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.