Horses as the primary mode of transportation, candles used for lighting, wood used for cooking and heating, windmills for pumping water, wind-up mechanical watches, and mimeograph machines, are all extinct. These were not bad products, but none the less they are gone.
What happened? Paradigm shifts occurred. Technology made new products possible, new products replaced old products, and in many cases, created whole new markets.
The ability of leaders to recognize these types of paradigm shifts in the future will make the difference between companies who are successful in the 21st century and those that are just hanging on.
What is a Paradigm Shift?
The greatest paradigm shift of all time came when Jesus preached the gospel. The impact of that simple message has been felt throughout the world. People changed, societies changed, and governments changed, all because of one man and His message.
The word paradigm comes from the Greek paradeigma which means “model, pattern, example.” In his book Future Edge, author Joel Barker provides his definition of a paradigm: “A paradigm is a set of rules and regulations (written or unwritten) that does two things: (1) it establishes clear boundaries; and (2) it tells you how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful.”
Think about some “minor” industry changes. What would you have done if you had known about the following technology paradigm shifts in advance?
- FAX machines,
- Personal computers,
- VCR’s, Laser Disks, and DVDs,
- Cable television,
- Cellular phones, or
- Streaming audio & video?
The list of industries created in the last ten years numbers in the hundreds! The list of industries that are gone also numbers in the hundreds. Companies that want to survive well into the 21st century had better be adept at managing change, and able to forecast paradigm shifts.
Don’t Trust the Experts!
Often, experts who develop technology don’t even understand the import of their actions. Simon Newcomb, a noted astronomer, said in 1902, “Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.” In 1913 the American Road Congress reported that “It is an idle dream to imagine that…automobiles will take the place of railways in the long-distance movement of…passengers.” Thomas Edison said in 1880 that, “The phonograph…is not of any commercial value.” If you want to recognize paradigm shifts you might want to look to someone other than the “experts” for answers.
If you are a manager and you want to develop an organization capable of forecasting, recognizing, and taking advantage of paradigm shifts then the following points will be helpful:
Get a group of individuals together and have them write “future” scenarios. What will this industry look like in 20 years, 50 years? These “future” scenarios will help you see major paradigm shifts. If you’re in the home building business, you may see the concern for the environment as a precursor to a major shift in home building technology; new heating systems, new building materials, new super insulation materials, etc.
Get another group to write about what problems exist in the industry today, and to forecast future problems and needs. For example, if you’re in the plastics business you might consider oil supplies as a future problem. You might see pollution control legislation as a problem. You might see a need for a new type of plastic that will meet certain consumer needs, etc.
As managers, we tend to focus on problem-solving. In the crush of our workloads, we tend to be very comfortable with current solutions to problems. What we don’t realize is that there are new ways of doing old things and that we must be willing to accept these new solutions, even while the old solution is still working.
Search and Reapply
Search and reapply is a big opportunity area for most businesses today. One department gets a good idea and uses it to solve a problem, but nobody else in the organization ever hears about it. We need to create systems for publicizing ideas throughout our organizations. Next, we need to teach people to constantly look at the way other people do things as fertile ground for ideas that will help them do their jobs better.
As a manager, you need to understand that the people who have the ability to spot paradigm shifts are probably working for you right now:
- They are the young people who have not been so socialized by years of experience that they are capable of seeing things a different way.
- They are the experienced people who just took on a new job.
- They are the odd ducks who are always challenging the status quo, never content with the way things are; they are forever trying to change things.
- They are the inventors who get ideas and build prototypes. They often don’t even realize how valuable their ideas are in terms of solving other problems.
Now that you know who is most likely to spot paradigm shifts, make it a point to listen to them, and record their ideas. You never know when what seemed like a silly idea for one project will turn out to be a brilliant solution to another project.
One Final Thought
Any organization that wants to be successful in the 21st century will need to be:
- future oriented; capable of anticipating changes in technology and consumer needs,
- innovative; not only in the way they apply technology, but in the way they approach it, and
- focused on quality; total quality will be the bare minimum in the next century.
To be successful, you will need all three of these components; not one or two, but all three. Getting to the point where your organization has these attributes may represent a major paradigm shift, so you might as well start right now.
This week’s post is excerpted from a 6-page whitepaper entitled, “Shifting Paradigms – Building an Organization that Leads Change.”
This whitepaper includes a broader discussion of shifting paradigms, including:
- Understanding what a paradigm shift is,
- The Swiss Blew their Opportunity,
- The Fall of Books and Magazines, and
- Forecasting Paradigm Shifts
You can download the whitepaper here: “Shifting Paradigms – Building an Organization that Leads Change.”
Join the Conversation
As always, questions and comments are welcome. What are you doing to recognize and leverage a paradigm shift in your business?
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Category: Skills | Change, Innovation