The Three Core Learning Organization Capabilities



The Internet is abuzz what seems like a version of this work but often times, are adulterations we have made to this work and in the process, and I am going out on a limb here, ‘massacred’ (sometimes literally) the meaning of the five disciplines.   This sometimes happen, so as to avoid plagiarism but often done to promote business interests and agenda under the guise of the works.  This is counter-productive. There is a price we have been paying for re-hashing but in the process we are losing the essence of this work.  There is a huge price we are paying for seeking quick fixes.

I am not out there to get a certificate nor a degree and so I prefer to respect and attribute the author and then take on a more purist stand in studying the works.  I feel that until we are designing “a new car” ourselves, that we make sure, for now we learn the work just as it is. Get it right. The first time.



“The five disciplines represent approaches (theory and methods) for developing three core learning capabilities: fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation and understanding complexity.  We came to refer to these as the core learning capabilities of teams and symbolically represented them as a three-legged stool to visually convey the importance of each – the stool would not stand up if any one of the three are missing.”

(Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 2nd edition, p. ix.)

The three legs represent an inter-related set of competencies (as Peter would jokingly refer to as, “the three sides of the same coin”, if there is anything like that!) for a deep commitment to learning.  As a result, they engender an alternative set of behaviors needed to allow a  group of people to work at their best so that the organization creates the results that matter to them.

The first is a the spirit of deep intention.  The Learner crystallizes their vision of what actually are we trying to accomplish here.

The capacity of individuals, teams and eventually larger organizations to orient themselves toward what they truly care about and to change because they want to, not just because they need to.  All of the learning disciplines, but particularly the practice of personal mastery and building shared vision, develop these capabilities.

(Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 2nd edition)

The second leg represents the capacity for reflective conversation.  This is the ability to reflect:

  • We tried and then what happened?
  • That reflective dynamic which are actions that require us to think and to think together.
  • To carry out an observation of a data to reach an understanding of the data.
  • Asking the question how would we need to think differently to get the outcome that we want.

The capacity to reflect on deep assumptions and patterns of behavior, both individually and collectively.  Developing capacities for real conversation is not easy.  Most of what passes for conversation is more like a ping-pong game than true talking and thinking together.  Each individual tosses his or her view at the other. Each then responds.  “Learningful” conversations require individuals capable of their own thinking.  These skills emerge especially strong in the disciplines of mental models and team learning,

Peter Senge

The third leg is about seeing the larger system to understand complexity.   Organizations have suffered from silos.  This is the problem of not seeing how things go together, that it might not add up to what we want.

The capacity to see larger systems and forces at play and to construct public, testable way of expressing our views.  What seemed so simple from my individual point of view looks much less so when I see it from others’ point of view.  And constructing coherent descriptions of the whole requires conceptualization skills not found in traditional organizations  Systems thinking is vital for these skills especially with the reflectiveness and openness fostered by working with mental models.

Peter Senge

[Page references refer to pages in ‘The Fifth Discipline’]


Each of the five disciplines represents a lifelong body of study and practice for individuals and teams in organizations.

  1. Seeing Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is a conceptual framework grounded in Systems Dynamics that has been developed over the past fifty years to discipline us in seeing and understanding patterns – looking beyond events – to deeper “structures” that control events, and discovering the leverage that lies hidden in these structures.

The essence of the discipline lies in a shift of mind to (pg 68):

  • See interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and
  • See processes of change rather than snapshots

The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding two simple concepts:

  • “Feedback” – that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other
  • “Delays” – when things happen … eventually

Since we are part of the system, it becomes twice as hard to see the whole pattern of change.  Instead we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.

In this discipline, people learn to better understand inter-dependency and change, and thereby to deal more effectively with the forces that shape the consequences of our actions.

Systems Thinking is based upon a growing body of theory about the behavior of feedback and complexity-the innate tendencies of a system that lead to growth or stability over time.  Tools and techniques such as system archetypes and various types of learning labs and simulations help people see how to change systems more effectively, and how to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic world.  The circle in this icon represents the fundamental building block of all systems: the circular “feedback loop” underlying all growing and limiting processes in nature.

  1. Clarifying Mental Models

These are the deeply ingrained or held pictures each of us holds in our mind that influences how we understand the world, our work, our families, and so on and how we take actions.
[Notes on ‘pictures’.  These are images, assumptions, generalizations – abstractions based on data]

Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour, particularly in limiting us to familiar ways of thinking.  That is why, the discipline of managing mental models – surfacing, testing and improving our internal pictures of how the world works – promises to be a major breakthrough for building learning organizations (pg 174).  Together we explore the work by Chris Argyris which helps us throw light on why this happens and consciously leads us to a place where we may work with mental models more rigorously.

With that awareness, we begin to learn that the discipline of working with mental model starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures (left hand column and ladder of inference) of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.  It also includes the ability to carry on “learningful” conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others, engendering values of openness and love of truth in the process.

This discipline of reflection and inquiry skills is focused around developing awareness of the attitudes and perceptions that influence thought and interaction.  By continually reflecting upon, talking about, and reconsidering these internal pictures of the world, people can gain more capability in governing their actions and decisions. The icon here portrays one of the more powerful principles of this discipline, the “ladder of inference” depicting how people leap instantly to counterproductive conclusions and assumptions.

  1. Encouraging Personal Mastery

States Senge, “Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively” (p. 141).  People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them – in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art.

They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.  Surprisingly few adults work to rigorously develop their own personal mastery.  When asked what they most want from their lives, most adults often talk first about what they’d like to get rid of: “I’d like my back problems to clear up” or they say, “I’d like my mother-in-law to move out”.  The discipline of personal mastery, by contrast, starts with clarifying the things that really matter to us (of knowing ourselves and being able to hold the creative tension) and being generative in the service of our highest aspirations.

Few organizations encourage the growth of their people in this manner.  This result in vast untapped resources: Senge offers that an organization’s commitment and capacity for learning can only be no greater than that of its members.

This discipline of aspiration involves formulating a coherent picture of the results people most desire to gain as individuals (their personal vision), alongside a realistic assessment of the current state of their lives today (their current reality). Learning to cultivate the tension between vision and reality (represented in this icon by the rubber band) can expand people’s capacity to make better choices, and to achieve more of the results that they have chosen.

  1. Building Shared Vision

All too often, a company’s shared vision has revolved around the charisma of a leader, or around a crisis that galvanizes everyone temporarily.  A shared vision is a vision that many people are committed to, because it reflects their own personal vision (pg 206).  Then, given a choice, most people opt for pursuing a lofty goal, not only in times of crisis but at all times.

What has been lacking is a discipline for translating individual vision into shared vision – a set of principles (shared vision as “hologram” and guiding practices (visioning process/unearthing shared “pictures of the future” and acknowledging current reality) that foster enrolment rather than compliance.  In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt.

This collective discipline establishes a focus on mutual purpose. People learn to nourish a sense of commitment in a group or organization by developing shared images of the future they seek to create (symbolized by the eye), and the principles and guiding practices by which they hope to get there.

  1. Enhancing Team Learning

Senge finds that “teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations.”  Because of the long-standing experience which many organizations have with group dynamics and team building, many teams believe that they have been practicing a version of this discipline for years.  However unlike team building, team learning is not a discipline of improving team members’ skills, not even communication skills or ‘learning as a team’ (Senge, Fieldbook, 352).

For many years, we have used the concept of alignment as distinct from agreement, to capture the essence of team learning.  Alignment means “functioning as a whole”.  Building alignment (you never “get there”) is about enhancing the team’s capacity to think and act in new synergistic ways, with full coordination and a sense of unity, because team members know each other’s hearts and minds.  As alignment develops, people don’t have to overlook or hide their disagreements; indeed, they develop the capacity to use their disagreements to make their collective understanding richer.

This is a discipline of group interaction. Through techniques like dialogue and skillful discussion, teams transform their collective thinking, learning to mobilize their energies and ability greater than the sum of individual members’ talents. The icon symbolizes the natural alignment of a learning-oriented team as the flight of a flock of birds.

Changing How We Work Together

Though we had been doing the work described in The Fifth Discipline for ten or fifteen years before the book was published, we hadn’t used the word ‘discipline.’  It was only in the writing of the book that it finally hit me that what we were talking about was discipline, in the very same spirit in which the word has been used in the creative arts or in spiritual traditions for thousands of years.  That people might have a potential or a talent, but they can’t cultivate it without discipline.”

Peter Senge

The idea of creating organizational results using the five disciplines of Learning Organization rests on the one simple idea that the five disciplines when they act together create an underlying structure that is needed for change to happen.



Tension Seeks Resolution

The underlying structure of anything determines its behavior. This is a principle of structural dynamics, which is the study of how and why structure has the impact it does on individuals, relationships, teams, organizations, and so much of our world.

It is also a basic principle found throughout nature.  Tension seeks resolution.   From the spiderweb to the human body, from the formation of the galaxies to the  shifts of continents, from the swing of pendulums to the movement of wind-up toys, tension-resolution systems are in play.

“I call the relationship between the vision and current reality structural tension.  During the creative process, you have an eye on where you want to go, and you also have an eye on where you currently are.

There will always be structural tension in the beginning of the creative process, for there will always be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have.  Why?  Because creators bring into being creations that do not yet exist. Structural tension is a fundamental principle in the creative process.  In fact, part of your job as a creator is to form this tension.”

From Creating by Robert Fritz


The term structure has been used in many contexts in our lives,  This is a quick definition of how we use the term.

Structure is a whole thing.  A car is a structure.  A rocking chair is a structure.  A building is a structure, as is the human body. A structure is an entity that is undivided, complete and total.

Your life is a structure, and as all structures, it will have certain ways it will act, behave and work.  Certainly a car works differently than a rocking chair. A building works very differently than does a human body.  Your life may work very differently from how other people’s lives work.

There are two basic structural patterns people have: advancing and oscillating.

Advancing is a structure in which the success you have achieved becomes the platform for future success. You can build momentum over time, and the sum total of your life experiences leads you forward.

In an oscillating structure the success you have created is neutralized.  Each step forward is followed by a step backward.  Within this structure, success cannot succeed long term.

If you try to change (advance) your life and you are in an oscillating structure, success will only be temporary.

From Your Life as Art by Robert Fritz

The Structural Tension Model is deceptively simple.  Its power and weakness lies in its simplicity.  You only need to be clear of two things in order to move forward – vision and current reality.  When you have identified vision from current reality, you perceive the gap. The gap produces a natural structure to create the tension one needs so that in resolving the tension, one brings about the change that one desires.

Change itself does not need to be managed.  Creating the structure does.

Two boxes on a flip chart, one at the top and one at the bottom.  I backed up and studied it. Seemed pretty simple and obvious.  No big deal…YET.  And then my years of structural training in music hit me like a ton of virtual bricks.  The difference between the two boxes formed a tension.  In tonal harmony, the tension is the most dynamic and powerful structure there is.  It is the structural dynamic that enables music to move from one moment to another.  The experience of being both here and there in the creative process became crystal clear, it was the same as holding a harmonic tension, which would naturally lead to resolution.


So how do we, as teams, learn to become a good team to bring about the structural tension that is needed to create the results that matter together.   To do that, the work of Learning Organisation offers to help the team seek clarity of three levels, and these are the three legs of core competencies of a Learning Organization:

  • Easily re-conceive a compelling reality they wish to create for the future (1st box) and for themselves and the team. When they find a compelling vision, they can see clearly that they must change their life in order to reach that result and commit themselves to that result nonetheless
  • Learn to use a powerful yet a simple set of tools of systems thinking to discover and articulate the complexities faced within and by organizations in the current reality (the 2nd box) and learn to apply high leverage interventions to achieve fruitful change for the organization.
  • Learn to engage in conversations that reduces defensiveness and degenerative quality and instead become skilled to move conversations to a place that facilitates the availability of valid information leading to free and informed choices and internal commitment to the choices they and the team makes.
The Creative Tension Model

This is not unsimilar to the principles Otto Scharmer’s ideas of Presencing in Theory U.

The U-Theory, by Otto Scharmer

And so, if I have a vision but if it is not grounded in current reality, the vision is not realistic. There is no tension within the organization.  The other way it can happen is to be too grounded in the current reality.   When one is mired in current reality, the vision does not appear real.  We need both (vision and current reality) to create the tension needed that in resolving so, it brings change, effectively and efficiently.

This becomes the essence of the practice of Learning Organizations.

Dr. Peter Senge had chosen the words he had used to describe the disciplines very carefully and I feel it is important that given we carry our own innate filters with us, that we first work hard (which include removing our filters) to study the work as it is.  Even if it means learning to re(-move) our own filters to help us understand and learn the works.

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