The Fifth Discipline

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Book: The Fifth Discipline
Author Peter Senge
The Fifth Discipline.jpg
Publisher Random House
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ISBN 978-0385260954
Keywords systems thinking, organisation, business

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"Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organisations. because of them, few corporations live even half as long as a person - most die before they reach the age of forty."

The organisations that excel will be those that discover how to tap their people's commitment and capacity to learn at every level in the company."

What will distinguish these companies from the traditional "controlling" organisations will be mastery of certain basic disciplines. Leading management thinker Peter Senge identifies five new "competent technologies" which provide the vital dimensions in building organisations that can truly learn:

  • Systems thinking
  • Personal mastery
  • Mental models
  • Building shared vision
  • Team learning

The Fifth Discipline is a remarkable book that draws on science, spiritual values, psychology, the cutting edge of management thought and the author's work with leading companies which employ Fifth Discipline methods.

The author PETER M. SENGE is Director of the Systems Thinking and Organisational Learning Program at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Systems Thinking

11 laws of systems thinking
  • Today's problems come from yesterday's solutions.
  • The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  • Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
  • The easy way out usually leads back in.
  • The cure can be worse than the disease.
  • Faster is slower.
  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
  • Small changes can produce big results--but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
  • You can have your cake and eat it too--but not all at once.
  • Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
  • There is no blame.

Personal Mastery

Mental Models

Building Shared Vision

"In effect, the visioning process is a special type of enquiry process. It is an enquiry into the future we truly seek to create." (Senge, 1994, p. 228)

Genuine shared vision gives members of a group a sense of being part of something larger and can inspire them to extraordinary personal growth and creativity in the pursuit of this vision. Everyone is familiar with how Kennedy's vision to have a man on the moon within a decade inspired a nation to do something extraordinary. Senge further presents us with the notion of governing ideas that a vision is embedded within:


Anchoring Vision in a set of Governing Ideas

Building shared vision is actually only one piece of a larger activity: developing the "governing ideas" for the enterprise, its vision, purpose or mission, and core values. A vision not consistent with values people live by day-to-day will not only fail to inspire genuine enthusiasm, it will often foster outright cynicism. These governing ideas answer three critical questions: "What?" "Why?" and "How?"

  • Vision is the "What?" - the picture of the future we seek to create.
  • Purpose (or "mission") is the "Why?" the organisation's answer to the question, "Why do we exist?" Great organisations have a larger sense of purpose that transcends providing for the needs of shareholders and employees. They seek to contribute to the world in some unique way, to add a distinctive source of value.
  • Core values answer the question "How do we want to act, consistent with our mission, along the path to achieving our vision?" A company's values might include integrity, openness, honesty, freedom, equal opportunity, leanness, merit, or loyalty. They describe how the company wants life to be on a day-to-day basis, while pursuing the vision.

Taken as a unit, all three governing ideas answer the question, "What do we believe in?". When Matsushita employees recite the company creed: "To recognise our responsibility as industrialists, to foster progress, to promote the general welfare of society, and to devote ourselves to the further development of world culture, they're describing the company purpose. When they sing the company song, about "sending our goods to the people of the world, endlessly and continuously, like water gushing from a fountain," they're proclaiming the corporate vision. And when they go to in-house training programs that cover such topics as "fairness," "harmony and cooperation," "struggle for betterment," "courtesy and humility," and "gratitude," the employees are learning the company's deliberately constructed values (Matsushita, in fact, calls them its "spiritual values") (Quoted from Senge, 1994, p 223)


Shared vision rests on the foundation of the personal mastery discipline, which results in members developing their personal vision. Genuine shared vision can arise when people can discuss and compare their own personal visions to see what the overlap, the common ground is. From this a shared vision can be distilled, which serves as a unifying and inspiring force in an organisation.

Senge (p. 226) states that the principle of creative tension applies in the realm of organisational shared vision just as much as it applies to the area of personal mastery, that is, an organisation needs to foster a commitment to seeing current reality clearly, which, when contrasted with the shared vision, gives rise to creative tension within the organisation.

When it comes to the link between shared vision and systems thinking, the first thing to note is that building shared vision is a continuous process and requires leaders who can foster this process and are able to allow a diversity of views to emerge without letting conflicting visions polarise the organisation. Key is their ability to harmonise diversity and continually redefine the common ground, thus clarifying the shared vision further. Senge (p. 228) suggests we apply the reflection and enquiry skills discussed under the mental models section to deal with this challenge.

There is also a risk to shared vision that can arise from the discouragement members experience when they see the gap between the shared vision and current reality in the organisation. This problem can arise when the members lack an ability to hold creative tension, which can be addressed by encouraging personal mastery within the organisation. Apart from this, the stress and time demands of what is going on in the organisation may take away time from building shared vision, which will let the focus on the vision decline. The solution lies in making time for the vision and spending less time fighting crises. This relates to Covey's four quadrant model, whereby time spent building shared vision falls into those important but non-urgent quadrant II activities one should spend the most time doing, however the important and non-important, urgent quadrant III and IV activities tend to distract from these.

Senge concludes the shared vision section by emphasising the importance of the belief amongst stakeholders that they can change their reality and can take steps to help bring about the shared vision, in other words, whether they are systems thinkers. People who see themselves as victims reacting to change will soon become cynical about a shared vision. Systems thinkers keep learning more about how the existing behaviours and policies are creating current reality and can therefore see how they might be able to change them to create the positive future they desire.

Team Learning


  • Page 228 introduces the idea of an organisation's ability to "harmonise diversity" in shared vision, see collaboration
  • Page 240 introduces the dichotomy of dialogue/discussion
  • Page 285: A good paragraph on the meaning of freedom
  • Page 287: "Localness" is Peter Senge's term for what we call "bottom up"
  • Page 293: Organisation as Organism
  • Page 298: Resource (both tangibles and intangibles) as commons


  • Hierarchical/Learning organisation (top-down/bottom-up)
  • Reactive/Proactive
  • Reason/Intuition
  • Advocacy/Inquiry
  • Emotional/Creative tension
  • Discussion/Dialogue
  • Participitive/Reflective openness
  • Divergent/Convergent problems

See also



I first read this book in 2000 after it was recommended to me by a friend. I'd mentioned to him that I was interested in applying Taoist principles to organisational systems, and he recommended I read "The fifth discipline" as it was very relevant to that line of thought. He was right, it resonated deeply and has helped to form the foundations of my understanding of an organisational system. Now about eight years later I've read it again, this time from the context of defining almost everything in systems thinking terms. The second time round was also very illuminating, it showed some good confirmations of progress in the fundamentals and a fresh perspective on how we might get some of our less productive threads rolling again!