The Fifth Discipline

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Tip Sheet – Book Review – Clarity Company

The Fifth Discipline, a Classic by Senge

Competitive advantage through fast learning

As Senge argues in this classic work of management philosophy, over time the only continuous competitive advantage is your organisation’s ability to learn faster than your competition. The leadership stories in the book demonstrate the many ways that the core ideas in The Fifth Discipline have become deeply integrated into our way of seeing the world and managerial practices.

As a company leader, there are ways you can rid your organisation of its learning “disabilities” that threaten productivity and success. The challenge is to nurture new and expansive patterns of thinking, set free collective aspiration, and promote people’s continous learning how to create results they truly desire.

Continuous expansion of capacity to create results

In a company moving towards being a learning organisation, people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, collective aspiration is set free, and people are continually learning how to learn together.

There are five characteristics that you’ll need to move into the next level of quality and competition, and to create the learning organisation: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building a shared vision, and team learning.

Structure influencing behaviour

We found very interesting the notion that structure can influence behaviour. Systems themselves cause their own crises, not external forces or mistakes of individuals. In human systems, structure includes how people make decisions. These are the “operating policies” whereby we translate perceptions, goals, rules, and norms into actions.

Why are structural explanations so important? Because only they address the underlying causes of behaviour. Structure produces conduct and behaviour; changing underlying structures can therefore produce different patterns of behaviour. Since structure in human systems includes the “operating policies” of the decision makers in the system, redesigning our own decision making redesigns the system structure.


Some weaknesses

Perhaps it is debatable whether Senge has provided adequate empirical evidence to support many of his claims. As Senge argues that the dynamics apply to all organisations, it would have been nice to see indications of thorough and systematic research to support these claims.

We would also have liked to see a better explanation of how individuals discern the correct points of leverage within a system. The suggestion that it is a matter of relying on intuition and a developed understanding of systems and structures to determine appropriate points of leverage seems inadequate.

Another central point is that organisations should build on the collective experiences of individuals at all levels. However, as a leader you may find it exceedingly difficult to determine the boundaries of a system; where it begins and ends. If you choose to focus your analysis narrowly, you may neglect dynamics relevant to the success of the organisation. Interpreting the system’s boundaries broadly may make the system’s interrelationships too complex to investigate.

Nevertheless, in conclusion we’d argue that the ideas of building a shared vision, team working, personal mastery and the development of more sophisticated mental models and the way he runs the notion of dialogue will potentially enrich workplaces and make them more hospitable and resourceful. The drawing together of the elements via the Fifth Discipline of systemic thinking can foster a more holistic understanding of organisational life – that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. In this respect, Senge is certainly well seen as a key thinker.

Further inspiration?

At Clarity, we help businesses apply practical, sustainable improvements in strategy, business processes and strategic marketing.

If you’d like to know how we do this, and how we may be able to help you, let’s arrange a meeting without obligation.

  • Get an impartial view on your business matters.
  • Realise untapped potential, using Clarity as catalysts.
  • Professionalise the process: prevent it becoming a series of expanded staff meetings.
  • Decrease the learning curve, using Clarity’s dedicated strategic planning process.
  • Resolve conflict, bring out the best in your team, think outside the box.
  • Ensure cost efficiency: move the project along in a timely, effective manner.

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