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Brief synopsis of The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge

This page is, and always will be, under construction.......tjc

Deep down, we are all learners.

We tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and we wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.

Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools developed over 50 years to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.

The 5 disciplines:

Personal Mastery – proficiency at continually clarifying and deepening our persona vision, focusing our energies, developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.

Our 30s – few on a fast track, others put in their time, offering little energy and almost none of their spirit.

Mental Models – deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, pictures, images, that influence how we see the world and how we take action.

Many new insights, ideas, good changes in organizational practice, never get put into practice because they conflict with powerful, tacit mental models.

Royal Dutch/Shell did well during the dramatic changes and un-predictability of the world oil business in the 1970s and 1980s, by learning how to surface and challenge manager’s mental models.

Conversations full of learning that balance inquiry and advocacy.

Building Shared Vision – Translating individual visions into shared vision.

Team Learning – Starts with dialogue. Many ‘primitive’ cultures still practice it, but it is lost to ‘modern’ culture.

Recognize patterns of interaction that undermine learning.

Discipline - a developmental path for acquiring certain skills or competencies.

To practice discipline is to be a lifelong learner.

Management disciplines like accounting have existed for a long time, but it operates on things.

The five disciplines focus on building organizations, enhancing their capabilities for innovation and creativity, crafting strategy, designing policy and structure through assimilating new disciplines.

Great organizations are not built by emulating others.

Systems Thinking is the fifth discipline because it is the discipline that integrates the disciplines.

Vision without a full understanding and tools to master the forces involved is just painting a pretty picture; belief in a better future will not take root.

A true learning organization experiences a shift of mind - from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something “out there” to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience.



Inability to grasp and manage the increasingly complex systems of our world.

- Urban Decay
- ecological threat
- growing conflict

Causes lay in the very policies and actions designed to alleviate them

Focused on symptoms, not underlying causes, producing short-term benefit but long-term malaise, requiring more interventions.

We need not just new theories, but new practitioners as well.

Learning Disabilities

Our systems and our early learning work to create learning disabilities.

1. I am my position.

People see their responsibilities (and influence) as limited by the boundaries of their position.

2. The enemy is out there.

A by-product of “I am my position” and the non-systemic ways of looking at the world that it fosters.

"Out there" and "in here" are usually part of a single system.

3. The illusion of taking charge.

Being proactive is in vogue.

Solve problems before they grow into crises.

Is taking aggressive action against an external (or internal) enemy really synonymous with being proactive ?

Often, it is merely reactiveness in disguise.

True proactiveness is seeing how we contribute to our own problems.

4. Fixation on events.

We’re conditioned to look at life as a series of events, each with its own cause.

This leads to "event" explanations, distracting us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind the events and keep us from understanding those patterns.

The irony is that today, the primary threats to our survival, both of our organizations and of our societies, come not from sudden events but from slow, gradual processes.

The arms race, environmental decay, erosion of our public educational system, increasingly obsolete physical capital, and decline in design or product quality (at least relative competitor’s quality) are all slow, gradual processes.

5. Parable of the boiled frog.

Detroits long slide

1962 Japanese had less than 4% of the market

1974 Japanese had just under 15%

Early 80s 21.3% Big 3 -only then- started to self-examine

1989 almost 30%

Nov 2001 ~17.5%


Learning to see the 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.

We learn best from experience, after we see the consequences of our actions.

But what happens when we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions ?

Cycles are hard to see, and thus learn from, if they last longer than a year or two.

Companies often try to compensate by breaking themselves up into components.

Functional divisions grow into fiefdoms; growing into “stovepipes” that cut off contact between functions.

The result: analysis of the most important problems in a company, the complex issues that cross functional boundaries, becomes a perilous or non-existent exercise.

7. The myth of the Management Team.

All too often, teams in business tend to spend their time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally, and pretending that everyone is behind the teams collective strategy – maintaining the appearance of a cohesive team.

Chris Argyris wrote that "most management teams break down under pressure." Most managers find collective inquiry inherently threatening. School trains us to never admit that we do not know the answer, and most corporations reinforce that lesson by rewarding the people who excel in advocating their views, not inquiring into complex issues.

"Skilled Incompetence"

March of Folly – Barbara Tuchman

Folly is a child of power. "The power to command frequently causes failure to think."(p.32).

From the Trojans through Vietnam, history is full of devastating larger-scale policies, "pursued contrary to ultimate self-interest". Leaders could not see the consequences of their own policies.

My question is; did they just do it to avoid the pain and embarrassment of being wrong or to avoid saying 'I don’t know'?

After this, the book goes into a description of the BEER GAME, a simulation of business practice developed as a teaching tool at MIT by Prof. John Sterman.

Here are some places on the web you can go to see more about the game:


MA-System online BeerGame

Play BeerGame at MIT

John Sterman's Beer Game page



The game basically involves players each playing a role of beer retailer, distributor, and brewery operator, and given fluctuations in demand for the brand of beer they handle, the supply chain dynamics are simulated and evaluated, as well as the actions of they players in the chain.

Communication is usually somewhat limited (as in the real world), in that orders are passed from retailer to distributor, and then to brewer, but the only feedback is whether orders show up filled or not.

The game illustrates players assumptions about what occurs and their resulting reactions to events.

The best description of the results of the BeerGame is:
...the players assume that if orders in the game rose and collapsed, this must have been due to a surge and collapse in consumer orders. Such assumptions of an “external cause” are characteristic of nonsystemic thinking.

Success is possible in the game. But it requires a shift of view for most players.
It means getting to the heart of fundamental mismatches between common ways of thinking about the game—what we will later call our "mental model" of it—and the actual reality of how the game works. Most players see their job as "managing their position” in isolation from the rest of the system. What is required is to see how their position interacts with the larger system.


When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.

The systems perspective tells us that we must look beyond individual mistakes or bad luck to understand important problems. We must look beyond personalities and events. We must look into the underlying structures which shape individual actions and create the conditions where types of events become likely.
As Donella Meadows expresses it:

A truly profound and different insight is the way you begin to see that the system causes its own behavior.
(“Whole Earth Models and Systems, Co-Evolution Quarterly, Summer 1982, 98-108).

By "structure", we do not mean the reporting structure or the organizational chart. Rather, "systemic structure" is concerned with the key inter-relationships that influence behavior over time. These are not interrelationships between people, but among key variables, such as population, natural resources, and the technical and managerial know-how in a high-tech company.

But it is very important to understand that when we use the term "systemic structure" we do not just mean structure outside the individual. The nature of structure in human systems is subtle because we are part of the structure. This means that we often have the power to alter structures within which we are operating.

However, more often than not, we do not perceive that power. In fact, we usually don’t see the structures at play much at all. Rather, we just find ourselves feeling compelled to act in certain ways.

The situation we find ourselves in can cause us to act in ways we never would contemplate normally. Two research studies in the 1960s and 1970s show this to be true:

In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram performed an experiment at Yale in which two actors were placed in roles of 'experimenter', and 'learner' both aware of the experiment, with a third person who knew nothing of the arrangement in the role of 'teacher'.
For incorrect answers to word-pair matching, the 'teacher' was told to administer what they thought was a shock to the learner.
The shocks were fake; but the teacher was prodded by the experimenter to continue.
Most subjects in the role of teacher would continue with the shocks when they were told they would not be held responsible.

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo performed an experiment at Stanford in which college students were placed in roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison set up in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford.
Mild resistance escalated into increasing rebelliousness and abusiveness, until the ‘guards’ began to physically abuse the ‘prisoners’, and the situation was declared dangerously out of control, and the experiment prematurely ended after six days, when students began to suffer from depression, uncontrollable crying, and psychosomatic illnesses (see Psychology Today, Nov 1986 and the New York Times Magazine, April 8, 1973).

This can also apply to governments as well as individuals.

The U.S.S.R's involvement in Afghanistan began simply, with aid to the government in the face of internal conflict. Their involvement escalated, until they felt they had no choice except to intervene militarily.

It also brought to mind similar stories of American officials, ten or fifteen years earlier, trying to explain how the United States became entangled in Vietnam.


All of the learning disabilities described in Chapter 2 operate in the beer game:

- Because they “become their position,” people do not see how their actions affect the other positions.

- Consequently, when problems arise, they quickly blame each other--”the enemy” becomes the players at the other positions, or even the customers.

- When they get “proactive” and place more orders, they make matters worse.

- Because their overordering builds up gradually, they don’t realize the direness of their situation until it’s too late.

- By and large, they don’t learn from their experience because the most important consequences of their actions occur elsewhere in the system, eventually coming back to create the very problems they blame on others.

- The “teams” running the different positions (usually there are two or three individuals at each position) become consumed with blaming the other players for their problems, precluding any opportunity to learn from each others’ experience.

The deepest insights in the beer game come from seeing how these learning disabilities are related to alternative ways of thinking in complex situations. For most, the overall experience of playing the game is deeply dissatisfying because it is purely reactive. Yet, most eventually realize that the source of the reactiveness lies in their own focus on week-by-week events. Most of the players in the game get overwhelmed by the shortages of inventory, surges in incoming orders, disappointing arrivals of new beer. When asked to explain their decisions, they give classic "event explanations"
("I ordered forty at Week 11 because my retailers ordered thirty-six and wiped out my inventory.")

So long as they persist in focusing on events, they are doomed to reactiveness.

to be continued.........

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