Want to change a paradigm? Good luck

It is very difficult to challenge a world-view.

Why do people with opposing views often seem to be living on different planets? Because we do, metaphorically speaking.

We use different concepts and methods to address different problems whereby we consciously and unconsciously limit communication across what divides us from others. Mindsets, mental models, knowledge structures, dominant logic, or my favorite German term, Weltanschauung, all capture the idea that experiences, beliefs and values affect the way we perceive reality and how we respond to that perception.

The divide between opposing and seemingly incompatible views and how we deal describes why it is so difficult to change an established way of thinking and working, from the inside. It also suggests that we should welcome conflicts with opposing and seemingly incompatible views, but also why we hate it.

“Incommensurability”

In the middle of the last Century Thomas Kuhn suggested and refined a simple yet powerful idea to both describe and explain why and how this divide happens.  In short, his provocative idea was that proponents of different fundamental ideas simply work in different worlds. Alan believes the earth is flat and he finds it hard to have a meaningful dialogue with Jan, who is convinced that the earth is round.  Two such different worldviews, or habits of reasoning is what Kuhn called ”paradigms” and they can’t be reconciled with each other because they cannot be subjected to the same common standard of comparison.

When it come to conflicting world-views or beliefs there is no neutral language to describe and interpret what is happening. Just imagine Joe waving a religious text as the main ground for his passionate claim and Mary holding up a printout of empirical data while they both claim to know the “truth.”  Just imagine that Joe and Mary are believers of neoclassical economics versus behavioral economics, the virtue or vice about entering a new market, or…

Kuhn called this impossibility to reconcile views “incommensurability” and he developed the idea when he studies the nature of scientific development, especially scientific revolutions that made mankind take giant leaps forward, so-called, paradigm shift.

Revolutionary science like Albert Einstein’s famous challenge to Newtonian mechanics, he found, is usually unsuccessful, and very rarely leads to new paradigms. Einstein challenged a way of thinking that had been used to describe force and motion for over two hundred years. Not surprisingly, protagonists of the current paradigm were not amused and reacted accordingly. However, when these large-scale shifts in the scientific view are implemented and accepted by the majority science will once more progress within the new paradigm, and the process repeat itself.

In other words, major changes in how we view the world often happens more as sudden earthquakes than incremental steps. But, it is very human to dislike earthquakes.

The barriers to change in science

Just like in industry in science there are many mechanisms to reinforce existing paradigms, and reject attempts competing ones. Well known methods include:

  • Professional organizations that give legitimacy to the paradigm and provide standards for evaluating quality
  • Strong leaders who defend and represent the paradigm
  • Conferences conducted that are devoted to discussing and promoting ideas central to the paradigm.
  • Educators who propagate the paradigm’s ideas by teaching it to students in a cycle of self-reference.
  • Journals giving legitimacy to the paradigm and that reject papers threatening it.
  • The self-referential practice to cite one-self and ones like minded peers in publications, helping increasing the legitimacy of central ideas of the paradigm
  • Funding agencies that provide money only to those who have made their career in one paradigm.
  • Promotion practices of only giving tenured professorship to people who have proven themselves in the paradigm.

Just imagine the how challenging it must be for the lonely scholar who has figured out a revolutionary idea.

The difficult inside job

Kuhn’s simple idea also partly explains why it is so difficult to change a paradigm from the inside. When you are inside a way of thinking and working in science or in a company you do not notice it. You just keep speaking the language of that way of thinking, meeting like-minded people and consciously or unconsciously you defend the turf.

Just like a ruler urges his subordinated to defend the motherland from real intruders it comes naturally for most people to defend their way of thinking from intruding worldviews.  Religious faith and political ideology are perhaps the most illustrative examples but scientific knowledge development and best practices in organizations qualify too if you think of how things works. If you have a different worldview you become a non-believer, a heretic whose strange views will be eliminated, sooner or later, unless you can recruit and convince others about the value of your dissenting views.

The way we organize and manage organizations is designed to reinforcing a shared way of thinking and doing – a unified paradigm. In fact, creating a shared vision, or “aligning” and organization is regarded as an essential aspect of organized life. Many leaders work hard to get people in the organization to pull in the same direction, to basically have the same mindset and dominant logic.

The corporate world is full of examples of how project champions of rejected ideas kept pursuing these undercover and eventually won the battle of worldviews.  Nestlé’s Nepresso division is perhaps one of the most well-known examples.

A living  example of the hardship of challenging a paradigm in science is Dan Shechtman, the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. When he shared his preliminary findings 1982 even the leader of his research group disowned him and with great shame. Three decades later people queue to get his autograph and scholarly support.

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