BOOK REVIEW: “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” by Peter M. Senge (2006)

Key words

The Learning Organization, double loop learning, strategy, creative tension


Some books are worth reading several times. This is one of them. Written in 1990 when the West was getting used to the post industrial world and the development of a knowledge economy, it advocates the creation of a learning organization as a way of achieving sustainable competitive advantage over your competitors. Companies that prosper will be those than learn more quickly. At the time this seemed like a very innovative idea in the command and control world of traditional management. Today many of these ideas have been integrated into highly successful companies.

In a learning organization, you have to merge thinking and acting in every individual

There are times when Peter Senge, seems to ask more questions than he answers. Some is even utopic such as his idea that :…the disciplines of the learning organization will, I believe, end the taboo that has surrounded the topic of balancing work and family, and has kept it off the corporate agenda. Modern technology (and our willingness to adopt it) seems to have achieved just the opposite. However, the book redefines the role of leadership and is almost philosophical, even spiritual. These ideas were later echoed in Good to Great by Jim Collins and his concept of Level 5 leadership. It also gives excellent insights into systems thinking and time management. The revised edition contains interviews with organizations such as Unilever, Intel, Ford, HP, Saudi Aramco, Oxfam and The World Bank.Some keys facts: Of every ten start-up companies, one half will disappear within their first five years, only four survive into their tenth year, and only three into their fifteenth year.In 1983, a Royal Dutch/Shell survey found that one third of the firms in the Fortune 500 in 1970 had vanished.

Interesting quotes from the book

The truly creative person knows that all creating is acheived through working with constraints. Without constraints there is no creating.
Or, as Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, Inc., says, “In the traditional hierarchical organization, the top thinks and the local acts. In a learning organization, you have to merge thinking and acting in every individual”

Localness is especially vital in times of rapid change.

Learning organizations practice forgiveness because, as Cray Research’s CEO John Rollwagen says, “Making the mistake is punishment enough.”

For most American business people the best rate of growth is fast, faster, fastest

Thus, a corporation cannot be “excellent” in the sense of having arrived at a permanent excellence; it is always in the state of practicing the disciplines of learning, of becoming better or worse.

Only mediocre people are always at their best.

Few large corporations live even half as long as a person.

For most American business people the best rate of growth is fast, faster, fastest.  Yet, virtually all natural systems, from ecosystems to animals to organizations, have intrinsically optimal rates of growth. 

Perhaps for the first time, human kind has the capacity to create more information than anyone can absorb, to foster far greater interdependency than anyone can manage, and to accelerate change far faster than anyone’s ability to keep pace.  Certainly the scale of complexity is without precedent.

…managers frequently fail to appreciate the extent to which their own expectations influence subordinates’ performance. 

The more aggressive you are in your behavior, the more drastically you turn the knobs, the longer it will take to reach the right temperature. 


…the essence of mastering systems thinking as a management discipline lies in seeing patterns where others see only events and forces to react to.

Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.

Late in his career, the psychologist Abraham Maslow studied high performing teams. One of their most striking characteristics was shared vision and purpose.

It may simply not be possible to convince human beings rationally to take a long-term view. People do not focus on the long term because they have to, but because they want to.

In a remarkable book, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, Werner Heisenberg (formulator of the famous “Uncertainty Principle” in modern physics) argues that “Science is rooted in conversations. The cooperation of different people may culminate in scientific results of the utmost importance”.

Bohm identifies three basic conditions that are necessary for dialogue:

  1.  all participants must “suspend” their assumptions, literally to hold them “as if suspended before us” ;
  2.    all participants must regard one another as colleagues ;
  3.    there must be a “facilitator” who “holds the context” of dialogue.

As Albert Einstein once wrote: “Our theories determine what we measure”.

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See also:


Other Book Reviews

Fifth Discipline: What To Do When All Your Projects Are Failing

Shrinkonia: “When your company is struggling with projects, when all Project Managers are PMP certified, when every conceivable procedure seems to be in place, it is time to turn to The Fifth Discipline. No, this is not some kind of dark society. It is the art of creating a learning organization.”

The Fifth Discipline

Eric D. Brown: “The book can be summed up in a few sentences…but they don’t do the book justice.  Peter Senge states that in order to become a learning organization, the Five Disciplines must be adopted with the Systems Thinking discipline being the most important.  He argues that Systems Thinking allows people and organizations to see the deeper issues of problems.”

Review: The Fifth Discipline

Journey Guy: “Doing systems thinking means becoming a learning organization. It’s a group of people all committed to the truth of where their organization is/isn’t and working from there with a broad, compelling vision as their reference point and goal.”


The story of the ups and downs of Starbucks and why Howard Schultz decided to return as CEO. Steve Jobs’ favourite book. Any more questions? Nobel Prize winner and one of the best sellers this year. A must read for any business student.


Classic book that gives the ins and outs of creating new markets. An excellent outline of some of the fundamental issues in strategic management. The book is short and generally to the point. Learn about The IKEA Effect, The Baby Jessica Effect and why large bonuses make CEOs less effective.




Filed under Book Review, Leadership, Management, Strategy

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