September 6, 1999
I recall talking with some colleagues at a World Business Academy (WBA) meeting in the late 1980s and the word “paradigm” (pronounced ‘pair-a-dime’) was being used a lot. The word’s roots are tied to the academic and scientific communities, and popularized by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Our discussion centered around the idea that we had to come up with a better word than “paradigm” because business people would never understand what it meant or use it in their own communications. It was too “highbrow,” we thought at the time. It was jargon – and like all jargon, it tended to exclude people who didn’t know how to speak in that vernacular.
Well so much for what we thought. The term is now a common word in management lexicon. One of the WBA’s fellows, Michael Ray, a professor at Stanford’s School of Business, started a course at the school named “New Paradigm Business.” He later compiled an anthology for the WBA entitled The New Paradigm in Business. As Ray writes in the book’s Introduction, “…the word paradigm came to mean the fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world…” He described a paradigm shift in science as one “when the old set of assumptions no longer holds true, and a small band of scientists develops a new paradigm that everyone recognizes and applies, until yet another change seems necessary again.”
Paradigms grow out of some confusion, possible conflict and heresy. The beginning stage of any new paradigm is quite uncertain, like a business start-up, a new idea being considered, or the conception stage of pregnancy. Once the paradigm becomes established it begins to grow. This stage is the equivalent of the business growing and expanding, the idea gaining acceptance or the birth of the baby and its subsequent growth.
At some point along the way, after some period of time and accompanying growth, the old paradigm begins to lose steam. Continuing with my comparisons, the business starts losing sales, the idea starts losing agreement or the “baby” grows old and begins to lose its vitality. Someone, somewhere could be just beginning something new as this old paradigm’s straight-arrow growth begins to drop off, ever so slowly. So while the previously-growing company’s sales begin to slide (or possibly even before this time), another entrepreneur somewhere is creating a new business. As the previous idea starts losing credibility, another idea is being generated that might replace the older, more established one. A new baby is being conceived as the older one is beginning to age and lose vitality.
These cycles are the way nature works. Like tree and bushes whose leaves die and fall in the autumn and are replaced with new growth in the spring, life and death are simultaneously going on in the same place at the same time.
There is a gap between the dropping away of the old paradigm and the rising of the new one. In this gap lies great uncertainty. A deciduous tree in the winter could appear to be dead to the uneducated eye. Similarly, an old paradigm is failing and the new one hasn’t established credibility yet. During this period of time, things are chaotic, crazy-making and confusing.
This is the time we humans are enduring right now. We are caught in this gap. The old paradigm is failing us and we are trying to hold onto to it, as if for dear life – as if our very lives depended upon it. And, we can’t yet see anything to replace it because the new old isn’t “visible” yet, not having arrived in the mainstream nor having widespread acceptance. The only people who are comfortable with this situation are those who understand this process and are working toward bringing the new paradigm into existence.
Thus, the more people who understand this phenomenon, who understand how the old paradigm must die for the new one to be born, how the old needs to be released so we can embrace the new, the more readily the new paradigm will gain acceptance, credibility and support. This will allow us to evolve – to make this paradigm shift – to the next level as a species.
This shift in paradigms – which is presently underway – is from a mindset that has been promoted by our fixation on the hard sciences. This mindset believes we are separate beings, like gears in the machinery, individual parts of the world first and members of a “whole” second. We are shifting to a mindset that is the reverse perspective whereby we see ourselves as connected – members of the whole first and then as individuals or parts secondly. This reversal of perspective could be summed up as shifting from parts-to-the-whole to a perspective of whole-to-the-parts, which explicitly recognizes our interconnectedness with all other people and Nature and God.
This issue of Aha! has been adapted from Getting to the Better Future – a forthcoming book by the author. John E. Renesch is a San Francisco writer, futurist, and business philosopher. To contact him call 415-437-6974 in the U.S. More information about him and his work can be found on the Web at John Renesch.
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