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The Fifth Discipline

The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

By Peter M. Senge
15-minute read
Audio available
The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge

The Fifth Discipline (1990) is a comprehensive guide to creating learning organizations – workplaces that nurture innovation and personal growth. The author argues that, in our rapidly changing world, companies can only succeed if they change the way in which they deal with problems. In his view, a reactive approach, based on constantly putting out fires, no longer works. Instead, businesses need to adopt what he calls a systems thinking method. This method is proactive, and its purpose is to identify underlying patterns and generate innovative solutions. But this approach only works if you have motivated staff who share the company’s vision. 

  • Entrepreneurs who want to uncover blind spots in their thinking
  • Disgruntled employees seeking satisfaction in their work
  • Team members who want to learn to speak their minds

Peter Senge is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founder of the Society for Educational Learning. His first book, The Fifth Discipline, sold over two million copies. The Harvard Business Review named it one of the most important management books of the last 75 years. Senge’s subsequent publications include Presence and The Necessary Revolution. 

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The Fifth Discipline

The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

By Peter M. Senge
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge
Synopsis

The Fifth Discipline (1990) is a comprehensive guide to creating learning organizations – workplaces that nurture innovation and personal growth. The author argues that, in our rapidly changing world, companies can only succeed if they change the way in which they deal with problems. In his view, a reactive approach, based on constantly putting out fires, no longer works. Instead, businesses need to adopt what he calls a systems thinking method. This method is proactive, and its purpose is to identify underlying patterns and generate innovative solutions. But this approach only works if you have motivated staff who share the company’s vision. 

Key idea 1 of 9

Our drive to learn is strong – but our work environments can quickly extinguish it.

Watch any toddler in action, and you’ll see a master of learning. She spends her days hungrily amassing knowledge about the world. She smells, touches, and licks everything she sees. She constantly practices new skills, crawling and walking again and again until she gets it right. She is completely undeterred by failure.

That curious toddler still lives inside every one of us. We’re all dying to learn more about the world. 

But modern corporations quickly stamp this drive out of us. And it can feel like they throw everything at that effort – from hierarchical structures, to limiting job descriptions, to incompetent managers. 

The key message here is: Our drive to learn is strong – but our work environments can quickly extinguish it.

One great way for a company to hamper learning is to give everybody a narrow job description. This can very easily kill off any sense of engagement with what happens in the company overall. It encourages employees just to punch the clock. They do their specific tasks, sure, but they never think about how they can learn to solve broader problems. 

When something goes wrong, they’ll probably blame someone else. But they’d often be much better off thinking about how their own actions contributed to the problem. Why are people so eager to apportion blame? Well, one reason is that sometimes they can’t see beyond their own departments. They have no sense of what happens across the entire organization – and thus no sense of ownership.

Companies also destroy learning opportunities when work becomes too reactive. If everyone is continually putting out fires, there’s no time to analyze things, or to come up with creative solutions for the future. 

This narrow focus on what’s happening right now can lead to the so-called “boiled frog” syndrome. It’s an old parable: a frog placed in a pot of cool water will eventually boil to death if the pot is heated up very gradually. Change takes so long that the frog doesn’t notice it – until it’s too late.

If corporations are stuck in reactive mode, they, too, run the risk of missing subtle-but-growing problems. 

Finally, a key obstacle to learning is created by managers who have no idea how to support their staff’s desire to think creatively and build new skills. This is often because such managers have themselves long since stopped developing. 

The good news is that none of these obstacles is insurmountable. As we’ll see in the next blink, there are five key disciplines that can provide a roadmap to a successful learning organization.

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