Leaders, Paradigms, Deck-Chairs, & Thomas Kuhn

Getting stuck, not being able to think out of the box, being politically blocked, playing it too safe, and getting trapped by groupthink are common ordeals for those that would like to lead change.

These obstacles don’t simply dominate the spheres of politics and business, but they appear in all aspects of our social life. From science to art we’re trapped doing incremental exercises, making mild adjustments, and rarely taking a step beyond the bow. We plug along recreating the same problems and refashioning the same old solutions.

There is one author that has elaborated on the trappings of being stuck and on the risks of moving forward, and his name is Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science. Kuhn is all too often cited, but not read enough. We all know about his notion of paradigms, but how many of us have really delved into this his seminal volume, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions?

The book explains that scientific progress isn’t a simple progression toward the truth. Instead, he argues, science is influenced by nonrational procedures.

Published in 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has become a landmark book and required reading for any student of science, philosophy, and the social sciences.

However, I hope that leaders of all stripes read Kuhn’s work because it forces people to think beyond their assumptions and challenge their pre-set beliefs. This is a relevant exercise to take part in—especially in a world where the economy is tottering, jobs aren’t safe, and technology is quickly changing how we interact with the world.

Before The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published, textbooks told a very simple story. They stated that scientific progress went in a straight line. New truths led to more truths and so on.

But Kuhn argues that this straight line presentation of science is not exactly true. Instead, he posits that the leading developments in science were, for the most part, revolutionary and subverted the bulk of scientific progress that came before it.

Galileo turned astronomy on its head. Newton redefined physics and Darwin revolutionized biology. These massive scientific discoveries displaced old ideas with new ways of thinking. They weren’t tinkering steps, but instead massive overhauls. Kuhn termed these ground-breaking discoveries as, “paradigm shifts”.

When science bumps into anomalies and goes into a “crisis” Kuhn believes “paradigm shifts” begin to occur which ultimately lead to scientific revolutions.

Kuhn, a physicist, also states that science can’t be separated from scientists and the social milieu. Therefore, the dynamic of scientific movement isn’t smooth, but staggered, complicated, and hinged on social problems beyond the laboratory.

Kuhn’s observations are helpful for leaders since, at their center, they revolve around ideas of uncertainty and innovation. Scientific progress doesn’t follow a straight line, nor do business plans and end-of-the-month goals.

Leaders armed with Kuhn’s insights can begin to look at their own field with a new light. They can start to see that progress doesn’t have a formula or a set of rules. They can see how they can sometimes engage in the perpetual process of recreating the wheel because that’s what’s safest. They can see how often politics, hesitation, and repetitive, time-worn solutions are what we often see as creativity.

Moreover, Kuhn’s analysis can help leaders understand how uncertainty impacts their daily operations. Linear models, plans, and objectives can be thrown out the window overnight. “Paradigm shifts” and revolutions happen and leaders have to be on their guard.

Recently at a workshop I conducted the word “paradigm” kept on coming up. I realized that the word had become diluted and that it had lost the depth of its original intent and its sense of drama. Now the concept of a “paradigm shift” is being used as a throwaway line that rarely celebrates or appreciates the depth Kuhn’s original definition.

Finally, Kuhn’s book is a just a plain and simple good read. It’s a slim volume packed with great anecdotes and humorous stories with historical relevance. I’ve been assigning it to my students at Cornell for over thirty years. All leaders should read it to appreciate how easily they can get trapped by in our little rooms. All leaders should read it to appreciate what it means to simply move deck chairs on the Titanic.


Uncertainty and (Maybe) A Paradigm Shift

Paradigm shifts aren’t easy. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, it may take a crisis to bring on a change. Academic ideas can be stuck in inertia in the same way organizations can be. The movement beyond inertia implies leadership, the capacity to take risks, and the ability to look at something differently.

Sometimes this may mean looking at something that’s been staring you in the face and suddenly saying to yourself, “I never realized what it meant before.” Sometimes it means looking at an old idea that you disregarded and seeing its current utility.

The John Cassidy, in his New Yorker piece, After the Blowup, maintains that Keynesian economics is an example of this phenomenon. Keynesian economics was there all along and now there’s a possibility that it’s coming back to life.

The reemergence of the Keynesian economics might even by overshadowed by the legitimization of the behaviorists who seem to be feeling that their moment has come. Pure Chicago economists, with their expected utilities and optimizing markets, are meeting the reality of the recent financial blow-out. Now, economists are learning what good leaders have known for a long time. Uncertainty is inevitable, very few things are held constant, and close models are dreams. Economists are now seeing things through a lens of social psychology and arguing that personality and culture inevitably play a role in market theory.

Cassidy’s article is a critical read for any leaders who still hope that cost/benefit analysis, expected utility, and markets are the only solutions to everyday problems. Further, if you let yourself go beyond this article Cassidy will help you understand that there is a possibility of a new paradigm of economics–but a paradigm that’s not restricted to market economies. It’s an exciting paradigm that can offer guidance to anyone who has to make choices. I strongly recommend that you read this piece in the New Yorker.

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The Quest for the Foundations of Mathematics Or How to Push New Ideas

Recently, I read a new comic book entitled, Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, that shines light on the world of philosophy, mathematics, and….organizational leadership. Logicomix is first and foremost a story about the search for the foundations of mathematics. While the book takes a studied look at many mathematicians and logicians it focuses on the life of Bertrand Russell. The drama of the story stems from the seemingly inevitable madness of 20th century logicians. Russell himself stood on the edge of madness as he worked tirelessly to ground mathematics in logic.

Logicomix excels in observing the stress and the madness mathematicians face when they play with macro-concepts, astronomical contradictions, and diverging theories. Their world is one where new ideas need to be methodically established and presented in the harshest critical light. Strung throughout the discussion of mathematics Logicmix also defines and presents the philosophical problems of the 20th century. Indeed, European philosophical thought, leaning towards idealism in the middle of two World Wars, drove Russell, his pupil Wittgenstein, and many others towards the fervent search for the foundations of mathematics.

In the final analysis, philosophy and organizational leadership are rooted in the world of rhetoric, the world of debate, and the world of dialogue. The rhetoric of philosophy—or better still, the rhetoric among philosophers, is a remarkable source that can enhance one’s leadership capacity for pushing new ideas forward.

One of the challenges that leaders face is how to push ahead on new ideas. Thomas Kuhn reminds us how often paradigms trap our thinking and create blinders. The sheer struggle to take off the blinders and move ahead may be an exhausting lifetime journey. The world of philosophy is a world in which dialogue and progression seems to be a running stream, but even in this world, which we would think to be the epitome of expansive discussion—there is a struggle for new ideas. Logicomix not only states this clearly, but it illustrates this point deftly.

This video is part 1 of 3. I recommend you watch them all to observe the comic’s unique origins!


Talking Past Each Other: Paradigms & Interests

iceberg2This past week I was invited to speak at the  National Women’s Leadership Summit sponsored by the Louisiana Center for Women and Government.

The conference focused on the issue of energy. Earlier in the week I attended a conference sponsored by the ILR school called, Jobs. Justice. Climate.

After both events it was immediately obvious that it was a challenge to speak across interests, but it was a greater challenge to speak across paradigms.

In The Structure of the Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn he notes that paradigms operate as constraining psychological mechanisms that entangle thoughts and at times can strain creativity…. …