How To Deal With The Current Paradigm Shift?

paradigm, paradigm shift, future, futurist

My fondest memory from graduate school is the very first course I had to take - Executive Communication and Leadership. The professor genuinely loved teaching and interacting with his students. He used to start each class by projecting an image of an artwork by one of the surrealist artists in order to stimulate our minds. I always looked forward to finding out which artist he was going to feature during the next class. One of the books we read in that course was Joel Barker's Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. Both that graduate school class and this book prompted me to learn what we can do today to shape our future tomorrow.

The Future

Many people are afraid of the future because they are afraid of the unknown. They are afraid to lose the security of what they have today, and they are afraid of the changing rules. Ironically, the future gives us the greatest leverage. We cannot change the past. Everything that happens, happens in the present. The future is the only aspect we can influence. We can prepare for it, and we can shape it to our liking.

"You can and should shape your own future. Because if you don't, someone else surely will." – Joel Barker

Barker is a futurist, which is why it should not come as a surprise that he wants to improve the future. He believes that we need to learn to anticipate a better future. If we do, then we would not be afraid of it. Instead, we would welcome the future and prepare for it. Anticipation is even more important in times of turbulence as it dramatically increases the chances of success.


Paradigms set the rules of the game. They establish boundaries and tell us how to behave within those boundaries to be successful. Our views of the world are highly influenced by paradigms. When paradigms shift, new rules are set. Our discomfort with the future is partially attributable to the changes in paradigms. We know the existing boundaries and set of rules.

The idea of operating within the new boundaries under a new set of rules makes most people uncomfortable and contributes to turbulence. The more successful people are at the existing paradigm, the more they have invested in it, and the more they are afraid to lose by changing paradigms.

The downside of getting too attached to the existing paradigms is the inability to process any data that does not fit within its established parameters. We stop seeing disruptions that are happening on the fringes of our industries. A new product or service or idea that enters the market is met with resistance, because it does not fit the rules of the present paradigm. We are quick to dismiss the new innovation and say that it is impossible.

What is considered impossible is only impossible in the context of prevailing paradigms. The future of our business, industry, or country often exists just outside the boundaries of established paradigms, where it is impossible to see.

"To be able to shape your future, you have to be ready and able to change your paradigms." – Joel Barker

Barker discussed an interesting concept in his book, "when paradigms shift, everyone goes back to zero." What he meant by it is that regardless of the company's position in the market or its reputation within the old paradigm, all organizations go back to the starting point with the new paradigm. This suggests that "no one stays on top forever." Barker gave an example of Apple releasing Apple II in 1977 and having IBM laugh at them. Five short years later, IBM was trying to imitate Apple's paradigm. In more recent years, a similar situation happened when Blockbuster ignored Netflix and its new business model for the first few years until it was too late. As Barker noted, the power of the paradigm shift is in bringing entire industries back to zero.

The key is to spot changes early, recognize them, and participate in the paradigm shift rather than be blindsided by it. Paradigms are all around us. Some of them are small, and others are substantial. In nonturbulent times, paradigm shifts unfold gradually over a long period. However, in turbulent times, the change happens very quickly.

Companies often find themselves in paradigm paralysis, which has tremendous implications on innovation within an organization. Saying, "this is how we have always done things around here" is a good indicator that a company suffers from paradigm paralysis. On the opposite end is paradigm pliancy. This is when companies intentionally seek out new ways of doing things. Shifting to an effective new paradigm helps organizations gain new ways of seeing the world and new approaches to solving problems.

Times of Crisis

In a time of crisis, such as the one we are experiencing right now, individuals expect great change. The openness to accepting change inspires more people to find new ways to solve problems. We are willing to accept fundamentally new approaches to answering the crisis, which can lead to paradigm shifts. While what is happening around us right now is unsettling and we can expect many paradigm shifts over the next several months, the new paradigms can result in a better future.

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