Culture Design: An overview of The Fifth Discipline

I’ve been re-reading various sections of the book by Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, lately and thought I’d share a few of my favourite passages so far. The truth is that I’ve not actually read the book all the way through, from cover to cover, before. Yet it has always had a place on my bookshelf and is the most dog-eared book I own. I tend to take it down and read a chapter here and there when I’m curious about something, or want to delve further into an issue that’s present in my mind. This time around, that issue is starting my exciting new role and Peter Senge has plenty to offer where that is involved.

The book ‘s contention is that there are better ways to work together in organisations than the ways we’ve previously believed. The book is not new (it was published in 1990) but it still offers tremendous value to people trying to think they’re way through a better way of operating within their organisation.

Specifically, the Fifth Discipline itself is the ability to use systems thinking to create better outcomes by aiming to become a learning organisation. The book goes into detail on the various techniques, mental models and ideas that can be used to encourage a culture of learning within the organisation. The photo you see below is the main framework used in the book, the core learning capabilities for (a) team.

Core Learning Capabilities

“(they are) symbolically represented as a three-legged stool, to visually convey the importance of each – the stool would not stand if any of the three were missing”

The 5 disciplines, seen above, are:

  • Personal Mastery
  • Shared Vision
  • Mental Models
  • Dialogue
  • Systems Thinking

This helped me a lot. I found the book can be hard to take in when read in a linear way. You sometimes find yourself asking the question…”What the hell is this magical ‘Fifth Discipline’ this guy is talking about? Just give it to me!’

I’ve now learned that the ‘Fifth Discipline’ is the ability to merge the first four disciplines named above. It’s the ability to systems think, as it were. That’s becoming a very hot topic at the moment, what with the preponderance of organisations like IDEO and the idea of ‘design thinking.’ Design thinking, however, can be done in isolation of an organisations culture and doesn’t always lead to generative outcomes. So think of Senge’s work being concerned with ‘cultural design’ and it may help. From the book…

“To practice a discipline is to be a life long learner. You never arrive; you spend your life mastering disciplines. You can never say “We are a learning organisation,” any more than you can say, “I am an enlightened person.” The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your ignorance. Thus, a corporation cannot be “excellent” in the sense of having arrived at a permanent excellence; it is always in the state of practising the disciplines of learning, of getting better or worse.” – Pg 10.

And so, The Fifth Discipline provides a useful roadmap to think about the culture that you’re trying to create in an organisation and the places where you can provide the most beneficial impact. It has a high degree of interdependence built into it. Many times, you’ll see organisations focus on one of the disciplines in such a way as to over-compensate, leaving the other disciplines under invested in. This is where you can get dissonance within a collective, where there appears to be a large gap between what is an espoused value and what is an experienced value.

“To understand how an organism works we must understand its balancing process – those that are explicit AND implicit. We could master long lists of body parts, organs, bones, veins, and blood vessles and yet we wouldn’t understand how the body functions – until we understood how the neuromuscular system maintains balance, or how the cardiovascular system maintains blood pressure and oxygen levels. This is why many attempts to redesign social systems fail.” – Pg 86

Dr W. Edwards Demming, known largely as the grandfather of Total Quality Management, had this to say about management theory, and why The Fifth Discipline is an important book.

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin in toddlers – a prize for the Halloween costumer, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through university. On the job, people teams and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable…(the) job of management in education, industry and government should be the optimisation of a system…Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, from which I have learnt much, is a good place to begin”

So, I’m going to keep sharing various thoughts and parts of the book as I review it, here on the blog. If you’ve read the book yourself, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about it and what you’ve taken from it in the comments below, or email me at steve@thesquigglyline.com.

4 thoughts on “Culture Design: An overview of The Fifth Discipline”

  1. Great value in what you put in your post Steve. Applying this discipline to our lives as a whole and checking in with where we are at time to time would be a valuable exercise.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Looking forward to your ongoing musing about the 5th Discipline.  It’d be great to here how your thinking emerges w.r.t. how it applies to Yammer and the new role you’ve taken on as well!

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