For instance, you might not be able to immediately create better quality product in less time today, but the real leverage lies in seeing how both can improve over time.

  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. A system can't be broken down into component parts, dealt with separately, and then put back together again.

  11. There is no blame. The cure lies in your relationship with the system.

The 11 Laws cover how systems operate, but unless you can spot a complex system in action and know what to do about it, the 11 laws won't help you much.


Understanding The Archetypes of Systems

Most of the patterns that control events are predictable, which makes identifying them and knowing what to do about them a lot easier.

As Senge points out, an organisation only becomes a learning organisation when they can learn to spot these systems, and figure out what to do about them. Any learning that doesn't deal with systems thinking is surface learning, which ultimately lets you down in the long run.

Here are the 9 archetypes that keep coming up again and again, with brief instructions on what to do if you recognise the pattern.

  1. Balancing process with delay. Many people quit, or take more corrective action than needed, while waiting for feedback from the system. Instead, be more patient or make the system more responsive.

  2. Limits to growth. Growth slows down and sometimes reverses itself once it approaches the limit. Instead of pushing against the growth limit, remove the source of the limitation.

  3. Shifting the burden. Focus on the fundamental solution rather than the symptomatic solution.

  4. Eroding goals. Often a short-term solution will result in a relaxation of a long-term, fundamental goal. Don't let that happen, or it will continue to happen in the future.

  5. Escalation. When in competition, trying to assert your dominance over the other player leads to more and more actions detrimental to your long-term health. Price wars are a great example. Look instead for win-win solutions.

  6. Success to the successful. Two activities compete for limited support or resources - as one wins, the other starves. Instead, look for ways to balance the long-term health of both choices.

  7. Tragedy of the commons. Individuals use a commonly available but limited resource solely on the basis of individual need. Eventually, the resource is depleted or entirely used up. When you see this happening, create forms of self-regulation using peer pressure or actual regulations.

  8. Fixes that fail. A short-term fix has unforeseen long-term consequences. Instead of focussing on the short-term, maintain focus on the long-term. Use short-term fixes only as a way to "buy time."

  9. Growth and underinvestment. Growth approaches a limit which can be eliminated or pushed into the future with an aggressive investment. In these situations, the principle is to build capacity in advance of demand.

Now lets move on to the other disciplines of a learning organisation.

Personal Mastery

As Senge points out, organisations learn only through individuals who learn. And learning is not the acquisition of more information, but expanding the ability to produce the results we truly want in life.

In order for personal mastery to become a discipline - which means an activity we integrate into our lives - we need to follow a set of principles, including:

  1. Personal vision, which is the ability to focus on our ultimate intrinsic desires instead of only secondary goals.

  2. Commitment to the truth, which is a relentless willingness to see the world for the way it really is - which means seeing the systems at play and realising our own limitations in the face of them.

  3. Creative tension, which is what happens when you have a vision of where you want to go, and understand that you are not there yet. You will naturally try and resolve that tension.

Mental Models

We understand our reality through mental models. We use them because it's the only way we can make sense of the world, which is infinitely complex.

And while these are very helpful in getting on with our lives, they also introduce problems that we need to overcome. For instance, we'll quite often generalise from our observations - I have only seen white swans, therefore all swans must be white.

The first tool we can use is reflective practice, which essentially means that we reflect about our thinking, challenging our mental models to see if they are true or not in that particular circumstance.

The second tool we can use is the exploration of espoused theory versus theory-in-use. We often say we operate based on one mental model, but actually operate on another. For instance, I might say that I believe all people are trustworthy, but never lend friends money and jealously guard my possessions. The goal here is to identify any gaps in espoused theory, and then ask yourself whether or not you really value the espoused theory.

The third and final tool we can use is that there doesn't need to be agreement on mental models, nor should you mandate that one particular mental model be used in any particular situation. Many models can exist at once, even if they contradict one another. The real goal is that they be considered and tested against situations that come up, which is where the real learning happens.

Shared Vision

Shared visions matter in a learning organisation because they create a common identity. You can't have a learning organisation if there is no common goal to push for.

These visions emerge from the personal visions of the people in your organisation. If the people in your organisation don't have their own personal vision, all they can do is "sign up" for yours, which will only generates compliance, not commitment.

As Senge points out, building a shared vision must be seen as a central element of the daily work of leaders. It's ongoing and never ending. They take time to emerge, and most often emerge from conversations about personal visions.

As one successful CEO expressed:

"My job, fundamentally, is listening to what the organisation is trying to say, and then making sure that it is forcefully articulated."

Ultimately, you want the people in your organisation to choose to follow the vision or not. You could force them to go along with it in the short run, but there's nothing you can do to produce commitment to it if they don't believe in it.

Team Learning

Finally, we come to the last discipline of the learning organisation, which is team learning.

As Senge points out, team learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire.

Within organisations, there are 3 critical dimensions to make this happen.

First, there is a need to think insightfully about complex issues. In order to do that, teams must tap the potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one mind. We'll talk more about how to do that in a minute.

Second, there is the need for innovative, coordinated action. In organisations that get this right, each team member remains conscious of other team members and can be counted on to act in ways that complement each other's actions.

Third, a learning team continually fosters other learning teams within the organisation. It's not enough for the senior management to work this way, everybody needs to work this way.

There is one discipline of team learning that helps more than any other in making sure those 3 dimensions are taken care of, and it's the distinction between dialogue and discussion.

A dialogue is a free and creative exploration of complex and subtle issues, a deep "listening" to one another and suspending of one's own views.

A discussion is where 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.

While most organisations are good at having discussions, they are not good at holding a dialogue.

As Senge points out, there are 3 conditions necessary to have a dialogue:

  1. All participants must "suspend" their assumptions, literally to hold them "as if suspended before us";
  2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues;
  3. There must be a "facilitator" who "holds the context" of the dialogue.

If you can have ongoing dialogues with your team about what is true, and what to do about it, you'll quickly become a learning organisation.


The world is a lot more complex than we make it out to be. Understanding it on a much deeper level, and then coordinating the resources of your organisation towards achieving what you set out to achieve in light of the truth will set you on a course to success.

It will not be easy. But then again, if it was easy...