The Power of Paradigms

A Review of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ and Implications for Change Practitioners

Brexit. Donald Trump. Syria.   There appear to be unprecedented meltdowns everywhere…

A clash of mindsets, a clash of values, a clash structures?    It seems that we are living in a real time massive historical paradigm shift.

This year’s events have made me even more curious about paradigms.   Although I study and talk about change all the time, I had actually never read Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  So it was about time I did!

Kuhn is an understated legend.   Part scientist, part historian, part evolutionary.  I’d recommend his work to anyone who is interested in change – the theory and the practice.  

Here I have shared a summary of some of the key themes that resonated with me.  And some emerging questions that I think are critical for us as enablers of change.


Paradigm of Progress

Firstly, what is a paradigm?    To put it simply, it is a belief system that guides the way that people do things, or more formally establishes a set of practices – from thought patterns to action.    As Kuhn states, ‘A paradigm defines what progress should be made’.

A dominant paradigm, or business as usual, holds its power because it is good at ‘solving problems’ of that current historical context in time.  It is held in place by a strong network of commitments – conceptual, theoretical, instrumental, methodological and cultural.

Kuhn was very interested in exploring shifts between paradigms – from what is deemed as the current paradigm or ‘normal science’ to shifts to a new paradigm – ‘a revolution’.  Importantly, shifts to a new paradigm are ‘instigated by a desire of progress away from less adequate conceptions of and interactions with the world’. 

This makes me wonderhow can we have a clearer understanding of the ‘qualities and nature’ of our emerging problems?   How can we better clarify what we mean by progress – so that we can design processes and practices - and welcome mindsets and values- that are more relevant and effective in the new context?


Status Quo – Steady or Not?

Consensus holds a paradigm in place. Current paradigms aren’t really about proactively seeking novelty per se more about but at clearing up the status quo. The status quo tends to discover what it expects to discoverHowever, discovery as Kuhn was keen to convey, was not made by a set of accumulated facts that progressed on a linear upward trajectory over time.   However discovery and making real leaps come about through fits and starts, moving backwards, forward and sideways – often simulatanously.  Mishaps.  Failures. Breakdowns. Frustrations.

So, if we are seeking to accelerate paradigm shifts in order to continually progress within more rapidly changing contexts - can we encourage stronger cultures of critical thinking, diverse perspectives and radical experimentation?  How can we, in our own lived experience, embrace the messiness of progress and drop the fallacy of a linear progressive trajectory?


Deviant Discrepancies

As progress is developed within a current paradigm it starts to reveal

anomalies, facts that are difficult to explain within the context of the existing paradigm. Kuhn points our ‘while usually these anomalies are resolved, in some cases they may accumulate to the point where normal science becomes difficult and where weaknesses in the old paradigm are revealed.”    

 How can we create conditions where spotting anomalies- or as Kuhn also puts it ‘those violating discrepancies’ – is welcomed?   And how can we fast track connection of anomalies so they have more power as a patterned collective than they would as random individuals?  How can we more vocally call out the weaknesses of the old paradigm?


Anomaly Cultivators

Who are the anomaly spotters and cultivators?  New discoveries and theories are usually spotted by people who are able to see the world differently- compared to others ‘in their profession’.  Outliers. Loners.   Kuhn highlights that they are people who are unafraid to focus on the ‘crisis provoking problems’ and “possess an exceptional ability to recognize a theory's potential”.  And he suggests they are often ‘newcomers’ to the crisis-ridden field of practice. And thus, they are less deeply committed than their contemporaries to the worldview and rules that had determined that old paradigm. They are often younger too.    


How can we cultivate more cross-fertilization across practices in order to introduce ‘new thinkers’ to existing fields?   How can we encourage and appreciate different worldviews to our own – and let go of judgment?


Chaos and Crisis

As the accumulation of discrepancies between the paradigm and the reality of nature increases – this normally leads to a crisis point. At this point, the discipline of that paradigm enters a period of crisis characterized by Kuhn, "a proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals".     Kuhn talks about how “How arrogant and vicious science becomes when confronted by a new paradigm’.    The old paradigm will hold onto a bad paradigm no matter what until a new one emerges.   


How can we as agents of change be resilient whilst living within the old paradigm that is fighting violently to survive?  How can we be both fierce and compassionate when engaging individuals of a dying paradigm?


Blinded by Language and Mindsets

The advocates of mutually exclusive paradigms are in a difficult position: "Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs." Scientists subscribing to different paradigms end up talking past one another.  It is as if they are talking different languages. And as Kuhn implied, beware – because even if we are speaking the same apparent language – our understood meaning could be completely different.  Like the word ‘mass’ – same word but two completely different meanings depending on if you were Aristotle or Einstein.

Kuhn makes the point that no matter how much evidence that one puts forth ‘for’ or ‘against’ the new or old paradigm – the mindset of that paradigm will screen for information that it wants to see. What a person sees depends both upon what they look at and also upon what their previous visual-conceptual experience has taught them to see.  Paradigms will filter evidence to sustain themselves.  Think about climate science evidence. The dominant paradigm just can’t see it.

Do we need to test our assumptions about approaches to change that are overly reliant on ‘building evidence?’   How do we pay attention to language – understanding that a common language still doesn’t imply common understanding?  How can we better understand what it means ‘to change mindsets’ – how do minds actually change?  What can we learn from neuroscience in this regard?


Better = Better

And what makes paradigm shifts particularly sticky is the fact that you can’t measure one as being better than another.  Any sort of measurement is derived from the paradigm from which it originates – so there is no way to be fully objective.  This idea he argued was one of  ‘incommensurability’ that is to say, there exists no objective way of assessing their relative merits. There's no way, for example, that one could make a checklist comparing the merits of Newtonian mechanics (which applies to snooker balls and planets but not to anything that goes on inside the atom) and quantum mechanics (which deals with what happens at the sub-atomic level).   Kuhn also points out that in the emergence of a new paradigm –things are more abstract and qualitative.  There is no way to measure the new paradigm, as it does not exist yet.   Thus new paradigms are hard to articulate.   

How can we go easy on new paradigms (and people leading them) and make sure we spend enough time in discovery, inquiry and sense making mode before we insist in measuring the new – which is often an insistence of the old paradigm?  How can we test our assumptions that the current standard and tools of measuring things are not reinforcing the old paradigm or the acceleration of the new?  Ahem, social impact measurement!


Power of Subjectivity

Truth is relative to the context of paradigm.  There is only a perspective of truth and there is no ‘one’ version of truth as our Western conditioning wants us to believe.  If there is no rational way to compare, contrast and justify truths and paradigms – then the importance of subjectivity comes into play.   This suggests that when we are engaging in paradigm shifts, intuition, trust and persuasion are more powerful factors than evidence and rational argument.   Drawing on psychology, Kuhn talks about how shifts in mindset are similar to that of Gestalt switches – which are often sudden, unpredictable and personal.


How can we pay more attention to the relational reality of change and get better at the way we relate to ourselves, each other and the planet?  What do we need to do to help build stronger appreciation, connections and psychological understanding in order to guide people in change?   How can we get better at developing inspiring visions and stories for new paradigms of progress?


Making the Switch

The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another.  This happens when scientists start to see ‘synthesized anomalies’ and they begin to loose faith in old solutions and consider and convert to new alternatives. 

As Kuhn describes, ‘in the end, the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary change in world-view in which the now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one.   Probably the single most persuasive claim advanced by the proponents of a new paradigm is that it can solve the problems that led the old one into a crisis.   When it can legitimately be made, this claim is often what helps to facilitate the shift to a new paradigm. 

How can we as agents of change shine a spotlight on the new alternatives – and demonstrate how they can solve new contextual problems more effectively than those solutions of the past?  Who can play a role to help to synthesis anomalies? How do these synthesizers build legitimacy?


Recalibration of What Came Before

A shift to a new paradigm is not just an extension of old theories but rather a shift to a completely new worldview.   It changes the way terminology is defined, how the people in that field view their subject, what questions are regarded as valid and what rules are used to determine the truth of a particular theory.    In order for a new paradigm to settle into the new norm, it is essential that old theories be recalibrated to make sense in the context of the ‘new norm’.   As Kuhn says that this recalibration is an ‘intrinsically revolutionary process that is seldom completely by a single person and never overnight”. 

What parts of dying systems need to be recalibrated as part of the acceleration to new paradigms?  How can we honor old paradigms as having once served a very important purpose – and make sure that their stories are woven into overarching narrative of humanity’s evolution?  How can we acknowledge that many people who are involved in shifting paradigms – and it is not down to single people or organizations?


Evolutionary Tension

Once a new paradigm comes into play, it settles into creating new norms, standards, laws and processes.   This ‘norming’ is very important in the grand scheme of things.  As Kuhn points out, “to fulfill its potential, a scientific community needs to contain both individuals who are bold and individuals who are conservative”.   Conservativeness – steadiness that is needed in order to go deep into understanding current realm of reality.  Openness – inquiry that is needed in order to make new discoveries that will be relevant for emerging futures.   

As change agents how can we accept ‘open and closed mindsets’ as part of the necessary evolutionary tension?   How can we dance between these two qualities- structure and emergence- in ourselves and in our strategies for change?