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Why paradigm shifts are important

(With thanks to Leadership Letters and especially Leadership Letter No. 103.) Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

It is very easy to see where others need to change, so that "things can be improved", but not always so easy to see where we need to change ourselves. Sometimes our society imposes a paradigm straitjacket on us (e.g., religious custom, political correctness, rule by dictatorship), so that we cannot (are unable or not permitted to) change - even if we wanted to. Under such circumstances, in our minds we may still see a change as being desirable, so that "things can be improved".
This is what I was referring to in the blog post on Ahamkara, below.

A significant change of thinking frameworks/patterns can be referred to as a "paradigm shift".

What exactly is a paradigm shift?
A "paradigm" is defined (Shorter English Oxford Dictionary) as:
  • "An example; a pattern followed; a typical instance; an epitome; Philos. a mode of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science in a particular period of history." L15.
In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn defined a "paradigm" as:
  • "a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community which forms a particular vision of reality that is the basis of the way a community organizes itself".
Thus, a paradigm is an overarching mindset, a worldview, a particular perception of the way things are. Moreover, a paradigm is shared by the members of a broad community. The fact that it is a shared belief system makes paradigms at once powerful and yet difficult to discern. Frequently, paradigms are implicit and hidden assumptions. What gives paradigms their subtle power is that we generally do not distinguish between what is being thought and the paradigm it is being thought through. In demonstrating this point, Kuhn traces scientific disciplines in their shifting of gears over the past 400 years, and he points out three surprising patterns:
  1. A dominant paradigm is seldom, if ever, stated explicitly; it exists unquestioned.
  2. Once paradigms are accepted, our minds cling to them tenaciously.
  3. The unfolding of a new paradigm is always discontinuous. Intellectual and emotional resistance inevitably arise when a new way of looking at the world is presented.
Joel Barker, in The Business of Paradigms, makes the following points:
  • Paradigms are common. We have them in almost every aspect of our lives, including our spiritual lives. We have paradigms of how we understand “church,” “Christian leadership” and, of course, “leader development.”
  • Paradigms are useful. They help us identify what is important and what is not. They focus our attention. They offer us models for problem solving and ways of acting and reacting.
So paradigms in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. They are very useful. Like the metaphor, they give us a power to think about and cope with life - and that is why we need them. However, problems occur when our current paradigms prevent us from seeing new and potentially better ways of doing things.
  • Sometimes our paradigm can become the paradigm – the only way to do something. This can lead to “paradigm paralysis.”
  • Consequently, when we’re confronted with an alternative idea, we reject it out of hand.
Paradigms can be so strong once in place that they act as psychological filters – we quite literally see the world through our paradigms. Any data or theory that exists in the real world (in a science textbook, or in The Bible, or in the Quran, for example) that does not fit our paradigm will have a difficult time getting through our filters. We are quite literally unable to perceive the facts right before our eyes.

Thus, and in summary:
  • What is potentially one of our greatest strengths could become a great weakness, by not allowing us to see both the need and the opportunity for change.
  • The people who create new paradigms are usually "outsiders" - i.e., not usually part of the established paradigm community.
  • These outsiders have nothing to lose by creating the new paradigm. This could mean that, if we wanted to find the new paradigms that are developing in a certain field, we may need to look beyond the centre, sometimes even beyond the fringes.
  • Those practitioners of the old prevailing (AS-IS) paradigm who elect to change to a new (TO-BE) paradigm have to be very courageous. e.g., Galileo Galilei, who was persecuted by the Catholic Church when his scientifically gathered facts and theories contradicted the prevailing religious dogma and theory of geocentrism - the latter being the AS-IS paradigm of that time. This was argumentum ad hominem on a grand scale.
  • New paradigms can be perceived as "threats" to the old ones. The higher our position and the greater our ego involvement, the greater may be the perceived risk. The better we have become at the "old ways", the more we have invested in it, and the more we may feel we have to lose by changing paradigms. Icons must not be broken, sacred cows must not be killed, and some would put their lives - or (more usually) the lives of others - at risk to preserve the status quo.
  • It is up to us to choose whether to change our paradigms. We can choose to question our old paradigms and adopt new ones.
However, a word of caution to the wise: Just as we may need to critically review our old, constricting paradigms, we need to similarly be critical of new paradigms promulgated by any state or religious "Ministry of Truth".

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  1. Why do you caution against a "religious Ministry of Truth" when you quote one at length? Just a thought, but perhaps objective truth does - after all - exist!

  2. I was not quoting from a 1984-type of "Min. of Truth", but from theory suggested in books by others.

    Objective truth may exist, but human nature may preclude us from being able to experience it.

    Nullius in verbo. Motto of the Royal Society, London. Take nobody's word for it; see for yourself.