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To avoid clichés and platitudes, let us be clear what is a paradigm, and therefore what is a paradigm shift.

The phrase ‘Paradigm shift’ has become a cliché. This overuse is causing the phrase to lose its impact.  Are you, like me, fed up with any change being accompanied by “It’s a paradigm shift”, because, as we shall see, not every change is a paradigm shift.

I believe there are real changes that are affecting our businesses and organisations: changes that deserve the phrase paradigm shift.  In writing about them, I wanted to be clear what a ‘paradigm’ is, and when I referred to a ‘paradigm shift’ it was a genuine shift in a paradigm.  I wanted to use the words with genuine clarity, meaning and impact.

To explores what is a paradigm, and what is a paradigm shift, I cover:

  1. Standard definitions of paradigms and a paradigm shift
  2. Paradigms are our models of the world how and how it works
  3. Recognising that the actual world is different from our model of the world (the paradigm)
  4. A paradigm requires a specific perspective or lens on the world.
  5. The paradigm shift only exists in the context of an observer and their model of the world.
  6. Shifts in paradigms contrast with slow changes in the real world.
  7. Exploring the paradigm shifts that affect our organisations.

1 Standard definitions of a paradigm

A paradigm (noun)

  • A typical example of something: a pattern or model. An outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype (Oxford dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Cambridge dictionary)
  • A model for something which explains it or shows how it can be produced (Collins Dictionary)
  • In science and technology:
    • Intellectual perception or view, accepted by an individual or a society as a clear example, model, or pattern of how things work in the world.
    • A distinct set of concepts, thought patterns or theories

Paradigm shift: A fundamental change in an individual’s or a society’s view of how things work in the world. (Attributed to science theorist & historian Thomas Kuhn) (For sources, see references at bottom)

2    Paradigms are our models of the world and how it works

We all carry models of the world around with us: it is how we function.  We recognise patterns and use our observations of those patterns to create models and theories of the world, to predict future behaviour.  We are all pattern matchers that create models and theories.  It is how we function and learn as humans.  These models are called paradigms.

3    Separating the observed world from our model of the world (the paradigm)

The definitions of paradigm include words about both the pattern and the model or theory created about the pattern and how it works.  The word pattern is ambiguous in that it could refer to the pattern observed.  It can also refer to a pattern, as a model, as in a dress making pattern, used to create multiple versions of a dress.    To avoid this confusion, and because it is useful in this explanation to talk about the pattern we see, I will use:

  • Pattern: a collection of observations of the world, that seem to repeat, be regular or consistent or predictable.
  • Theory or Model: to refer to what we have built (in our minds) to predict about how that pattern, and the world, will behave.

The paradigm is the standard model or theory, built up from the observed pattern.

4    A paradigm shift depends on a perspective or view

The definition of paradigm includes the word ‘perspective’.  The paradigm, the theory or model, of the underlying pattern of the world, is created from a specific perspective.  For example, the age profile of the population is likely to have a different meaning and different models, from the perspectives of Social Care (a focus on the elderly) and Education (more of a focus on the young). The two different perspectives will create different theories and models about what is happening, that suit their perspective.

The specific user or observer is important. Each user has their lens through which the pattern is viewed and any changes in that pattern are considered.  Different users may take different meaning and implication from a change.  In response to a change in the pattern, their individual paradigms (models of theories) may change in different ways, and at different times.

It is clear to me that common usage of the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ is often lazy.  It is important that we recognise that there are three parts to that shift, so that we distinguish between:

  • The changes in the world. Without a lens or user perspective, these are merely changes.
  • The models and theories that we use to explain and operate in the world:
  • The view of the change from a specific perspective with a particular model. The realisation that our models or theories no longer work.

The former are merely changes. The latter may be shifts in someone’s paradigm.

5    A paradigm shift only exists in the context of an observer: when their model no longer works

When a change is particularly significant to a user with a model, the original model, thought pattern or theory is no longer valid.  The beliefs upon which the model was based have changed.  Importantly, the way we used to respond to that situation no longer works.

This is a “Paradigm shift”.  So, when people talk about experiencing a paradigm shift, they are saying that a fundamental part of their model of the world, as they see it, has changed and their model no longer works.  It is time to change or adapt the model.  They may have to make a fundamental change to their beliefs and working assumptions about how they operate.  For them, the paradigm shift is the implication of the change, as much as the original source of the change.  If a change does not cause a model to break, or to be reappraised, it is not a paradigm shift.

6   Shifts in paradigms contrast with slow changes in the real world

Why do we say shift in a paradigm? It’s a good question.  We could just as easily say paradigm change.  However, ‘shift’ carries a subtly different meaning.  We use the word shift to represent a move from one place to another, as in “I shift position in the chair”.  Shift suggests that the model or theory moves to a new model or theory.  Also, that we expect the new underlying pattern will persist for a period (and therefore we can apply a new model or theory for a period).

Most underlying patterns change slowly and continuously.  It is the recognition of the change that is sudden.  It is that realisation that creates the shock of the paradigm shift.  The observer experiences the paradigm shift, even though the underlying pattern may have been changing for some time.  It takes time to establish a new model or theory.  Hence, shift suggests that adjustment to accommodate the changes that have been happening.

7    Exploring the paradigm shifts that affect our organisations?

There are changes out there, but they may not matter.  They only matter when observed through a lens, a perspective on that change.  They are only a paradigm shift when the view through the lens changes the underlying thinking and assumptions from the perspective of the viewer.