A paradigm is the shared set of assumptions, theories and methods that guides the work of individuals and groups. All of us have them. Paradigms help us make sense of the world. They shape our approach to problem-solving, innovation and the pursuit of knowledge. They become our “truth” – even when flawed or untrue. A flat earth, witch burning and lobotomies used to be generally accepted paradigms. Thankfully, our understanding has improved and most of our paradigms are better.
Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science, noted that when most people are faced with a new paradigm, they tend to ignore, deny or even attack the new way of thinking rather than giving it a chance. This is especially true for those who don’t know how to change or have a vested interest – such as a career or reputation built on the current paradigm.
Attacks on those advocating a new paradigm by those wedded to the existing paradigm have always been common. The 17th-century church imprisoned Galileo for suggesting the earth orbited the sun. For decades, 19th-century doctors rejected the new paradigm of germ theory because it implicated their dirty hands as a source of disease transmission and high mortality rates. When Einstein introduced the theory of relativity, it was attacked by the scientific community. Einstein welcomed the criticism and even insisted that his theory pass three tests to be considered valid.
A longstanding paradigm in business is the belief that a top-down approach is best, with leaders dictating how everything should be done. In the early 1990s, when we introduced MBM® to our metal fabrication plant in Italy, the response of the union leaders was: “This might work in the US, but it won’t work in Italy. Here, managers think. Workers work. You’re asking us to do the manager’s job.” Applying MBM there required a paradigm shift.
Following are additional examples of business-related paradigms that are inconsistent with Principle Based Management™:
▶ Forcing employees into roles they aren’t good at or don’t care about rather than fitting the role to the comparative advantage of each
▶ Defending rather than challenging the status quo
▶ Using averages to make decisions rather than applying marginal analysis
▶ Hiring based on credentials rather than virtue and talents
▶ Increasing revenue that is unprofitable
Changing paradigms begins by recognizing that something is amiss, such as not getting the results we expected. Our initial reaction tends to be only giving lip service to the needed paradigm shift, to changing the form but not the substance. Thus, it often takes outside intervention to bring about real change, which can mean removing those, including leaders, who are holding back progress.
Understanding the power of paradigms can help us recognize what is hurting results and accelerate the needed transformation. It can open our minds and lead us to recognize the need to always seek better ways of thinking and doing. This requires that we continually challenge our paradigms to ensure that, rather than blinding us to a better way, they enable us to see.