The Fifth Discipline

Peter Senge Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

Peter Senge is one of the greatest thinkers of the contemporary corporate world. His theories help companies clarify their goals, challenge the odds and find new opportunities. He believes, in the long run, the only difference an organization can have is to make you learn faster than the competition. In this book, he teaches you how to do this in your company. Read on!

The Era Of Learning Companies

In an increasingly competitive world, where companies strive to create their competitive edge and win by using competitive academic strategies, Peter Senge brings a different vision. Companies that will win and have a competitive edge in the future will be "learning companies," companies that are capable of exploiting the collective experience and the ability of people to succeed in a team. The learning organizations are those people who continually improve their ability to create the future they would like to see emerging. They use collective learning practices and are always prepared for the future, as they know they can assimilate the knowledge they need to succeed. Learning companies know that their profits come from their ability to continue learning. And this is not just for companies. In the contemporary world, the learning process has already become continuous and not a part of a professional's career.

The Learning Companies Differential

Learning companies focus on uniting the capabilities of their entire staff to produce audacious results. With the rapid pace of change taking place in today's world, companies that can adapt have a big advantage. To do this, they need to develop their learning capacity. Most companies fail to create a learning and adaptation process. This is because:

  • Employees may be attached to their current positions and their knowledge, and this causes changes to bring friction and conflict;

  • People focus on business problems rather than coming up with solutions together to solve them;

  • People look at what is happening in the foreign market and do not realize the gradual changes that occur in the company itself;

  • People are more attached to their previous experience, and there is a long cycle of response between an action and its outcome. It causes people to take the old way because they do not feel the effects and results in a new way;

A company that does not learn is only reacting to events in the outside world. Learning companies, on the other hand, can transform the context in which they are inserted to control and create their destiny.

What Is A Company That Learns?

Learning companies share many common characteristics.

  • They focus on progress, always seeking continuous improvement, and always striving for precise results.

  • They are dynamic, and people work together to improve learning all the time;

  • They are productive, and people are able to exploit their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses;

  • They create their own future, always knowing where they want to go and what skills they need to develop;

To become a learning company, Peter Senge proposes the use of a model with 5 disciplines that must be developed by companies.

The 5 Disciplines

The 5 disciplines are complementary skills that need to evolve together to create a learning organization. They are:

Personal Domain: Companies are only able to learn if they have people who learn on their team. Therefore, personal development and the constant effort to become fitter are the pillars of the first discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery live life in constant learning mode. The personal domain is based on your skills and abilities. It also engages in personal growth and a strong sense of belonging and purpose demonstrating the commitment to the company. A person who works well with his personal domain focuses on the journey and learning, not the final destination. Hence, she is able to develop continuous learning. Personal domain is greater than skills and abilities, but they are a key part of it. Developing your personal domain means understanding life as creative rather than reactive work.

To develop your personal domain, follow the following practices:

  • Create a personal vision: Personal vision is the image of the future that you want. Everyone has it, but people with a greater personal domain focus continually on what they want for the future and work to get there.

  • Use creative tension in your favor: Creative tension is born of the difference between your vision and reality, it is a force that develops your creativity and curiosity. You need to use this tension in your favor as it helps you to grow.

  • Escape Structural Conflict: When you feel unable to change things, this is due to structural conflict. To overcome it, you need willpower and positivity, always wanting to change the status quo.

  • Commit to the truth: Question theories and try to understand the nature of events and what is behind them.

  • Use the subconscious: Develop good communication between normal and subconscious consciousness, program your brain in the right way. Thus, you release your subconscious from the ordinary tasks to focus on personal vision. Learning companies work to help their people develop their domain, creating space for honest feedback, self-development and creating long-term visions.

Mental Models: The second discipline is based on the empirical knowledge of the organization: its mental models. They are beliefs that are in our unconscious and therefore influence the way we behave. Learning companies can create their mental models to encourage innovation and change. Mental models are nothing more than real-world simplifications that operate in your subconscious. They permeate your passive thinking, profoundly influencing your actions. To develop your company's ability to adopt mental models, you must:

  • Develop Reflective Ability: Reflections motivate people to understand their thinking process and to become more aware of the implicit mental models in use. , People can change their mental models by being more aware.

  • Check how to shape acts and decisions: Create a mental model to shape the way the organization learns and operates.

  • Review mental models and adjust them to reality: You have to understand the mental models under which the company operates to change them. To do this, you should encourage people to look at situations differently from the status quo and think about how to adapt them can give rise to new, more efficient mental models.

Learning companies stimulate their team to improve organizational models used mentally. They look for practical ways to change the mental models in use to create positive changes in the learning environment.

Shared View: The third discipline exists when there is an identification between the people of the organization and a common sense of destiny. The power of shared vision comes from a shared interest among the members of the company. In learning companies, people create shared visions that connect them to the purpose of their work. To create a shared view, you must:

  • Develop personal vision: Shared visions derive from personal visions. If people do not have their own vision and adopt the vision of another person, they will have an atmosphere of conformity and not of commitment. Learning companies should not invade individual freedoms, but rather stimulate individual vision to strengthen the shared vision of the company.

  • Understand that it takes time for a common vision to appear: common visions are never imposed, they evolve as people participate and engage. Shared visions gradually emerge in an intelligent organization.

  • A good common vision records the ideas of the people in the organization: When there is a common vision, it can capture what the individual elements of the organization aim to achieve. It simply communicates the purpose and direction to which the company seeks to address itself collectively.

  • Expressing the vision in positive terms: Negative visions are harmful, and all organizations always try to avoid. It is necessary to speak of aspirations and not of fears. Learning companies build powerful common visions. They organize and concentrate their efforts according to the common visions of their people.

Team Learning: Team learning is based on aligning the company's actions and capabilities towards its vision for the future. Team learning has three dimensions:

  • The need to understand complex issues;

  • The need for innovative and coordinated action;

  • The need to share new practices and skills;

  • To develop team learning, you need to:

Promoting dialogue and debate: Learning companies use discussions and conversations among staff to multiply team knowledge and ensure that content is multiplied.

Use conflict constructively: Different people have different ideas about how to achieve the company’s vision. When these differences are exposed, the team's creativity and learning evolve rapidly. Team learning is essential for the company to continue learning in the long term, maintaining the quality of its employees as a whole.

Systemic Thinking: All four previous disciplines are essential, but it is more important that they are operating together. Therefore, systemic thinking is the fifth discipline, and it integrates all others into a coherent set of theory and practice. It is the discipline that allows you to see things as a whole, understanding your relationships.

Today, this discipline is necessary because of the complexity of everyday life. Today, perhaps for the first time in history, humanity can create more information than it is capable of assimilating. The problems no longer have a simple or explicit cause. Therefore, systemic thinking is the solution to this sense of impotence felt by many people. To apply systemic thinking, one must understand that:

  • The current problems come from the solutions of the past: Short-term solutions often only take the problems from one part of the system to another;

  • More pressure does not produce better results: More than more effort, you have to find the obstacles that prevent the system from working better.

  • Focus on causes, not symptoms: Good short-term results can lead us to believe that a problem has been solved. However, systemic thinking must be focused on the long-term causes and never on the symptoms alone.

  • The known is not always the answer: We get more comfortable with known solutions, but often the efficient solutions are not so obvious and require research.

  • The fastest can be the most time consuming: Any system has an acceptable rate of growth. When growth is excessive, the system itself tries to compensate for this, evolving more slowly and this comprises the organization's ability to learn.

  • Cause and effect are not as close as you can imagine: there is a time lag between an action and its results. The more complex the system, the longer the interval between action and reaction.

  • Small changes can bring great results: Focused actions often produce permanent gains.

  • Splitting an elephant in half does not give you two small elephants: It takes a global view of the system to understand the problems associated with each solution. Fragmentation hides processes that are fundamental to understanding any problem.

  • Do not blame others or externalities: We can never blame circumstances or other people for our problems. There is not only an external cause. The cause of our problems comes from everyone because they are part of a single system.

Understand The Feedback Cycles

The central idea of systemic thinking is that every action causes a reaction. This reaction is called feedback. There are 2 types of feedbacks: reinforcing feedback and balancing feedback.

Often feedback or reaction does not occur immediately. The same action has dramatically different long-term and short-term results and also distinct consequences in different parts of the system. Therefore, obvious interventions often have surprising results. Traditional planning and analysis models are not ready to deal with such complexity. The essence of systemic thinking ability is based on the ability to see the interrelationships between things, rather than linear chains of causes and effects, and also change processes(patterns), rather than isolated events. Causal relationships are not linear or unidirectional.

A systemic perspective finds causality through feedback cycles. Feedback is any flow of reciprocal influence. Reinforcing feedback speeds up a trend in a given process. If the trend is positive, positive feedback accelerates growth. If it is negative, the decline is accelerated. An avalanche, for example, is a reinforcing feedback loop. The feedback balancer will work if there is a goal. It tends to reduce the distance between the current state and the desired state. The feedback balancer adjusts the current state to the desired state. An example of balancing feedback is the process of staying balanced when riding a bicycle.

Discover The Leverage Principle

The key to systemic thinking is the use of the lever. It is based on finding the point where structured actions and changes can bring meaningful and permanent improvements. With punctual thinking, there is a tendency to make changes to low leverage. This type of change tends to have short-term results and not be lasting.

See The Trees Without Seeing The Forest

Systemic thinking does not ignore complexity, but it organizes it logically, highlighting the causes of problems and permanently solving them. Nowadays the fundamental problem is that we have too much information. It is, therefore, necessary to distinguish between the important and the irrelevant, as well as the priority variables of the non-priority ones.

Challenges And Problems

Learning companies tend to be experimental laboratories where answers to many problems and practical issues are constantly being solved. That can generate some problems, such as internal policies. When there are internal policies, and it is believed that the originator of an idea is more important than the idea itself, the potential for results for the company will quickly decline. To prevent this from happening, we must always reinforce shared vision, promote participation, sincerity and finally recognize that there are no unique answers.

Give People Autonomy To Act

People learn more when they feel responsible for their actions. If they have no influence over decision making, their learning ability will drastically diminish. Learning companies establish corporate governance systems where most decisions are made locally rather than at the top of the command chain. To allow decisions to be made locally and to maintain some control over them, you need to train your company's staff across the 5 disciplines and turn your managers into apprenticeship program designers.

Focus On The Future

Managers should focus on the opportunities of the future, rather than focusing on the problems of the present. They should design learning systems for the future because doing so will make the company truly successful. Also, learning companies know how to differentiate clearly between action and learning.

Balancing Family And Work

Traditional businesses tend to create a conflict between work environments and families. Learning companies need a good work-family balance. To achieve the appropriate balance, learning enterprises should give individuals freedom and recognize that family subjects should be treated with the same seriousness as professional matters. Personal balance must be part of group strategy and philosophy, and no one can feel that their professional opportunities are being limited by the time spent on family commitments. Also, the organization should help people get support, so that family time is well spent and effective.

Leading A Learning Company

To drive a learning company, you must become a systems designer, always seeking to redesign and integrate all elements of the organization. For this, you need to explore your creative tensions and know how to draw the path from the current scenario to the shared view. You should also be able to be a mentor. A guide focused on getting the organization to achieve success through clear goals and focus on results.

Final Notes:

Senge encourages us, as managers, to look at problems from a holistic perspective. You need to stop trying to split problems into smaller parts and solve each of these little elements. In his book, he uses the metaphor of the broken mirror. When all the broken pieces are glued together again, the reflection of the mirror will not be the same as that of a new mirror. Systemic thinking is the solution to understanding what happens in your company and how to improve it as a whole.

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