“Rather than being an interpreter, the scientist who embraces a new paradigm is like the man wearing inverting lenses.” ~Thomas Kuhn

“Paradigm shift.” How many times have you heard that term thrown around?

Thomas Kuhn was the first to popularize it when he used it in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He said that science doesn’t progress in a linear way. Instead, it undergoes periodic, transformative upheavals he called “paradigm shifts.”

He said unconventional thinking drives revolutionary science. It is always a hard sell among scientists, because they apply their current perceptions and understandings to something new and unorthodox. In other words, “out-of-the-box” thinking is scrutinized by “in-the-box” biases. Therefore, it’s rejected most of the time.

However, Kuhn pointed out that when these breakthroughs in acceptance occur, they often lead to large, impressive changes in the sciences—paradigm shifts. He used the term to describe people behaving differently, but even more importantly, actually seeing their world from a new perspective. It represents a bifurcation point—a fork in the road that opens up a completely new way of perceiving, thinking, and taking action with no turning back. Once the paradigm threshold is crossed, things aren’t seen the same way ever again.

It didn’t take long for change facilitators to lay claim to Kuhn’s views. He introduced the term in 1962. By the ’70s, “paradigm shift” was showing up in all kinds of change-related books and articles. The idea was emerging that change unfolds in different ways, depending on whether it affects people modestly or dramatically. Kuhn’s findings gave an added dimension to this idea. Of course, this is common knowledge today, but in the ’70s and ’80s, our profession was young. Kuhn’s concept and nomenclature help to differentiate between slight, incremental, major, and transformative levels of transition.

Paradigm shift quickly became popular for describing DNA-level recalibration. This is the most powerful of the impact options when introducing initiatives into organizations. By the late ’90s and into the early part of this decade, the phrase went from just being popular to reaching saturation status in the literature and in everyday usage.

And that’s a problem.

When new terminology spreads quickly among practitioners in a young discipline, there is bound to be some degree of confusion and misuse around certain concepts and wording. The change industry is a good example of this. We have overused, even abused, “paradigm shift.” We took what Kuhn meant as a tightly defined expression of rare and difficult-to-achieve transformation and mutated it into slang.

Often, we attach “paradigm shift” to any change initiative that needs to be hyped so that it can compete with all the other changes being implemented. Yes, we have to clarify the importance of any new endeavor to an organization’s future. That’s different, however, from the order of magnitude the change represents. Paradigm shift is a reference to how big the departure is from the status quo, not how critical it is to the organization’s success.

Another way we misuse the term? We overstate the intended impact of a project. We use “paradigm shift” to refer to initiatives that are big disruptions but that don’t meet the criteria Kuhn stated. The vast majority of organizational change announcements that claim or imply a paradigm shift are actually dressed-up extensions of what is already taking place. Significant modifications to the status quo are important, but they aren’t paradigm shifts. Even when we are careful to apply it properly ourselves, many of us are reluctant to correct clients who misunderstand or misuse the concept.

There is not just one perspective on how paradigm shifts can be applied to facilitating organizational change. What is your viewpoint?

In the next four posts, I’ll describe my understanding of how organizational paradigms evolve.

Next: Before Shift Happens