Book Summary – The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation (Part 2)



This is the “Fifth Discipline” or the cornerstone of the learning organization that underlies and unifies all 5 principles. Our education (and eventually management) systems have trained us to break down problems into small parts. This makes complex tasks manageable, but we no longer see connections and the big picture.

The Fifth Discipline_Systems Thinking

Systems influence behaviour. To understand a thunderstorm, we need to understand the entire eco-system, not just part of the pattern. When faced with a problem, we also need to understand the true systemic causes, not just “solutions” that are close by or visible to us. There are 3 progressive levels of thinking: Events (reactive) => Patterns of Behaviour (responsive) => Systematic Structure (generative).

The Fifth Discipline_a shift of mind_title

Using systems thinking as a thinking cornerstone brings a shift from seeing parts to wholes, from reacting to creating. It means organizing multiple variables and details into a coherent story, where problem sources are identified and can be properly remedied. It means concurrently seeing the trees and the forest, the detailed and broad patterns.

We tend to see reality in straight lines, when it is really made up of curves and circles. Language shapes perception. When we get fluent in the language of systems thinking, we start to see circles of causality:
• We see inter-relationships rather than linear cause-effect chains
• We see processes of change rather than static snapshots

The main shift is to understand what we are part of the feedback process, not outside of it.

The Fifth Discipline_System archetypes_title

To practice systems thinking, we must learn to see recurring structures or system archetypes. Variables (including our actions) can be organized in loops of cause-effect relationships, where they reinforce or balance one another through a “feedback” process. There are 3 key components that form system archetypes:

 Reinforcing (or amplifying) feedback: These are engines of growth that amplify small changes/ actions to form vicious or virtuous cycles e.g.The Fifth Discipline_Balancing feedback

 Balancing (or stabilizing) feedback: These are part of a self-correction process to maintain an implicit or explicit goal/ target. They are sources of both stability and resistance e.g.
Both explicit and implicit balancing processes are constantly at play. Most resistance comes from implicit goals/ assumptions (e.g. ambitions, fears).The Fifth Discipline_Reinforcing feedback

Delays: There may be systemic delays or “time lags” between actions and visible results (e.g. beer cannot be brewed instantaneously). A lack of awareness may trigger overly-aggressive actions that cause us to “overshoot” our mark.

The Fifth Discipline_generative learning_title

We cannot address issues that we don’t see. Once we see the full structures within which we operate, we can work with or change them, slowly freeing ourselves from previously-unseen forces.

There are only a relatively small number of systems archetypes that underlie most management problems. With practice, we can learn to quickly recognize these archetypes, and know the high and low points of leverage that we can use.

Appendix 2 in the book lays out a list of common system archetypes and the management principles for each situation. Here are 2 of the most common archetypes:

(i) Limits to Growth. Often, we see periods of growth then a slow down, halt or reversal, as the growth hits certain limits (e.g. lack of manpower/supporting processes). The solution is not to push growth, but to identify and remove the factors limiting growth.

(ii) Shifting the Burden. It is usually hard to identify the true underlying problem(s), or costly to address them. Hence, managers may prefer to “shift the burden” using symptomatic solutions. These may seem to alleviate the issues, but in reality only move the problems to other parts of the system. The underlying problems usually re-surface in a different or worse form.

Using the archetypes, identify strong leverage, where small but well-focused actions can bring significant and enduring improvements.


The Fifth Discipline_Personal MasteryLearning organizations can only exist through individuals who learn and exhibit high levels of personal mastery, i.e. they live life creatively (rather than reactively), and continually recreate themselves through improvement in competence, skills, spiritual growth etc. Their spirit for learning and growth form that of the organization’s. Pursuing personal mastery is a lifelong process…you never “finish” learning.

The Fifth Discipline_personal mastery elements_title
 Personal Vision: This is a specific picture of your desired future, including areas like health, freedom etc. It includes (but is more than) your life purpose, and has a deep meaning for you.

 Holding creative tension: “Creative tension” is the gap between your vision and reality. To resolve this tension, you can either work to bring your reality up towards the vision, or compromise and bring your vision down towards reality. Mastering creative tension means gaining clarity on your vision and your reality, using the gap to generate energy for change, and developing a capacity for perseverance and patience.

 Overcoming structural Conflict: Most of us have at least one of these beliefs that limit our ability to create what we really want:
– Powerlessness: That we are unable to create the things we want
– Unworthiness: That we do not deserve to get what we want
You can overcome such resistance with strong willpower, though such limiting beliefs can also be changed fundamentally with time.

 Commitment to the truth: The best way to start dealing with structural conflict is to be willing to see how we limit or deceive ourselves, to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are, and to broaden/ deepen our awareness of structures underlying current events.

 Using the subconscious: Deliberately develop rapport with your subconscious or automatic minds, by focusing on your desired results clearly, in a quiet state of mind.

The Fifth Discipline_fostering personal mastery_titleYou cannot force someone to embark on the path of personal growth. As a leader, you can encourage personal mastery by:
 Creating a conducive climate e.g. make it safe for people to create visions, inquire and commit to the truth, challenge status quo etc.
 Developing all 5 learning disciplines concurrently in the organization, so they can strengthen/ reinforce one another.
 Being a role model by committing to your own personal mastery


We simplify our world and carry it in our heads as images, assumptions and stories e.g. “People are lazy by nature”. Mental models shape how we act because they affect what we see. Two people with different mental models can experience the same event, but see different details and make different interpretations.

There are no right or wrong mental models – the problems arise when they become implicit and we are unaware that they are shaping our thinking and actions. What we are unaware of, we cannot examine, and hence cannot change or improve. The discipline starts with turning the mirror inward to discover our own mental models.


A vision is truly shared when each person in the organization has a similar picture, cares deeply about it (because it reflects their personal vision too), and is connected to others by this common aspiration.

Shared vision is crucial for the learning organization because it provides the energy and focus for learning, and links people’s work to a larger purpose embodied in the organization’s products and services. It creates alignment between people and organization, creates trust and courage to do what is needed for the vision, and fosters a naturally long-term view in people.


Alignment is a pre-requisite to individual empowerment. Empowering individuals when there is no or low alignment only brings chaos and wastes energy. Team learning aligns and develops the capacity of the team as a whole, building on individual talent and vision to achieve results that members can’t achieve on their own.

In organizations, team learning involves 3 key dimensions:
 Insightful thinking about complex issues, tapping the “potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one mind”
 Innovative and coordinated action, with operational trust in how members can depend on one another to complement their actions
 Learning across teams. Team members usually interact and work with other teams too, hence spreading the learning across teams

The Fifth Discipline_integration_title

Integrating the 5 Disciplines

Organizations are living systems; they are not static – they have huge capacities to learn, evolve and heal themselves, by how its people live and work day to day.

The 5 disciplines reinforce and support one another, integrated by Systems Thinking. As people practice the discipline of personal mastery, they experience gradual changes, e.g. integration of reason and intuition, greater connectedness to the world, greater compassion and commitment to the whole. The discipline of mental models help people to examine their own assumptions, become more open to and identify new ways of thinking. Shared vision helps people see how their actions contribute to changing and shaping their future. All 3 disciplines set the foundation for team learning, which helps team members to create results they desire, at a level beyond their individual capability. Systems thinking underlies all 4 other disciplines to help us see the big picture and our roles in it, restructure assumptions, and reveal causes and leverage in complex situations.

The Fifth Discipline_The Leaders New Work_title

Leaders in learning organizations are fundamentally designers, teachers and stewards.

Leaders as Designers:

A leader is often considered the captain or navigator of a ship. However, the most impactful and oft-neglected role of the leader is as the designer of the ship. Anyone from any position can be a leader. Appreciating the organization as a living system, a good leader designs the ship with:
• A strong foundation of governing ideas (vision, purpose and values) that connect, mobilize and focus its people.
• Iterative design and learning infrastructures that evolve over time, (e.g. policies, strategies, structures that translate the ideas into daily decisions)
• IT infrastructures that are designed by the teams responsible for learning implementation, not by technical designers focusing on the technology itself.

Leaders as Teachers:

As teachers, leaders help people achieve more accurate, insightful and empowering views of reality. To do so, they:
• See gaps in organizational capacity, through engaging personally in dialogues
• Balance short and long term solutions: They help people to apply systems thinking to solve complex problems, while recognizing that such solutions take time and resources. They tackle this dilemma by responding to short-term opportunities in ways that concurrently build longer-term capacity.
 Become learners first. They inspire their students through their commitment as practitioners, not as preachers or “advocates”.

Leaders as Stewards:

Stewardship is about the desire to serve those we lead, as well as serve a larger purpose. Leaders who demonstrate stewardship are:
• Committed without blind certainty: Someone who is certain about his purpose may be fanatical or close-minded, someone who is committed to his vision recognizes his uncertainties but chooses to stay committed to his path.
• Focus on the larger goal: Learning-oriented leaders do not make decisions to preserve their own power, ambition or status. They focus on the longer-term results, and depends on their clarity, commitment and openness rather than charisma to win over their followers


The book was first written in 1990. What seemed radical then is now increasingly accepted and practiced. This revised edition was written some 16 years later, with updates based on global changes and insights from practical application.

This summary only outlines the key ideas of the 423-page book. There are many other details included in the book, such as:
• 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline
• Details of “The Beer Game” (a laboratory experiment that shows the learning disabilities at work in real organizations and systems)
• Real-life case studies to illustrate the 5 disciplines at work
• Snippets and takeaways from Senge’s conversations with leaders and organizational learning practitioners.
• How the fifth discipline can be used to address many of the social and environmental problems that we face today, from climate changes to entrenched poverty cycles.

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