The Fifth Discipline (Book Summary)

The Fifth Discipline Summary
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Václav Havel quote from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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Former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, uttered these words in an address to a joint session of the United States Congress in 1994.

They could easily be applied to the nature of work, today.

The reason I bring up a rather obscure reference such as Havel in an article about the nature of work is that he went on to hint at a solution rooted in humanity that applies with just as much sparkling relevance to the transitional period we’re experiencing now.

“In searching for the most natural source for the creation of a new world order, we usually look to an area that is the traditional foundation of modern justice and a great achievement of the modern age: to a set of values that were first declared in this building. I am referring to respect for the unique human being and his or her liberties and inalienable rights, and the principle that all power derives from the people.

This tantalizing vision of the future brings me to the subject of this essay: The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge.

The book rocked my world, turning my perspective on learning and work upside down.

It reveals the path for us to navigate from the “crumbling and decaying” to the “power that derives from the people.”

It draws inspiration from a smorgasbord of sources: from George Orwell to Confucius, from ancient Greek to Christian tradition, from anthropology to systems thinking, from science to philosophy, and from a rich depth of experience at companies like Kyocera, Shell, Harley-Davidson, and Hanover Insurance.

Here is my summary.

What Exactly Is Crumbling And Decaying?

The revised edition begins with an anecdote in which Senge describes reaching out to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer in the field of management and his inspiration for writing the book, to request a comment for the book jacket.

To his surprise, a letter arrived at his home.

It was from Deming – a short paragraph that revealed a deeper layer of connections and a bigger task ahead for Senge.

The first sentence took his breath away.

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people.”

Dr. W. Edwards Deming quote from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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After catching his breath, Senge read on: 

“People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers – a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars-and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.”

Our organizations are crumbling and decaying because our people are in a state of dysfunction. A state characterized by constant fire-fighting, defensiveness, empty communication, and a disconnect between learning and working.

Constant Fire-Fighting

Reflecting on Deming’s letter in the 15 years since the first edition of the book was published, Senge observes that the time available for people to think and reflect is scarcer, as are the resources in organizations for developing people.

Constant fire-fighting undermines continuous learning. Instead of deliberate practice, reflecting on lessons learned, and engaging in dialogue with peers, people are buried in an avalanche of emails, Slack messages, and the Chinese water torture of urgent, but not important tasks.

Defensiveness

Stemming from the reactionary mode most people are in, comes a form of defensiveness, which acts as a protection against being vulnerable. With fires all around us, we need to appear in control and infinitely capable of putting them out.

So we pretend we’re something that we’re not.

As the poet and philosopher David Whyte puts it —

“Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever-present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal, and conversational foundations of our identity.”

David Whyte quote from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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Empty Communication

Have you ever filled out those employee surveys? It’s a great opportunity to let management know what you think. I know I’ve really let it rip in a few of those over my time.

But then I archived the email and move on.

I never took responsibility for the change I so passionately argue for.

Citing a classic Harvard Business Review article by Chris Argyris in 1994, Senge agrees with what the author calls “good communication that blocks learning”.

As Argyris writes, these surveys and focus groups fail because “they do not get people to reflect on their own work and behavior. They do not encourage individual accountability.”

As we will see, the impulse to find blame in someone or something else is at the root of most organizational problems.

Disconnect Between Learning and Working

The general malaise from the previous three dysfunctions comes to a head with the foundational disconnect between learning and working. Like a poorly designed building, a disconnect between these crucial components of working life result in the crumble and decay we come to expect when there is no solid foundation.

As Senge notes, “it borders on dereliction that organizations invest so few resources in studying what has succeeded and failed in past strategies, operational changes, and leadership approaches. Instead, they more or less ‘make it up as they go along,’ with little serious theory to guide leaders at different levels. It’s no wonder that a new CEO typically sees his or her job as pushing a whole new strategy, almost as if there were no history.”

Senge hints at the promised land when he identifies the main flaw in these situations as “the absence of effective infrastructures to help people integrate learning and working.”

The beginning of the journey to the promised land sounds deceptively simple: “[creating infrastructures to integrate work and learning] starts with appreciating the realities of people’s work and identifying where and how specific learning approaches such as improved reflection can make a practical difference.”

Before Senge creates the map, he paints a picture of where we’re headed.

What Does The Promised Land Look Like?

In Ancient Greece, Kairos was a young and handsome god, the youngest son of Zeus. He is always running, with wings on his feet, and scales balancing on a sharp edge. He is the god of Opportunity. Opportunity never gets old, and yet only appears in fleeting instants (hence the delicately balanced scales).

Kairos the god of opportunity
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Metanoia was a shadowy goddess, cloaked and sorrowful, who accompanied Kairos in his wake, “sowing regret and inspiring repentance in the missed moment (source).”

Metanoia the goddess in the shadows
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Metanoia is the word Senge uses to describe the key concept at the core of the promised land: a “learning organization.”

It sounds miserable at first glance. Sowing regret? Inspiring repentance? Missed moments?

But Metanoia, the goddess, also portrayed the promise of lament for those who miss the opportunity. Opportunities are fleeting after all. Many will miss them at first. But thanks to Metanoia, they are encouraged to adopt “an active emotional state in which reflection, revelation, and transformation occur and thus expand the opportunities available in the concept of kairos. (source)”

Metanoia is meditation. Journaling. Conversations with a mentor. Working with a coach. 

Metanoia is the hours spent at the end of a year, in reflection on the previous year, that makes a good annual review. As I wrote about annual reviews, they force you to be honest and clear about where you are and visualize in vivid detail where you want to be. In performing these activities you illuminate a bridge for yourself. The bridge is an indication of how far you need to go to get to where you want to be. But the bridge is also an incredibly useful map of the projects, tasks, and priorities for the year ahead. A map to help you close the gap.

Senge uses metanoia to refer to the fundamental transformation at the heart of a learning organization:

“At the heart of a learning organization is 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.”

Peter Senge quote on learning organizations from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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Just as the concept of metanoia suggests a reflective act in which a person returns to a past event in order to see it anew, in which mind and body, feeling and intellect, collaborate in creating new knowledge and perspective, so does a learning organization continually expand its capacity to create.

“For such an organization, it is not enough merely to survive. ‘Survival learning’ or what is more often termed ‘adaptive learning’ is important – indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organization, ‘adaptive learning’ must be joined by ‘generative learning,’ learning that enhances our capacity to create.

Learning organizations are organizations where:

  • people continually expand their capacity to create,
  • new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured,    
  • collective aspiration is set free,
  • people are continually learning how to learn together.

Learning organizations promise what all learning professionals are after today: building capability.

We don’t say we can drive a car if we’ve only ever succeeded in doing it once. Yet this is what we’re doing when we measure learning by completion rate. On a deeper level, developing capability means developing the capacity to reliably produce a certain quality of results. Learning to drive develops from driving regularly, paying attention to how you brake at one time, how you park at another, how you observe your surroundings in your mirrors, and focusing on what you can improve in each of these areas over time.

Senge, therefore, defines learning like this:

“Learning is a process of enhancing learners’ capacity, individually and collectively, to produce results they truly want to produce.”

The definition emphasizes two key features of learning:

  • the building of capacity for effective action, as opposed to intellectual understanding only; and
  • the fact that this capacity builds over time.

Senge points out that the key to learning as a process “lies in our personal journey of reflection, experimentation, and becoming more open.”

Culture starts to change through “just being present with people,” learning from each other as you embark on similar journeys.

Learning and work become integrated, as Arie de Geus describes in his book, The Living Company, “we think of planning as learning and of corporate planning as institutional learning.”

You may conclude at this point that the map to the promised land appears simple. In fact, Senge references a quote from Confucius which sums it up perfectly.

“To become a leader, you must first become a human being.”

Confucius quote from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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Of course, upon deeper reflection, applying our own dose of metanoia here, there is more than meets the eye.

How We Get There – The Five Disciplines

“We will never transform the prevailing system of management without transforming our prevailing system of education. They are the same system.” – W. Edwards Deming.

Deming points out that the rot sets in much earlier than working life. By the time children are 10 they know what it takes to get ahead in school and please the teacher – a lesson they carry forward through their careers, as Senge notes.

“The relationship between a boss and subordinate is the same as the relationship between a teacher and student… [employees spend their time] pleasing bosses and failing to improve the system that serves customers.”

Enter the Five Disciplines.

The five learning disciplines are concerned with a shift of mind (metanoia) from seeing parts to wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to active participants in shaping their reality, and from reacting to the present to creating the future.

The five learning disciplines are:

  1. Personal Mastery
  2. Mental Models
  3. Shared Vision
  4. Team Learning
  5. Systems Thinking

Personal Mastery

“Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.”

Peter Senge quote on personal mastery from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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The first discipline is the keystone of the learning organization’s spiritual foundation.

One of the pioneers of personal mastery was Kazuo Inamori, the founder of Kyocera and KDDI and a devout follower of the Buddhist faith. He believed that tapping the potential of people requires an understanding of things you won’t find on many competency maps: “subconscious mind,” “willpower,” and “action of the heart… the sincere desire to serve the world.”

He encouraged his teams at Kyocera to look inward as they continually strive for “perfection”.

Kazuo Inamori believed in striving for perfection
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You can tell someone has high levels of personal mastery if they:

  • have a special sense of purpose behind their visions and goals,
  • see current reality as an ally, not an enemy,
  • are deeply curious,
  • feel connected to others and part of a larger creative process,
  • live in a continual learning mode, and
  • are acutely aware of their own ignorance.

Companies resist taking a stand for the full development of their people since it’s such a radical departure from the traditional contract between employee and organization. It is seen as “soft” and not easily measured. It is met with cynicism and dismissed as “woo”. It is uncomfortable because you are forced to confront harsh truths.

But thankfully, the contract between employee and organization is changing drastically. The Great Resignation showed us that power in the relationship has shifted to the employee, who can up and leave whenever they want.

People are leaving jobs in record numbers
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So if we want to build a learning organization in which people want to stay, how do we achieve personal mastery?

The journey involves being true to your own vision, a commitment to the truth, and reflection.

Being true to your own vision starts with turning the mirror inward: we continually clarify what is important to us (what we want), and we continually learn how to see current reality more clearly (where we are). The comparison of what we want and where we are generates a “creative tension.” Tension has a natural tendency to seek resolution. So the essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives while holding off the twin threats of feeling powerlessness to bring change and unworthy of getting what we truly desire.

A commitment to the truth is the “relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit and deceive ourselves and to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are.” It asks us to recognize that all we have are assumptions and that we should challenge them. The biggest threat to a commitment to the truth is certainty. As Elon Musk advises instead, “take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

Finally, the ability to reflect on one’s thinking while acting was discovered as the distinguishing factor separating truly outstanding professionals in studies by Donald Schon of MIT. The emphasis on action is key. “Reflection that [isn’t] connected to action is what [makes] people think they don’t have time for this. A culture that integrates action and reflection arrives at better decisions to which people can genuinely commit.”

“An organization committed to personal mastery creates an environment that encourages personal vision, commitment to the truth, and a willingness to face honestly the gaps between the two.”

The next step in becoming a learning organization involves a deeper understanding of the truth.

Mental Models

Our mental models are the deeply held images we possess of how the world works. In the context of The Fifth Discipline, the discipline of mental models refers to surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures.

An example of a mental model is “people are untrustworthy.” Or similarly, “people are trustworthy.” What is most important about either of these mental models is they shape how you act.

Jim Collins illustrates this beautifully in BE 2.0 describing a life lesson from his mentor, Bill Lazier. After being on the receiving end of abuses of trust, Jim asked Bill why he still trusted people. Describing a “big fork in the road of life”, Bill said you either choose to see people as trustworthy or untrustworthy (mental models).

Wisdom from the book by Jim Collins
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“Suppose you trust someone, and she merits that trust. That’s a huge upside. Trustworthy people feel validated and motivated by being trusted. What’s the downside if you’re wrong? As long as you don’t expose yourself to unacceptable loss, you’ll feel pain and disappointment. The upside to mistrust? You minimize this pain and disappointment. What’s the downside to mistrust? … you will demotivate and drive the best people away.”

Companies are full of people adopting mental models that influence how they act.

Sometimes this can influence an entire company strategy to believe people will keep visiting your store to rent DVDs and are ok with paying fines for returning them late. Bye-bye, Blockbuster.

So what do learning organizations do?

Let’s turn to the CIO of BP in the late 1990s:

“What has helped prevent that from happening here are the variety of networks we’ve developed to keep connecting people, and a climate of talking openly about our problems and challenging each other’s thinking.”

Senge outlines three tools for organizations to surface and test mental models:

  1. tools that promote personal awareness and reflective skills,
  2. “infrastructures” that institute this as a regular practice, and
  3. a culture that promotes inquiry and challenges our thinking.

As the CEO of Hanover Insurance put it, “the healthy corporations will be ones which can systematize ways to bring people together to develop the best possible mental models for facing any situation.”

The goal of bringing people together is to practice four sub-disciplines within the discipline of mental models:

  1. recognizing the gap between what we say and what we do,
  2. recognizing “leaps of abstraction”, or generalizations we make without testing,
  3. articulating what we are thinking but not saying, and
  4. balancing inquiry and advocacy.

Until these four sub-disciplines are practiced, no learning can occur.

The author dedicates quite a few pages to the fourth sub-discipline. In most companies, good managers are master advocators. They identify problems and influence others to enlist support in solving them. But as managers rise to more senior positions, they confront more complex issues. Suddenly, they need to tap into insights from others. They need to learn. Advocacy skills can now be counterproductive, closing managers off from one another. Inquiry becomes a vital balancing skill, and the book explores in detail various guidelines for advocating views and inquiring into others.

Ultimately, surfacing and testing mental models helps people and their companies take the first step up from seeing the world as a series of events, to recognizing long-term patterns of change and the underlying structures producing them.

This knowledge influences how they act. But to be successful, companies need these actions to move them in one direction. For this, they need a shared vision.

Shared Vision

Did you know that late in his career, psychologist Abraham Maslow studied high-performing teams?

One of his striking observations was that in exceptional teams, “the task was no longer separate from the self.”

Abraham Maslow quote from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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People in these teams identified with their work so strongly that they saw it as part of themselves. This is what a shared vision looks like.

The author describes a shared vision as such:

“A shared vision is not an idea. It is not even an important idea such as freedom. It is, rather, a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power. It may be inspired by an idea, but once it goes further – if it is compelling enough to acquire the support of more than one person – then it is no longer an abstraction. It is palpable. People begin to see it as if it exists. Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as shared vision.”

Vision is the answer to “what?”. It is distinct from the mission or purpose (“why do we exist?”) and values (“how do we want to act?”).

Shared visions act as shared pictures of the future everyone wants to create, which people in a company carry around in their minds.

Shared visions assume no ultimate destination, but rather a lifelong journey in pursuit of this joint picture of the future.

Most crucially, they foster genuine commitment to a cause or direction, not mere compliance.

Shared visions have numerous benefits:

  • people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to;
  • they provide focus and energy for learning, as people are striving for something that matters deeply to them;
  • they foster risk-taking and experimentation in their pursuit as the goal is clear even if the approach is not;
  • community develops as people pursue questions that have heart and meaning to them;
  • they foster a commitment to long-term thinking.

“There is a world of difference between compliance and commitment. The committed person brings an energy, passion, and excitement that cannot be generated by someone who is only compliant, even genuinely compliant. The committed person doesn’t play by the rules of the game. He is responsible for the game. If the rules of the game stand in the way of achieving the vision, he will find ways to change the rules. A group of people truly committed to a common vision is an awesome force.”

How do you know if your team is committed or compliant?

“People who are enrolled or committed truly want the vision. Genuinely compliant people accept the vision.”

How do you create shared visions?

“This work requires great reservoirs of patience,” the president of a global NGO told the author, “but I believe the results we achieve are more sustainable because the people involved have really grown. It also prepares people for the ongoing journey. As we learn, grow, and tackle more systemic challenges, things do not get easier.”

The first, counterintuitive, point is that shared visions emerge from personal visions, not from vision statements created by consultants in cool suits. The only vision that will motivate your people is their vision.

But it has to start somewhere. This is where leadership is so important. It all starts with leaders having a sense of their own personal vision and then communicating that in a way that encourages others to share their visions.

“Ultimately, leaders intent on building shared visions must be willing to continually share their personal visions. They must also be prepared to ask, ‘Will you follow me?’ This can be difficult. For a person who has been setting goals all through his career and simply announcing them, asking for support can feel very vulnerable.”

Visions take time to emerge. They grow as a by-product of the hundreds of interactions of individual visions. This is why visions that are genuinely shared require “ongoing conversations where individuals not only feel free to express their dreams but learn how to listen to each others’ dreams.”

The book recommends three key steps to follow:

  1. Be enrolled yourself – every leader from the top down needs to be bought into the process, or else it’s selling not enrolling.
  2. Be on the level – no sugar coating. Describe your vision as simply and honestly as you can.
  3. Let the other person choose – don’t convince another of the shared vision. Create time and safety for people to develop their own sense of vision.

Once a shared vision takes shape, it spreads because of a “reinforcing process of increasing clarity, enthusiasm, communication and commitment.” The more people talk about it, the clearer it gets. The clearer it gets, the more enthusiasm for it builds. The more it builds, the more conflicting ideas will emerge, however. This is where the reflection and inquiry skills from the previous two disciplines come in handy to balance any tendency towards advocacy.

The author closes this section by warning of three ways visions can die:

  1. People become discouraged by the difficulty in bringing the vision into reality – personal mastery plays a bedrock role in overcoming this risk.
  2. People get overwhelmed by the demands of work and lose focus on the vision – creating time to think and reflect away from fighting fires can help here.
  3. People forget their connection to one another – approaching visioning as a joint inquiry, where all opinions are respected can foster a sense of togetherness around the shared vision.

Now that individuals have a sense of personal mastery, an understanding of their working mental models, and a shared vision to work towards, it’s time to explore “the fundamental learning unit in an organization: working teams.”

Team Learning

Up to this point, the book has explored ways to empower the individual. But empowering the individual can result in chaos unless there is alignment between individuals.

We’ve all heard of at least one incredible sporting upset, where an unheralded underdog team defies the odds against the favorite contender. Leicester City winning the 2015-16 English Premier League. Greece winning the 2004 European Soccer Championships. The New York Mets winning the 1969 World Series. The Miracle On Ice, when the United States men’s hockey team defeated the mighty Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics. These triumphs were also possible thanks to superior teamwork and team learning.

The Miracle on Ice
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In business, the word “corporation” comes from the Latin word “corpus” meaning “a body”. It’s a body of people trying to do something you cannot do if you tried to do it by yourself. We need each other to act. Individual learning becomes irrelevant at some level unless there is team learning to put ideas into action.

There are three dimensions to team learning:

  1. The need to think insightfully about complex issues – here teams must learn to combat the powerful forces at work that make the collective intelligence of the team less than the intelligence of individual team members.
  2. The need for innovative, coordinated action – here teams need to capture that unmistakable energy of a championship sports team or great jazz ensemble, where everyone moves as one, reaching heights greater than any individual could.
  3. The role of team members on other teams – here teams must realize that even they must rely on other teams to get anything done, and must therefore continually foster and interact with other learning teams.

One senior executive reflects on the power of team learning in the book, “just getting people to talk to one another as a way to rethink how [we were] structured was the most fun I had ever had in business… and the ideas that emerged are still creating a competitive advantage for [us] fifteen years later.”

The key to team learning is practice.

Imagine if Leicester City, Greece, the Mets, or the U.S. men’s hockey team chose not to practice.

Seems ludicrous right? There is an almost zero chance they would’ve achieved what they did without practice. Yet many organizations opt to not practice the fundamental fourth discipline of team learning. They choose not to develop the discipline of continual practice, performance, practice, and performance to develop the skill of team learning.

Ok, you might be thinking, I get that we need to practice, but what does practice look like?

It all starts with dialogue. Not discussion, but dialogue. This draws on many of the points we’ve discussed already.

To the Greeks (the ancient ones, not the football team) “dia-logos” meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually. Contrast this to “discussion” which shares roots with “percussion” and “concussion,” literally a heaving of ideas back and forth in a winner-takes-all competition.

Ancient Greeks in dialogue
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In dialogue, the scientist David Bohm contends, a group accesses a larger “pool of common meaning,” which cannot be accessed individually. “The whole organizes the parts,” rather than trying to pull the parts into a whole.

In dialogue, people become observers of their own thinking. They begin to observe the collective nature of thought. As Bohm points out, “most thought is collective in origin. Each individual does something with it, but it originates collectively by and large.”

How do you establish a culture of dialogue?

Turning once again to Bohm, we find three basic conditions necessary for 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 dialogue.

The book explores in detail the role of the facilitator and the set-up of dialogue sessions, pointing to the importance of bringing people together to learn. One can’t help but see the incredibly valuable role cohort-based learning can play in facilitating team learning. In fact, there has never been a more exciting time to embrace the ideas put forward in this book.

“It is an unprecedented time of cultures colliding and in many instances learning from one another, and the promise of truly generative ‘dialogue among civilizations’ holds great hope for the future. Young people around the world are creating a web of relationships that has never existed before.

Peter Senge quote on team learning from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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To realize this potential, there is one more discipline needed to hold the other four together: systems thinking.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is the fifth discipline because it is “the conceptual cornerstone that underlies all of the five learning disciplines of this book.”

It is introduced to us through a famous simulation invented at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in the 1960s, called “the beer game.” The beer game simulates a typical production and distribution business. There are three players – the retailer, the wholesaler, and the marketing director of the brewery – and they are completely free to make the only decision they need to make: how much beer to order each week. The goal of the game for each player is to maximize profits in their position. Fully 12 pages are dedicated to telling the story of the game from each player’s position. It’s riveting.

Beer game for systems thinking
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What the game reveals is that everything goes wrong, despite the best intentions of each player: to make customers happy, to keep beer moving through the system, and to avoid penalties. Each individual action is well-motivated and defensible. There is no one to blame.

The game has been played thousands of times over the years.

Similar real-life production-distribution disasters played out in 1985 with computer memory chips, in 1989 with cars, and in 1990 with real estate.

If tens of thousands of people have played this game, from diverse backgrounds, and all with the same chaotic results, the only conclusion possible is this: the causes of the behavior lie not with the individuals, but in the very structure of the game itself.

Senge summarizes three lessons from the game:

  1. Structure influences behavior – it’s easy to find blame with someone or something, but very often the game is set up to fail by its very structure.
  2. Structure in human systems is subtle – the structure we use to make decisions is infinitely complex and difficult to predict.
  3. Leverage comes from new ways of thinking – people often ignore how their decisions affect others; by communicating we are able to understand and eliminate instability in any system.

How are these lessons put into practice?

“What is required is to see how [your] position interacts with the larger system. As a player in any position, your influence is broader than the limits of your own position. In many systems, in order for you to succeed others must succeed as well.

And so commences an incredibly in-depth, yet simple breakdown of systems thinking.

“Reality is made up of circles but we see straight lines. If we want to see systemwide interrelationships, we need a language of interrelationships, a language made up of circles.”

We are introduced to the language of systems thinking:

  • Reinforcing (or amplifying) feedback is the engine of growth.
  • Balancing (or stabilizing) feedback operates whenever there is a goal-oriented behavior. If the goal is not to move, then balancing feedback will act the way the brakes in a car do.
  • A balancing process is always operating to reduce a gap between what is desired and what exists.
  • Many feedback processes contain “delays,” which make the consequences of actions occur gradually.
  • Resistance is a response by the system, trying to maintain an implicit system goal. Until this goal is recognized, the change effort is doomed to failure.

We are taught the 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 at once.
  • Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
  • There is no blame.

(click here for an excellent application of the above principles)

Finally, we discover how to influence systems:

  • Aggressive action often produces exactly the opposite of what is intended. It produces instability and oscillation, instead of moving you more quickly toward your goal.
  • Leverage lies in the balancing loop – not the reinforcing loop. To change the behavior of the system, you must identify and change the limiting factor.
  • Successes usually involve genuine efforts to redistribute control, and deal with the threats of giving up unilateral control.
  • The skillful leader is always focused on the next set of limitations and working to understand their nature and how they can be addressed.
  • Beware the symptomatic solution. Solutions that address only the symptoms of a problem, not fundamental causes, tend to have short-term benefits at best.

In the culmination of the exploration of systems thinking, we are intrigued to find that this way of thinking may hold the answer to a holy grail problem most leaders must solve: how to unify knowledge across functions and fields within a business.

How The Disciplines Work Together

There is a documentary on Netflix called 14 Peaks, about a Nepalese-British mountaineer called Nims Purja.

Nims Purja summits all the eight-thousanders
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In 2019, he set an ambitious goal to climb all 14 eight-thousanders (mountain peaks above 8,000 meters or 26,000 feet) in seven months. The previous record was seven years.

He provides the perfect analogy for how the five disciplines work together.

Nims created a Shared Vision that was ambitious, specific, and full of deep meaning and passion, to him personally, to the Nepali climbers who joined him and eventually to the world that rallied to support him.

He and his team’s understanding of their gear, the weather windows, their ability to climb dangerous mountains, and their use of bottled oxygen above 7,500m (based on prior experiences at that altitude) represent examples of Mental Models they surfaced and tested to reveal present reality and the options open to them.

Personal Mastery fostered the personal motivation in Nims and each of his teammates to continually learn how to conquer the mountains more efficiently and filled them with the belief and confidence they needed to sustain the effort.

Nims’ ability to work with his team of four shows Team Learning in action, as the climbers develop skills together to navigate disastrous weather, rescue fallen fellow climbers, deal with the emotional pain of one that dies, and ultimately, attempt to reach the impossible goal they’ve set.

Dubbed “Project Possible”, the team ends up reaching their goal in a record time of six months and six days.

Underlying it all was a recognition that none of it was possible alone. To pull off the unthinkable, Nims and his team had to see their position within the larger system. They had to rely on dozens of other actors along the way. They created a system that worked for them, and the longer they stuck with it, the more inevitable the outcome became.

“A truly profound and different insight is the way you begin to see that the system causes its own behavior.” – Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows quote from The Fifth Discipline Summary
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They weren’t finished either. In 2021, Nims and a team of nine other Nepali mountaineers made history as the first-ever to ascend K2 in the harsh weather conditions of winter.

To practice the five disciplines is to be a lifelong learner.

Thank you for reading. All quotes in the essay are from the author, Peter Senge, unless otherwise noted. If you’d like to read the full book and support our work at the same time, please consider using this affiliate link to send a small portion of your purchase to us at no additional cost to you.

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