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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What if? – Shifting Paradigms

What if everything you know and believe in is turned upside down? What if all your paradigms are put to the test? This is a little extreme and might not sound very attractive, I admit. But let’s say some of what you believe in and hold for true and objective is shaken up. How could this change your views, your practices, and your outcomes? With our need for predictability and stability, a major shake-up might sound like close to a nightmare for many people, but let me put that in a different perspective for you.  

We have all learned that following (preferably agreed upon) rules is considered a sine qua non of rationality and of scientific reasoning and work, but isn’t it true that most breakthroughs, inventions, and new ways of believing and looking at the world are the result of breaking away from those rules, of violating the rules, and of stepping out of the confining restrictions that these rules place on us? Just think of the time when people were convinced that the sun circled the earth, because this is what they thought they saw. This seemed objective and true at the time. As Thomas Kuhn, influential American scientist and philosopher asserted, the function of a paradigm is to provide puzzles for scientists to help them solve problems. In science a crisis arises when confidence is lost in the stability of the paradigm to solve issues. This crisis often results in the existing paradigm being overthrow by a rivaling paradigm. I believe the most interesting response to a crisis is to search for a revised framework and theory, something that seems to be necessary in the fields of politics, economy, and business to mention just a few.
But how about our thinking at an individual level? According to Karl Popper, the Austria born British philosopher , the revolutionary overthrow  of a theory is one that is logically required by the occurrence of an anomaly. In our daily life, however, we too often seem to disregard anomalies. We regularly perceive them to be annoying and inconvenient nuisances without giving them or our failing theories and practices much thought. We might incorporate these anomalies as the imperfections in life. In some cases this might actually be an effective and sustainable way of looking at deviations and imperfections. In other cases, however, it might not be at all. Main point being:  Most of us likely benefit from increasing our awareness of the anomalies in our thinking and acting and how we can use them to our greatest advantage, whether it implies revising our theories and practices or not.

Even in the case of debating, where the goal is to exert flawless arguing without any imperfections or failing argumentation, we tend to perceive the person with the missing or failing arguments to be on the losing end. But I wonder whether this line of thinking prevents development and innovation from taking place, and it sure makes life a lot less interesting. Maybe we should follow this line of thinking: Personal and business knowledge, just like scientific knowledge, is subject to revision as new evidence comes to light or new ideas emerge. How different would we think, act, collaborate, and operate if we would apply this to our personal beliefs, our thinking, and our business practices?  Even more so, shouldn’t we be actively seeking new ideas and evidence rather than frantically holding on to our present beliefs and practices as if they were life vests in stormy weather?
Whether with other people or within yourself, argument, debate, and challenge what seems to be known. Put this at the core of your personal development. Building on existing knowledge and challenging what’s already known (or what you think you know) in the light of new ideas and perspectives is what helps you advance and innovate, both in your personal and in your professional life.  Let’s shift those paradigms in 2012!


  1. Well put, Carolien. The inability or unwillingness to set aside or relax a set point of view, or paradigm, inhibits learning, relationships, best solutions and business results. Richard Tedlow wrote an excellent book on a related topic ("Denial," 2010)about the dynamic of "knowing but not knowing." We can be aware of data that strongly contradicts our views, but deny it on account of our paradigm that you speak of. You write about one facet of "Authenticity" in my book Navigating Integrity: the ability to see things as they are vs. how we wish they were. I agree with Warren Bannis who said that "a leader's first job is to define reality."

  2. Thanks for your insightful response Al and I will check out Tedlow's book. Let's define reality in multiple ways and keep an open mind for other people's versions. Would make quite a different world if we'd all succeed at this.