Book Review: The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge

I think we spend too much time at work for it go to waste. I want work to be something that people look forward to, where they experience personal growth, and at the same time contribute to solving important problems in the world.

I am also intrigued by systems thinking. I want a more nuanced view of reality that moves away from linear cause-effect relationships and thinks about reality as a web of interrelated connections. I want to see the world more clearly.

In his book, Senge offers both, the learning organization, and systems thinking.

A learning organization practices the five disciplines:

  1. Systems Thinking
  2. There are two kinds of complexity, detail and dynamic complexity.

    Detail complexity is just having a lot of variables to consider, but is static. We tend to fixate on detail complexity when the most leverage is found in understanding dynamic complexity. Dynamic complexity is when there is a time delay between cause and effect, when local causes have global effects, or when obvious interventions have non-obvious results. For example, to lose weight, do more cardio. But doing more cardio increases hunger, which causes you to eat more, which increases your weight again. The obvious intervention does not necessarily work. What is needed is a systems thinking approach to weight loss.

    Systems thinking encourages thinking about interrelationships rather than linear cause and effects. It encourages thinking about processes over time rather than snapshots.

    There are three basic effects in the language of systems thinking: the snowball, the balancing process, and the delay between cause and effect. These three building blocks are used to create different patterns which can describe many different scenarios in life. We give special names to these patterns, such as tragedy of the commons, shifting the burden, limits to growth, etc. Once we understand a pattern and its solution, the difficulty is reduced to recognizing which pattern fits the everyday problem we are trying to solve.

    Systems thinking provides a clearer grasp of reality. It underpins every other discipline.

  3. Personal Mastery
  4. The foundation of the learning organization is the individual who excels at his own learning and growth. This is a necessary step before creating organizational learning.

    At the heart of personal mastery is vision, our current reality, and the gap between the two. This describes every problem we have in life. There are two ways to fix this gap. We can move towards our goal or lower our vision. Even when moving towards our goal, we have to be mindful of resistance in the form of limiting beliefs.

  5. Mental Models.
  6. We access reality through our mental models. We lose touch with it when reality shifts and our mental models stay the same. In order to learn, we must first uncover our mental models and its implicit assumptions. We do this through reflection and inquiry.

    Reflection is introspective. It refers to our willingness to examine our own assumptions. We can use the difference between what we say and what we do to learn about our mental models. We can also use our leaps of abstraction, which occur when we make generalizations based on insufficient data. For example, we may notice someone working late at night and make the generalization that he is a workaholic. We rarely test our observations by asking the person directly. Leaps of abstraction are revealed in the left hand column of a conversation. This refers to a situation where what is said differs from what is thought. Too often, we leave our assumptions unsaid because we fear conflict or hurting the other person. However, avoiding conflict also avoids learning. We need to learn how to unearth our assumptions (the left hand column) to allow learning to occur.

    Inquiry involves other people. It is about encouraging other people to question our views, and to express their views and the data it is based on. In turn, we should also expose our assumptions and the data it is based on.

  7. Shared Vision.
  8. When people work together to achieve something in common, they have shared vision.

    Shared vision is best spread when you yourself believe in the shared vision, are honest about the good and the bad, and give the person a choice to follow or not. Shared vision cannot be forced. When people share a vision, they will create whatever laws are needed to achieve it. Contrast this with the worker who follows the spirit of the law, the letter of the law, or worst, grudgingly complies with instructions.

  9. Team Learning.
  10. Conflict occurs when people work together towards a goal but are pulling in different directions. Team learning creates alignment through dialogue and discussion. Dialogue is divergent, it opens up possibilities; discussion is convergent, it results in action.

    When there is a difference between what we know and what we need to know, the fundamental solution is to engage in a process of inquiry. However, the learning gap also creates a threat, and people can become defensive. Defensiveness reduces the perceived need for learning.


Learning is about three essential truths. Vision, reality and feedback.

The five disciplines can be arranged in this manner as well, but adds the dimension of the individual versus the organization.

  1. Personal Mastery and Shared Vision correspond with vision at the personal and organizational level.
  2. Systems Thinking corresponds with reality.
  3. Mental Models and Team Learning correspond with feedback at the personal and organizational level.

Every great book speaks of the same things but in a different way. It is entertaining to have these little epiphanies that connect these ideas with my everyday life. For instance, I was jogging along the road beside St Anthony’s when I suddenly thought, why is it that they say that you have to replace a bad habit with a good habit? Then I realized that there was a Shifting the Burden archetype at work here. Eating addresses an emotional need. If you stop eating, that emotional need still has to be met. You need to find something else to address that emotional need. That would be Anthony Robbins and Peter Senge both speaking to me at the same time.

Fifth Discipline Mind Map


2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge

  1. That’s my bedroom wall actually. I got the largest size from whiteyboard for $50 thanks to Dre’s free vpost shipping! I was thinking about ideapaint as well but too expensive plus the hassle.

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