The Fifth Discipline

Author: Peter Senge


“The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” was largely responsible to catapult the “Learning Organization” as the management fad of the 90s, and HBR called it out as one of the seminal management books of the last 75 years. It is written by Peter Senge, a Prof at MIT who was named ‘Strategist of the Century’.

The author believes that most of today’s companies, including the people therein, have a “learning disability” – they simply fail to see abundant evidences of forthcoming trouble. Not surprisingly then, a survey found that a third of Fortune 500 companies in 1970 had simply vanished by 1983 and that the average lifetime of the largest industrial companies is only 40 years, roughly half of a human lifespan! These 7 major “learning disabilities” (each linked to the previous one) are:

  1. I am my position:Most of us consider our work as the “task that we perform”, not the purpose to the greater enterprise in which we take part. We tend to see our responsibilities as limited to the boundaries of our position. So, if something goes wrong, all we can do is to assume that “someone somewhere screwed up”!
  2. The enemy is out there: When things go wrong, each of us has an automatic propensity to blame someone/something outside ourselves. When combined with the first disability, this makes it impossible to detect the leverage which can be used “in here” on problems that straddle the boundary between us and “out there”.
  3. The illusion of taking charge:In most corporations, being “proactive” is in vogue – everyone wants to take aggressive action against what is usually an “external enemy”. All too often, therefore, pro-activeness is simply reactiveness in disguise. True pro-activeness, on the other hand, comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems.
  4. The fixation on events:We are conditioned to life as a series of events, and for every event, we think there is one obvious cause. This distracts us from seeing the longer-term patterns of changes that may be at work. The irony is that today “the primary threat to our survival comes not from sudden events but from slow, gradual processes.
  5. The parable of the boiled frog:Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic. But ignorance and maladaptation to gradually building threats/concerns is very pervasive in our organizations.
  6. The delusion of learning from experience:We learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions. The most critical decisions made in organizations have system wide consequences that easily stretch over 3-5 years while people change much faster!
  7. The myth of the management team:“Most management teams may function quite well with routine issues. But when they confront complex issues that may be embarrassing or threatening, the ‘teamness’ seems to go to pot.” Schools and organizations seem to be training us into advocating our views, not inquiring into complex issues (“When was the last time someone was rewarded in your organization for raising difficult questions about companies’ current policies rather than solving urgent problems?”)

The author also believes that, in today’s complex but inter-connected world, “the only source of sustainable competitive advantage would be your organization’s ability to learn faster than its competitors”. This book draws the blueprint of such an organization – where individuals appreciate and practice the “deeper meaning of learning” – a fundamental shift of mind (the author uses the term metanoia – transcendence of mind). These organizations make their people capable of meeting and exceeding their highest aspirations, and keep “continually learning how to learn together”. To achieve this vision, he propounds “five disciplines” – 5 core practices that need to be adopted by a team or company:

  1. Personal Mastery (more on that below).
  2. Mental models – deeply ingrained assumptions and biases.
  3. Building shared vision.
  4. Team learning – dialogue, suspending judgement and entering into genuine thinking together.
  5. Systems thinking.


Senge also talks of the 11 Laws of Fifth Discipline: 

  1. Yesterday’s solutions, which may have worked great yesterday, often cause Today’s problems.
  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  3. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse.
  4. The easy way out usually leads back in.
  5. The cure can be worse than the disease.
  6. Faster is slower.
  7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
  8. Small changes can produce big results, but these high leverage areas are often least obvious.
  9. You can have your cake and eat it too —but not all at once.
  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
  11. There is no blame.

Some more thought on Personal Mastery, which Senge believes goes beyond competence and skill. It is definitely rooted in them but true mastery is many shades further. “It (even) goes beyond spiritual unfolding. It means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative viewpoint as opposed to reactive viewpoint.” It embodies two underlying movements:

  1. Continuallyclarifying what is important to us. We are so involved in solving current problems along our path that we forget why we are on that path in the first place.
  2. Continually learning how to see current reality more clearly.The juxtaposition of vision (where do we want to be) and a clear picture of current reality (where are we today relative to our vision) generates “creative tension”: a powerful force that tries to bring the two together. The essence of Personal Mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tensions in our lives.

Interestingly, Mastery – unlike its usual English meaning – is not to mean “dominance” over people or things. For example, a master craftsman does not dominate pottery or weaving – but rather allows the best pots to emerge from the workshops. Herman Miller’s CEO asks a pertinent question, “Why can’t work be one of those wonderful things in life? Why can’t we cherish and praise it, versus seeing work as a necessity? …” In other words, says the author, “Why do we want Personal Mastery? We want it because we want it!”

So, what are the key principles and practices of Personal Mastery?

  1. Personal Vision –How many of us really have it clear in our mind? Note, most of us when asked about our personal vision talk about things they want to get rid of. We not only have “negative visions” but also often confuse means with the end. The ability to focus on ultimate intrinsic desires, not only on secondary goals, is a cornerstone of personal mastery.
  2. Holding Creative Tension –Most of us tend to get discouraged by the gap between our personal vision and current reality. For example, “I want to start my business”, but “I have no capital”. But then this gap is the source of creative energy. Think about it like a rubber band stretched between your two palms – one the vision and the other representing current reality. There are two ways to loosen the tension: either reduce your vision or increase your reality. Sadly, most of us choose the first – obviously the easier one. Trouble is once we get in the habit of lowering our personal vision, we constantly keep lowering it in our lives – and ultimately start getting satisfied with whatever we get.
  3. The Power of Powerlessness –Robert Fritz, a consultant, says that practically all of us have a “dominant belief that we are not able to fulfill our desires” – very often below the levels of conscious awareness. Say this sentence aloud, “I can create my life exactly the way I want it, in all dimensions – work, family, relationships, community, and larger world.” And then notice your internal reaction to this assertion: “Who are you kidding? … Fritz further adds that these are actually two distinct beliefs: one on our inability and the other on unworthiness – that we really do not deserve to have what we truly desire. We will give ourselves some reason to justify that it is only right that we are not getting what we want – hence no need for us to get tense! Personal Mastery obviously demands that we get rid of this belief (the author also mentions 3 generic strategies to help cope up).
  4. Using the subconscious –This is very fascinating. There has been more and more research suggesting that the top people integrate data and intuition in taking a decision. A champion ice skater executes her artistry with such grace/ease that it appears to be an “effortless effort”! The author advocates that high Personal Mastery demands a higher level of rapport between your normal awareness and your subconscious. If this sounds “out-of-the-world”, consider this: when we first learned how to drive a car, “slowing down, downshift, turn right” all appeared mighty complex tasks in themselves. But after sufficient practice, we can drive in heavy traffic with ease, talking to the person sitting next to us – apparently giving no conscious attention to the literally scores of variables we need to monitor and respond to during driving. What has happened is that we have simply trained our “subconscious” to carry out the mundane tasks and leaving the normal awareness or consciousness to focus exclusively on other things.

Sadly, most of us do NOT give careful thought to how we mastered a skill and how we might continue to develop deeper and deeper “rapport” between our normal awareness and subconscious – and hence keep increasing our capacity. The author suggests meditation as one alternative.

Does this sound different? Achievable? His final guidance is: “Personal Mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline – you need to live in a continual learning mode. You never “arrive”. The journey itself is the reward.”

Why should you read the book: Because the only way to remain relevant will be to keep un-learning old dogmas and learning new skills. Our prof at IIM Lucknow used to say, “The MBA degree should come with a 5-year expiry!”. The Learning Organization and Personal Mastery is the way out.

Goodreads Link: The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge | Goodreads