The 5th Discipline by Peter Senge: Learning Organization and System Thinking

The Fifth Discipline is the book from Peter Senge about System Thinking that describes the five Disciplines to build a Learning Organization. The five Disciplines are: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, a Shared Vision, Team Learning and at last the fifth Discipline binding all the others, System Thinking. Clearly, Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline is a reference about Learning Organization and System Thinking.

The 11 laws of System Thinking, the 5th discipline of Learning Organization

As an introduction, here are the 11 laws of the 5th discipline explaining the System Thinking:

1) Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”
2) The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
3) Behavior grows better before it grows worse. Indeed a typical solution feels wonderful, when it first cures the symptoms. But as the root cause is not addressed, then the situation gets worse.
4) The easy way out usually leads back in. In other words, applying familiar solutions to problems because we know them well and we are comfortable with them is not the best way to truly solve problems.
5) The cure can be worse than the disease. To put it differently, the long-term, most insidious consequence of applying non systemic solutions is an increased need for more and more of the palliative solution on the symptoms.
6) Faster is slower: a new type of action rooted in a new way of thinking is required.
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. Surely, this is the principle of the lever: small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. But high-leverage changes are usually highly non-obvious to most participants in the system and require System Thinking.
9) Many apparent dilemmas, such as central versus local control, and happy committed employees versus competitive labor costs, and rewarding individual achievement versus having everyone feel valued, are by-products of static thinking.
10) The key principle, called 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.
11) System thinking shows us that there is no separate “other”; that you and the someone else are part of a single system.
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (some parts have been adapted to fit the summary format)

System Thinking, the 5th Discipline of Learning Organization

System view for System Thinking

The first thing is to adopt a system view on the scope you want to improve. And this may require to extend the scope that you currently consider. Indeed, you may have to consider other elements outside the original scope. There are two principles in the system view:

  • Look at interrelationships rather than components of the system.
  • Watch for patterns of change rather than have a static view of the system.

Detail complexity vs dynamic complexity

In detail complexity, the challenge is just that there are many variables. In dynamic complexity of systems, the challenge is different:

  • The same action has different effects:
    • in the short term and the long term.
    • locally and in another part of the system.
  • Obvious actions produce non-obvious consequences.

This is why dynamic complexity requires system view and System Thinking.

System feedback and delay in System Thinking

The two first concepts to understand System Thinking are feedback either that reinforces or counteracts (balance each other) and delay.

System Feedback

Balancing loops are more difficult to identify than reinforcing loops as it seems that actions have no effect and that nothing happens.

Let’s illustrate with the example of the resistance to change that is one characteristic of systems:

  • When change threats teams’ norms and their ways of working, resistance to change happens.
  • Rather than pushing harder to overcome resistance to change, you should identify the sources of the resistance and address them.

System delay

Surely, delay in a system makes actions generate instability and oscillation, instead of producing smoothly and quickly the expected effects to progress to the objective. Actually, because of system delay, forceful actions often create exactly the opposite effect of the intent. Surely, one on the best way to improve a system is to reduce the system delays.

The system view and the System Thinking enable us to see the structures that the components of the system operate according to. As a result we can work with them and adapt them wisely.

System Thinking: example of the pattern Limits to growth

We will take the example of the “limits to growth” to illustrate System Thinking and how to visually display a system and related interactions between components.

Context of system pattern “limits to growth”

The System Thinking Pattern “Limits to growth” is an illustration on how to visually display a system. In this example, there are 2 loops. The first one with an action that sets the system in motion to provide the desired result. This is the reinforcing, amplifying loop. The second one happens at the same time: while the action creates a positive spiral in the first loop, it also generates side effects displayed as a second loop with negative then slowing down effects on the success.
  • An action sets the system in motion to provide the desired result. This is the reinforcing, amplifying loop.
  • At the same time this action creates a positive spiral, it generates side effects displayed as a second loop with negative then slowing down effects on the success.

Management principles for system pattern “Limits to growth”

Don’t push growth; remove the factors limiting growth.
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

Example of “Limits to growth” pattern

Team working harder and harder to generate more outputs. Then they reach a level of stress and tiredness and become unproductive, first with marginal output decreasing then with the output itself decreasing with errors and drop of quality. In short, the limit gradually becomes more powerful, up to the point that it cancels the positive trend.

The beer game, demonstration of System Thinking

Overview of the beer game for System Thinking

MIT’s Sloan School of Management created the beer game in the 1960s to simulate a simple production/distribution system of beer. Really, this serious game makes it possible for the players to live and understand a system from the inside with interrelations between actors and the impact of delay.

In a nutshell, the supply chain consists of 4 steps delivered by 4 different actors who are the components of the system:

  • First, the factory produces the beer to fulfil the distributor’s orders.
  • Second, the distributor fulfils the wholesaler’s orders.
  • Third, the wholesaler fulfils the retailer’s orders.
  • At last, the retailer delivers the product to the end consumer.

Then we have the delay as there are between 2 to 4 weeks of delay for each actor to proceed its step. So you can imagine with a varying demand from the customer the serial of shortages and surpluses in the system!

The learning from this game: how a system influences behavior

  • As a matter of fact, different people placed in the same system tend to produce qualitatively the same results. In other words, this is not people or external forces that cause crises but the system itself because of its own structure.
  • Furthermore, the underlying structure of human system, to put it differently, the interrelationships that generate behaviors, are not obvious to understand. Indeed, it is the combination of our perceptions, goals, rules, and norms that generate actions.
  • At last, to solve system problem, we have to come with a System Thinking, so we do not just focus on our decisions, but have a broader look on how these decisions impact the other players in the system.

The approach to manage system in System Thinking

  • The first step is to go beyond unit events and identify patterns of behavior to understand the longer-term trends and related consequences.
  • The second step is to explain the causes of those patterns of behavior. To put differently, to explain how the structure of the system, the interrelationships between the actors generate those recurrent behaviors.
  • The last step is to review how to change the structure of the system to generate different patterns of behavior.

Personal Mastery, the first Discipline of Learning Organization

Personal Mastery is about individual learning. Surely, individual learning does not guarantee learning at the level of the organization. Nevertheless, without individual learning, you will have no organizational learning. The mindset to enable individual learning is to see your life as an opportunity for creativity as opposed to reactive mindset.

Individual Purpose and Vision

The first step is that individuals have a purpose and a vision.

A purpose for Peter Senge is the reason why one is alive. In other word, it is a direction, a general heading. Purpose is here something abstract.

Advancing man’s capability to explore the heavens.
Example of purpose from The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

On the contrary, the vision is concrete. Indeed, it is a specific destination: a picture of the desired future.

A man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Example of vision from The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

Creative tension

Once a person has defined his or her purpose and vision, the next step is to generate a “creative tension” that is the gap between the vision, what we want and, the current reality, where we stand. So this gap is what Peter Senge calls the “creative tension”.

The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

There are two ways to fill the gap from this “creative tension”:

  • Firstly, pull the vision toward reality. This option is achieved by revising our ambition to something more realistic or to narrow it to the essential we need.
  • Secondly, pull reality toward the vision. Here the lever is learning.

Individual learning aka Commitment to Truth

Peter Senge uses the term Commitment to Truth to refer to the individual will to improve by learning. Actually here, learning is focused on what we need. In other words, this learning is not just about acquiring more knowledge, but expanding our capacity to deliver the results we want.

Individual Learning consists of:

  • Firstly, continually broaden our awareness.
  • Secondly, relentlessly challenge our theories of why things are the way they are, in other words, challenge our mental models that is one of the Disciplines.
  • Thirdly, as developed above in the System Thinking that is a key tool for learning: identify patterns therefore the structure of the system we belong to. Then, adjust the structure of the system to free up people from behaviors having negative impacts.
  • At last, integrate intuition in addition to reason as a lever to learn.
The synergy of reason and intuition that characterizes virtually all great thinkers. Einstein said, “I never discovered anything with my rational mind.”
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

Point of view on failure

For Peter Senge, failure is an illustration of the gap between where we are and where we want to go. In addition, it is an opportunity to learn. Indeed, either our understanding of the reality is incorrect or our approach to manage it is not the good one. The author even goes further saying that people who are always at their best are actually people not taking risks.

We cannot help making the comparison between this view about failure and the mindset leveraging the power of learning. Carole Dweck names it the Growth Mindset in here book Mindset, Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. Surely, for Carole Dweck, failure is in the Growth Mindset the way to learn. On the contrary, in the Fixed Mindset, failure is the limit of one’s ability. In this case, people avoid risk taking and stay in their comfort zone.

Benefits of individual learning

Here we find back the same state of motivation when people enjoy Daniel Pink’s motivation enablers: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

  • First, Purpose is the Peter Senge’s Purpose and Vision.
  • Second, Autonomy is this mindset to see our live as an opportunity for creativity.
  • At last, mastery is closely connected to learning to develop the skills we need.

As a result, the benefits of motivation on people are that they:

  • Feel better in their life.
  • Are more committed.
  • Take more initiative.
  • Learn faster.

Foster Personal Mastery

The management can create a work environment that enables this Personal Mastery. Really, it is first an environment where Personal Safety is the norm:

  • Inquiry and searching the truth are the rule.
  • Challenging the status quo is expected.

In addition, it comes with empowerment. Management should enable Personal Safety with Respect. But they should also grant Permission, empower, so that people feel safe to build a vision and practice Personal Mastery daily. In addition to my posts about Personal Safety, this idea of empowerment, the idea of giving control through clarity, the intent, and mastery, is covered in my post about the book Turn the ship around.

Mental model, the second Discipline of Learning Organization

Mental Models are models that enable us to make sense of the reality thanks to a simplification and a focus on what we consider as being important and making the difference. Not only our mental models determine how we make sense of the world but, they also drive how we take actions as they affect what we see.

Actually, mental models are so powerful that they may make impossible taking into account new information because they conflict with them. In a way, we are limited by our mental models to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Clearly, we are entering here the world of coaching.

Our theories determine what we measure.
Albert Einstein

Approach to manage Mental Models

There are 3 ways to enable an organization to manage Mental Models:

  • Tools that support personal awareness and reflective skills.
  • Rituals that set a regular practice with Mental Models.
  • A culture that fosters inquiry and questioning our thinking.

Tools to manage Mental Models

The strategy of these tools is to identify the gap between what Peter Senge calls espoused theories, illustrated by what we say, and what he calls theories-in-use, illustrated by what we do.

Leaps of abstraction

Leaps of abstraction happen when we move from direct observations, facts, to generalization without testing. The approach here is to identify when we directly jump from observation to generalization. Surely, each jump highlights a piece of mental model. Leaps of abstraction prevent learning because they act as axioms: so obvious that they do not need to be demonstrated. But what if they are incorrect?

Gap between thinking and saying

Here the approach is to choose a situation where you are interacting with one or several other people and that you consider that is not working. On the left-hand side, you write what you think but that you do not say at each step of the interaction. Surely, this approach makes it possible to identify how our mental models transform our perception and understanding of a situation to avoid dealing with how we feel and think, so to maintain the status quo.

Balance between inquiry and advocacy

In advocacy, you debate and influence others to push your ideas and your vision of what needs to be done. As a point of fact, many companies measure the competence of managers based on their advocacy skill and their ability to solve problems, to figure out what needs to be done and then put into action people to get things done. But the more you raise in hierarchy the further you get from the field, so you need to switch to a new stance because the knowledge is coming from the others. It is all the more needed that you empower people for motivation and efficiency, with decision taken where information is.

The second stance to learn from the others is inquiry. But you may have to use some tricks to switch a work group from advocacy to inquiry. For instance, some questions may help:

  • What leads them to that point of view.
  • Or, have them provide examples, so you can understand their way of seeing the topic.

In addition, you may need additional tips if you reach a deadend:

  • What data or logic could change their point of view.
  • Propose them to conduct a common experiment or another form of inquiry to get additional information.

So both stances are valuable and complementary. And the matter is to find the right balance and try to stick to the facts.

When advocating your view:

  • Make your thinking explicit from the data to your conclusions.
  • Invite others to explore your view for potential gaps or things you may have missed.
  • Ask for others to provide different views and related data and thinking.

When inquiring into others’ views:

  • Ask genuinely interested questions or remain silent if you are not interested.
  • Share your thinking from data to conclusions.

Personal safety as enabler for constructive disagreement

Again, you need Personal Safety for you and the others to make disagreement possible and constructive. Truly you want disagreement coming from diversity to be a source of wealth not of destructive conflicts that may last and worsen.

And disagreement may come from different Mental Models so:

  • Convergence is not systematic as Mental Models can co-exist.
  • But all Mental Models should be considered and tested against the situations.
  • At last, if the group embraces diversity and all have been heard then people accept that a different view be implemented.

Shared vision, the third Discipline of Learning Organization

A shared vision is the picture of the common desired future of people from the same organization. In other words, it is the image of the answer of the question: what do we want to create?

Surely, a shared vision creates a commonality between the members of an organization and provides consistency of actions. In addition, when the vision emerges from the individual visions, it leverages on the energy coming from these individual visions and fosters commitment.

On the contrary, a vision is not:

  • A one-shot vision built by management then cascaded down to all levels of the hierarchy.
  • A solution to a problem.

Governing ideas: difference between Vision, Purpose and Values

Vision, Purpose and Values are different concepts but what are they?

  • Vision = what. As we have seen above, Vision is the picture of the future that members of an organization want to create. It is the what.
  • Purpose = why. The purpose is the mission of the organization, the reason why it exists. Indeed, great organizations have a larger purpose that goes beyond delivering the needs of customers, employees and shareholders. To put it differently, they look at contributing to the world in a unique way by adding a distinctive value.
  • Core values = how. Core values describe how the organization wants to act on a day-to-day basis to reach its vision. To put it as a question: how do we want to act, consistently with our mission, toward our vision? Examples of values are: integrity, honesty, openness, merit or loyalty…

Vision and enrollment

Ideally, a vision aligns members of the related organization and pulls them to the same goal. But this depends on the level of adhesion. Indeed, Peter Senge describes the levels of adhesion and compliance to a vision:

The levels of adhesion

– Commitment: Wants it. Will make it happen. Creates whatever “laws” (structures) are needed.
– Enrollment: Wants it. Will do whatever can be done within the “spirit of the law.”
– Genuine compliance: Sees the benefits of the vision. Does every thing expected and more.
– Follows the “letter of the law.” “Good soldier.”
– Formal compliance: On the whole, sees the benefits of the vision. Does what’s expected and no more. “Pretty good soldier.”
– Grudging compliance: Does not see the benefits of the vision. But, also, does not want to lose job. Does enough of what’s expected because he has to, but also lets it be known that he is not really on board.
– Noncompliance: Does not see benefits of vision and will not do what’s expected. “I won’t do it; or can’t make me.”
– Apathy: Neither for nor against vision. No interest. No energy . “Is it five o’clock yet?”
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

So the level of adhesion can go from commitment to total apathy. In fact, in most organizations, very few people are enrolled and even fewer are truly committed. The large majority are at the level of compliance and just follow the vision. Yet, it can be worse than that, with the majority being passively disengaged, the apathy level, or even actively disengaged, the non compliance-level.

Get enrollment

So the role of management is to generate the conditions for enrollment. Indeed, enrollment and commitment require freedom of choice. Like motivation that is related, you cannot demand them, you can only create the conditions for enrollment and commitment to happen.

Enrollment is a natural process that springs from your genuine enthusiasm for a vision and your willingness to let others come to their own choice.
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

Team Learning, the fourth Discipline of Learning Organization

Team Learning is the capacity for a team to think and learn together. Really, the key practice to do so is what Peter Senge calls dialogue that is the capacity to suspend judgement for a total collaboration.

Balance between dialogue and discussion

As we have at individual level the balance between advocacy and inquiry, we have at team level the need for a balance between dialogue and discussion. Both approaches are relevant and complementary but it depends on the context.


The traditional team interaction is discussion.

In discussion, team members present and defend different points of view. Surely, the objective is to identify the best thinking to take the best decision. In other words, discussion is about debating and may look, as Peter Senge puts it, as a ping-pong game where we hit the ball back and forth with other team members. So discussion is useful to reduce options and converge but only after the team had the opportunity to diverge, leverage its diversity and multiply potential options. This is what happen with dialog.


In dialogue, team members actively listen to each others as they suspend their judgement and they listen to understand not just to answer back. As a result, the team is free to explore complex and subtle issues and challenges and be fully creative.

As team members suspend judgment and fully collaborate, they share their assumptions freely. So, the team can enjoy the diversity of its members with different views presented to discover a new view. To put it differently, dialogue enables the team to access a pool of points of view, therefore options, that a single person cannot access. Collective intelligence is the multiplication, not the addition, of the individual intelligences.

Conflicts and defensive routines

Defensive routines are unconscious mechanisms that individuals use to protect themselves from threat or embarrassment. Actually, the lower the Psychological Safety, the more active these mechanisms are. But these defensive routines prevent the team from learning. In addition, it prevents each individual from learning on their personal thinking and grow.

So here again, we have another illustration of the need for Psychological Safety, so people feel safe to share understanding, even if incomplete or potentially faulty. Really, if there is a risk for people to be judged as weak or even incompetent, they will remain silent. Silence always wins!

The second point with Psychological Safety is that it enables a sound relation with conflict. Indeed, conflict is bound to happen when people have different points of view. Still, team members should be comfortable with conflicting point of views, so they do not remain in consensus. In addition, Psychological Safety makes it possible for these conflicts to remain at point of view level, not people level. Surely this is not because ideas are conflicting that people should.

The 3 conditions for dialogue

  • The first condition is for the team members to suspend their judgement. This does not mean judgement disappears. In fact, it means that there are still there, but we are consciously aware of them, so we can observe and question them. As Peter Senge puts it, we hold them “as if suspended before us”.
  • The second condition is that team members must see each others as colleagues, part of the same team, and working together toward the same objective. Surely, it is a collective exploration for deeper insight and clarity of a common issue or challenge that all team members share responsibility for. As a result, the collective comforting feeling preserves the playful mindset that dialogue requires.
  • At last, there should be a facilitator to ensure the team remains in the dialogue mindset and does not drift to discussion.

As a consequence, the team will enjoy the power of dialogue with a frictionless flow of meaning. To illustrate, Peter Senge uses the image of electricity in the context of superconductor:

Just as resistance in an electrical circuit causes the flow of current to generate heat (wasted energy ), so does the normal functioning of a group dissipate energy. In dialogue there is “cool energy, like a superconductor”. “Hot topics,” subjects that would otherwise become sources of emotional discord and fractiousness become discussable.
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

2 types of consensus

Peter Senge also describes the two different kinds of consensus that exist to highlight the value of broadening views with dialogue:

  • The “focusing down” type of consensus aims at finding the common denominator in multiple individual points of view.
  • The “opening up” type of consensus searches for a bigger picture larger than any individual points of view, as each of them is a relevant way to look at reality.

Learning requires practice fields

As Peter Senge says it “No practice, no learning.” Truly, no sport team would expect to win if the players just practice in games. And it is the same for a theater troupe or an orchestra that would never consider performing without rehearsing. On the contrary, there is almost no practice or rehearsal in our work environments. This is why Peter Senge considers that as the main factor preventing teams to learn effectively.

As a result, Peter Senge suggests to actively use Virtual World to practice:

  • The purpose of a virtual world is to provide to teams the freedom to experiment.
  • Teams can slow down or speed up the pace of action depending on their level of mastery of the related actions.
  • An illustration of virtual world proposed by Peter Senge are: brainstorming and prototyping where teams can generate ideas then test them with storyboards or mock-ups within the team and with customers.

This last idea of the Discipline “Team Learning“, is at the core of Agile and Design approaches like Design Thinking and Design Sprint.

What’s next? Learn more about Emotional Intelligence, Personal Safety, Change Management and Coaching

Do you want to learn more about the 5th Discipline, Learning Organization and System Thinking? Here are some valuable references

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