Paradigms are ubiquitous. They show up in conversations, books, bedrooms, films, families, restaurants, professions, games, sports, industries, and social systems of all types. Paradigms fall within paradigms, overlap other paradigms, and bump into still others. Paradigms are big or small, new or old, comfortable or uncomfortable, familiar or unfamiliar, long-term or short-lived. Paradigms are ever-changing.
My understanding and appreciation of paradigms have been greatly enhanced by Joel Barker’s book, Future Edge. Even though this book is out of print, it as a powerful contribution to the business world, in my view. Barker defines a paradigm as “a set of rules and regulations (written or unwritten) that does two things: (1) it establishes or defines boundaries; and (2) it tells you how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful.” A paradigm shift occurs when a change in the mind-set occurs. New paradigms develop when old (or current) paradigms no longer work. (Barker, Joel Arthur. Future Edge: Discovering the New Paradigms of Success. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992).
The Energy Field of Paradigms
Reading the energy in a paradigm is an efficient way to recognize its boundaries and density. Just as each person and each organization has an energy field, so too, each paradigm has an energy field. When paradigms conflict with each other, either a change is occurring or a change must occur. Changes within one paradigm do not occur in isolation — all interrelated paradigms change. We can observe the changes at all levels of the energy field as well as in the concrete.
It is more accurate to consider that a group or organization has many active paradigms than to define an organization as a single paradigm. Paradigms grow, just as people do. Therefore, paradigms may be immature, well-defined, aged, wise, silly, useful, outdated, ready for death, or dead.
Paradigm Death Fear
We need not fear death — any kind of death. When something dies, we honor it most by celebrating its life and letting it transform. Generally, those who are most invested in a paradigm are the most fearful for a change in that paradigm. We might, ask, Who has the most to gain or lose with the current paradigm? And, Who has the most to gain or lose with a paradigm shift? When we explore these questions deeply, we may discover that what appears obvious initially may not hold true with investigation.
Interestingly, paradigm shifters are often those who have the least to gain or lose with a paradigm change. Paradigm shifters are usually outsiders or those who are new to the system. They have nothing invested in the old or current paradigm, which is precisely why external consultants can impact a system as they do (when they do).
Case Study: Ted
Ted is a senior manager in an investment firm. Ted reports to one of the firms five partners; six managers report to him. The investment field is highly regulated, so we know immediately that many legal and regulatory paradigms exist. When Ted went to school he had to learn about the paradigms operating academically and socially in each class.
Ted is expected to understand and solve problems using the rules of the managing partners, his peer group, his team, his support staff, his customers, and his suppliers. The rules that make him successful with his subordinates are not the same rules that make him successful with his boss.
Each organizational function (e.g., accounting, human resources, sales, research, legal) all have various paradigms operating which Ted must understand, at least to some extent, in order to be successful when interacting. Some problems are solved by going outside the established rules; other times, problems are created by going outside the paradigm. He must know the difference.
What are the paradigms in your life? Look as deeply as you wish, noticing any resistance or other feelings you experience as you respond to the following questions:
* Are the customs you grew up with still an integral part of your life?
* How successful are you with people who are different from you?
* When you step into unfamiliar territory, how do you respond? (Start with a general answer and then look at a specific recent unfamiliar situation.)
* When the rules change within a paradigm, are you eager or resistant for the change? (Again, look at the general, then the specific.)
* In the most important paradigm of your life, how successful are you?
* What paradigms do you wish to shift?