The Paradox of Paradigms

“Surprise occurs the moment we realize
our view of the world no longer matches reality.”
-Wayne Burkan, author, WIDE ANGLE VISION

Blockbuster, Eastman Kodak, and Borders – what do they all have in common? All these business giants failed, but why? Like many analysts, you could come up with a number of logical reasons for their plight – they did not create new products that kept them competitive, failed to embrace the power of the Internet or were not willing to take bigger risks. But, the bottom line is they were unable to recognize and overcome the underlying paradigms that sabotaged them from quickly recognizing opportunities and quickly adapting to the changing marketplace.
What is a paradigm?
The word “Paradigm” comes from the Greek “paradeigma” which means model, pattern or example.” Thomas S. Kuhn, a scientific historian and author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962) first brought the concept to the scientific world.
Adam Smith defines paradigm in his book, “The Powers of the Mind” as “A shared set of assumptions. The paradigm is the way we perceive the world; water to the fish. The paradigm explains the world to us and helps us to predict its behavior.”
There are cultural paradigms or unstated, deeply entrenched rules underlying or guiding our behavior. Stephen R. Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” wrote, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are – or, as we are conditioned to see it.”
It might be helpful to view paradigms as the internal “maps” we carry with us. They predict how we see the world, the way we believe things “should be.” These maps provide us with our reality and create our “judgments.”
Our paradigms are formed by our early experiences including the belief systems of our parents, family and culture. They form a set of rules, mind-sets, regulations or procedures that create boundaries or limitations and tell you how to conduct your behavior (make your choices) within those boundaries or limitations in order to meet with success.
A perfect example is a game of chess. You cannot suddenly take your pawn and start jumping over the other chess pieces as if you were playing a game of checkers. You must stay within the rules to play the game. In fact, all games are paradigms and these paradigms regulate our actions. This is positive when the rules support us to live as a coherent society. But, as with Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders, as well as many individual failures, that is not always the case. Sometimes we stay within these invisible boundaries even when the boundaries and rules are self-defeating.
Forming a new paradigm is extremely challenging. In order to create a new game, whether it is marketing a product or shedding a negative habit, you must first identify and change a restricting paradigm. Consider someone who takes on a system of rules to lose weight but continues to cheat on a diet or an individual commits to achieving a goal but procrastinates. Something else is going on. When an unacknowledged paradigm or rule goes against what we consciously choose to change, the subconscious rule will win.
The antidote is to create a “paradigm shift.” A paradigm shift is a radical change in underlying beliefs or theory. The shift happens when a majority of people accept a changed belief, attitude or way of doing things. Personally it is stepping “out of the box” and creating a new game with a new set of rules – a transformation. It does not magically happen, but is driven by agents of change.
You can trace major paradigm shifts throughout history. For example, primitive Indians existed for centuries roaming the earth, hunting and gathering. The paradigm shifted. By 2000 B.C., Middle America was transformed with a landscape of small villages surrounded with fields of corn and vegetables.
Scientific history is ripe with paradigm shifts. A major paradigm shift in scientific theory happened when the Ptolemaic system (where the earth was seen as the center of the universe) shifted to the Copernican system (where the sun is at the center of the universe). There was the paradigm shift from Newtonian physics to Relativity and Quantum Physics.
Culture was changed with the invention of the printing press. Today both the personal computer and the Internet have created massive paradigm shifts in the flow of information. We are still in the midst of transformation as we shift from a mechanistic, manufacturing, industrial society to an organic, service-based, information-centered society and increases in technology will continue to impact us globally.
Change is inevitable and it is the only true constant. Although change is difficult and Human Beings resist change on a genetic level, growth and forward movement demands shifting self-restricting paradigms. As Kuhn states, “Awareness is prerequisite to all acceptable changes of theory.” It all begins in your mind by indentifying and changing limiting paradigms. There are three ways to identify a paradigm.
The easiest to identify and the most visible are the paradigms (rules) that are imposed on you that you disagree with. Example: – talking on the cell phone while driving – knowing it is against the law.
The second easiest paradigms to identify are the paradigms (rules) imposed on yourself, by yourself – that you say you agree with, but actually disagree with – and – don’t follow. Example: – dieting, exercising or stopping an addiction such as alcohol or tobacco.
The most difficult paradigms to identify and the ones that have the greatest impact are the ones you agree with. In a sense, these paradigms are invisible because you believe your present reality is the way “things should be” and is the real “truth.”
Joel Barker, the creator of The New Business of Paradigms, the first person to popularize the concept of paradigm shifts for the corporate world, wrote, “What may be perfectly clear and visible to one person is invisible to another because of differing paradigms. This is the Paradigm Effect. Old paradigms block our ability to view new paradigms. What is obvious to one is not to another. Paradigm-enhancing innovations are easy to see, but paradigm-shifting innovations blind us because they don’t follow our paradigm. It just means we must trust others and put ours aside so we can see theirs.”
This is hard to do because it requires you to really listen to what other people say that may be the polar opposite of what you believe – without getting defensive. There is almost always more than one right answer. Both eliciting advice and listening to others allows for more perspectives. Two people see the same thing two different ways. The other person may identify a limiting paradigm in your thinking or the collective thinking of a group.
Uncovering limiting paradigms to personal or professional growth is tricky. You must become a “paradigm detective” using a stealth-like approach. You must shake up your thinking by using your imagination and asking the right questions. Only then can you uncover hidden paradigms.
Following are variations of two strategies that I have successfully used both in my private coaching and in business breakout sessions. Play the game. They work.
Strategy #1: What measure of performance FOR YOU, either personally or professionally, would be extraordinary, but virtually impossible to achieve? Next, ask yourself: If I achieved that level a year from now, what did I do differently? Write down the answers. Don’t lay the change challenge on your company, your budget, the economy, or anything else outside your control. What could YOU be doing different to get to that level? Finally, after each answer, write the phrase: “According to my paradigm.”
Strategy #2: Project 3 years in the future and imagine you, your team or your company has failed in achieving your goals. Write a short article, no more than two paragraphs, as to why. After you have completed your article, ask yourself, “Do I see any of these reasons for failure happening in my life now?” If so, what action steps can you take to prevent failure from happening?
Uncover your limiting paradigms and you will enhance your ability to live an exceptional life.

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