The Fifth Discipline (1)


The following post consists of quotations from Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, along with my own attempts at paraphrasing them. My purpose is to put in one place the most important lessons that I think I should learn from reading The Fifth Discipline, and so the following material is best described as consisting of my personal notes more than anything else. Since this isn’t a summary of the book, I will select passages that appeal to me for one reason or another, and not necessarily because they’re central to the author’s argument.

There are three basic principles of systems thinking, as described in chapter 3.

Structure Influences Behavior: Different people in the same structure tend to produce qualitatively similar results. When there are problems, or performance fails to live up to what is intended, it is easy to find someone or something to blame. But, more often than we realize, systems cause their own crises, not external forces or individuals’ mistakes.

Structure in Human Systems is Subtle: We tend to think of “structure” as external constraints on the individual. But structure in complex living systems … means the basic interrelationships that control behavior. In human systems, structure includes how people make decisions—the “operating policies” whereby we translate perceptions, goals, rules, and norms into action.

Leverage Often Comes from New Ways of Thinking: In human systems, people often have potential leverage that they do not exercise because they focus only on their own decisions and ignore how their decisions affect others.

The structure of a system is found in the pattern of the interrelationships among the system’s key variables. We can easily identify the key variables of a system, but it takes time and effort to understand how they influence each other and how the patterns of their mutual influence changes in response to a change elsewhere in the system. Even though structures are not obvious, we can discern their power simply by noticing the feeling that compels us to act in particular ways and do what is expected of us. When you find yourself saying or thinking “I have no choice but to …,” it is very likely that you’re facing a structural constraint or imperative.


Indeed, the most important factor that shapes people’s actions is the structure of the system within which they are operating. This is why very different individuals often end up behaving in very similar ways when they are placed within the same position in a system—for instance, an otherwise peaceful person can turn overnight into an arrogant bully  when assigned the position of a prison guard. Yet, it would be incorrect to assume that people are merely cogs in a machine with no agency of their own. In the case of a human system—such as a school, a company, or a prison—individuals do not exist apart from the system’s structure; rather, they are very much an integral part of it. This means that blaming someone or something else is not helpful since it doesn’t take us off the hook; nor is blaming the “system” a legitimate excuse. It also means that we are not at the mercy of external forces that are lie somewhere else, above and beyond our control; rather, we have considerable leverage precisely because we are intimately connected to the web of influences that defines a system’s structure. Just as the system’s structure influences and shapes our behavior, we too have the power to change some of the structure within which we function. The flow of influence is active in both directions.

Towards the end of chapter 3, Senge discusses the three levels at which any complex situation can be analyzed and explained. The resulting explanations may all be valid, but they do not have the same usefulness. Event explanations focus on gathering such information as “who did what to whom” and tend to trap us in a reactive mode. Pattern of behavior explanations focus on identifying long-term trends and figuring out their implications; this approach begins to liberate us from the reactive mode and allows us to deliberately respond to the situation. Structural explanations are the least common and the most powerful. They focus on understanding the system’s structure in order to find the deeper causes that generate the observed patterns of behavior; such explanations can help us identify the root causes of the situation, thereby empowering us to take the appropriate corrective action. According to Senge:

The reason that structural explanations are so important is that only they address the underlying causes of behavior at a level that patterns of behavior can be changed. Structure produces behavior, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behavior. In this sense, structural explanations are inherently generative. Moreover, 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.

It seems that one progresses through these levels of explanation by repeatedly asking the “why” question. Suppose a particular event happened—a relatively new car broke down, a marriage disintegrated, a child contracted an illness that is supposed to have been eradicated, a family lost their home to foreclosure. When we ask “why” for the first time, the answer will provide an event explanation, consisting of the specific and immediate chain of causation that led to the particular event. Thus, the house was foreclosed because Mr. Smith was laid off by his employer, which prevented him for continuing to make his mortgage payments.

Asking “why” a second time will broaden our view and help us see that the specific behavior of particular individuals that caused the event in question was not a rare or isolated occurrence; rather, similar behavior could be observed in many other cases as well. In other words, we find that we are dealing with a relatively common phenomenon resulting from the same overall pattern of behavior. There are larger processes and long-term trends at play. It turns out, for example, that it wasn’t just Mr. Smith who lost his home; tens of thousands of similar cases were happening across the nation, all at the same time, mainly because of certain reckless practices by creditors.

Understanding the pattern of behavior explanation is empowering, for it allows us to see broader trends, which helps us anticipate future events and plan accordingly—but we have not yet arrived at the root causes. The second level of explanation calls for asking the “why” question a third time. Why is this particular pattern of behavior occurring? What elements of the system are allowing and/or incentivizing people to act in this way? To answer this question, we’d have to go into the structure of the system where the underlying  causes are to be found.

The structural explanation will help us see, for example, that the reckless practices by the creditors were made possible by the popularity of certain financial instruments on Wall Street, which in turn was due to financial deregulation many years earlier as well as decline in government oversight, and that these two trends were themselves caused by other processes or mechanisms. We would have to keep digging until we reach the root causes, i.e., the set of final elements in the causal chain that are susceptible to resolution. This is the level at which we must apply the corrective action if we are to have any real impact on the situation.


To summarize, focusing on a particular event and asking “why” produces an event explanation, revealing only the immediate causes; problem-solvers are trapped in a reactive mode. Asking “why” a second time yields a pattern of behavior explanation, revealing the intermediate causes; problem-solvers can now respond to shifting trends instead of reacting to particular events. Asking “why” a third time leads to a structural explanation, revealing the root causes; such an explanation is generative, since it empowers the problem-solvers to exercise maximum leverage.

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