Paradigms | Notes

Posted on October 24, 2015


Joel Arthur Barker. Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. HarperBusiness, 1992. (240 pages)


FOREWORD: Three Keys to the Future

They are Anticipation, Innovation, Excellence. (11)

Excellence is no longer a competitive edge. It is the necessary price of entry. (12)

1 Watching for the Future

The future is where our greatest leverage is.

The future is where you are going to spend the rest of life. (19)

2 The Importance of Anticipation

You can and should shape your own future. Because, if you don’t, someone else surely will.

I have often found that people have significant amounts of content about possible futures but have no way of making that information useful. Process futurists teach them how to manipulate that information. (21)

All of us, in fact, must move from the old style of solving real problems after they have occurred to the new style of anticipating potential problems before they happen and keeping them from occurring in the first place. (26-27)

Paradigms Anticipation v Reaction.jpg

Good anticipation is the result of good strategic exploration. (28)

3. Defining a Paradigm

paradeigma, which means “model, pattern, example.” (31)

A paradigm is a set of rules and regulations (written or unwritten) that does two things: (1) it establishes or defines boundaries; and (2) it tells you how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful. (32)

…words that represent subsets of the paradigm concept.

Theory, Model, Methodology, Principles, Standards, Protocol, Routines, Assumptions, Conventions, Patterns, habits, Common Sense, Conventional Wisdom, Mind-set, Values, Frames of Reference, Traditions, Customs, Prejudices, Ideology, Inhibitions, Superstitions, Rituals, Compulsions, Addictions, Doctrine, Dogma

Please note that nowhere in the list do the words “culture,” “worldview,” “organization,” or “business” appear. That is because cultures, worldviews, organizations, and businesses are forests of paradigms. (36)

A paradigm shift, then, is a change to a new game, a new set of rules. (37)

4 When Do New Paradigms Appear?

Every paradigm has a range of problems it can solve. The more powerful the paradigm, the more problems it will solve over time. (45)


Reason 1. We lack some technology or tool that would allow us to be able to solve the problem.

Reason 2. We’re not smart enough yet. (50)

And sooner or later, every paradigm begins to develop a very special set of problems that everyone in the field wants to be able to solve and no one has a clue as to how to do it. (51)

Every paradigm will, in the process of finding new problems, uncover problems it cannot solve. And those unsolvable problems provide the catalyst for triggering the paradigm shift. (52)

5 Who Changes the Paradigm?

The short and unsettling answer is that it will probably be someone who is an outsider. (55)

Who do they think they are? To put them in their place we have a whole set of phrases to use when they come to show us their great new idea. Try a few of these on for size:

  • “That’s impossible.”
  • “We don’t do things that way around here.”
  • “It’s too radical a change for us.”
  • “We tried something like that before and it didn’t work.”
  • “I wish it were that easy.”
  • “It’s against policy to do it that way.”
  • “When you’ve been around a little longer, you’ll understand.”
  • “Who gave you permission to change the rules?”
  • “Let’s get real, okay?”
  • “How dare you suggest that what we are doing is wrong!”
  • “If you had been in this field as long as I have, you would understand that what you are suggesting is absolutely absurd!”

What may sound absurd may be the birth of a new industry, the start of a whole new field of study, the beginning of a revolution. (57)

Let’s take a look at the four categories of paradigm shifters.

Category 1: A young person fresh out of training. (57)

Category 2: An older person shifting fields. (58)

…they both share operational naïvete about the fields they have just entered. (59) … Second, they don’t know what can’t be done. (59)

We are using the power of lack of knowledge coupled with human creativity. (63)

Category 3: The maverick. (63)

Their advantage is that they are knowledgeable about the paradigm but not captured by it. (64)

Category 4: Tinkerers. (64)

When they show up, we usually treat them badly. We try to get them to be like the rest of us and then disparage them when they aren’t. (67)

How soon can you have a good idea: the first day on the job. When’s the latest you can have a great idea: your exit interview. (68)

When paradigm shifters ask you to change, they are asking you to forsake your investment in the present paradigm. (69)

New paradigms put everyone practicing the old paradigm at great risk. The higher one’s position, the greater the risk. The better you are at your paradigm, the more you have invested in it, the more you have to lose by changing paradigms. (69)

You cannot know who is going to bring you your future. You cannot qualify them in advance by looking at degrees or experience, or gender or race. You can only listen. (70)

6 Who Are the Paradigm Pioneers?

Intuitive judgment: It is the ability to make good decisions with incomplete data. (73)

The essence of the pioneering decision is: Those who choose to change their paradigms early do it not as an act of the head but as an act of the heart. (74)

The paradigm pioneer must have courage as well as intuition. (75)

7 What Is the Paradigm Effect?

How do paradigm shifts affect those who go through them?

…the new paradigm forced them to look in a different direction. And, since they were looking in a different direction, they had no choice but to see things they had never seen before. (85)

Within the paradigm discussion, it means that any data that exists in the real world that does not fit your paradigm will have a difficult time getting through your filters. You will see little if any of it. The data that does fit your paradigm, not only makes it through the filter, but is concentrated by the filtering process thus creating an illusion of even greater support for the paradigm.

| Therefore what we actually perceive is dramatically determined by our paradigms. What may be perfectly visible, perfectly obvious, to persons with one paradigm, may be, quite literally, invisible to persons with a different paradigm.

| This is the Paradigm Effect. (86)

You are quite literally unable to
to perceive data right before your very eyes. (87)

I now understand that if one is to be able to explore the future well, the most important thing to know is how much influence our paradigms exert on our perception of the world around us. (90)

So, we see best what we are supposed to see. We see poorly, or not at all, that data that does not fit into our paradigm. (91)

When that “wrong” data shows up, we will either ignore it as irrelevant or actually distort it until it fits our prevailing paradigm. (91)

What is defined as “impossible” today is impossible only in the context of present paradigms. (92)

When someone offers us a paradigm-enhancing innovation–one that improves upon what we are already practicing–we see that easily. But when someone offers us a paradigm-shifting innovation, we find ourselves resistant to it, because it just doesn’t fit the rules we are so good at. (92)

By understanding the Paradigm Effect, we can lift ourselves above its power to blind and begin to search for that which will be our future. (92)

8 Twenty-two Examples More or Less

Add them in your head as quickly as you feel comfortable. Do not use a pencil. Then write the sum at the bottom of the numbers.


If your total is 5,000, then you are in agreement with 95 percent of the people who add these numbers. (94) How could these people, the leaders in their field, make such a stupid mistake? It had to do with how confident they were with numbers. (95)

Please move two of the dots and create a square twice as big as the one defined by the dots as they are presently arranged: Take no more than thirty seconds to solve this.

paradigm squareThe trick to this problem is the word “square.”

paradigm diamondAt the Hanover Institute in Germany in the late nineteenth century, the following experiment was conducted. Subjects were asked to put on goggles that had inverted lenses in them. … How did the subjects deal with the upside-down-vision problem? While some took a short time and others took many hours, all who wore the goggles ultimately reported to the experimenters that the world was back to normal. (99)

We have far more control over what we perceive and how we perceive than we realize. (100)

We can also create data that does not exist. (100)

This explains many of the disagreements we see between people of different viewpoints. Both believe they are right and the other is wrong; the truth may be that both are right according to their paradigms. (102-103)

[via: i.e., a “hermeneutical framework.”]

9 The Most Important Paradigm Shift of the Twentieth Century

Without caring there can be no quality. (126)

Part of the Total Quality package is asking people to do it better tomorrow than they did today. It’s called “continuous improvement” or kaizen in Japanese. This starts with a believe that everyone can be inventive and innovative. (133)

All work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others. – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Self-management is the most democratic, most efficient, and most powerful way to get things done. (135)

The quickest way to kill the human spirit is to ask someone to do mediocre work. – Ayn Rand

To not quest for excellence might be considered sacrilege. (138)

10 Going Back to Zero

What is impossible to do, but if it could be done, would fundamentally change your business? (140)

When a paradigm shifts, everyone goes back to zero. (140)

11 Key Characteristics of Paradigms

“I’ll see it when I believe it.”






When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. – Clark’s First Law


Who, outside my field, might be interested in my unsolved problems?


If you are religious, this ability to change is called free will. If you are not, it’s called self-determination. The result is the same–you can choose to see the world anew. (158)

Kuhn suggested that you must consider, when talking to a person with a different paradigm, that you are talking to a person with a different language. (158)

12 Managers, Leaders, and Paradigms

You lead between paradigms. (159)

1. Managers must demonstrate paradigm pliancy if they are going to expect others to practice it.

2. Managers must facilitate and encourage cross talk.

3. By listening to all those screwy ideas, managers gain a special leverage for innovation.

You manage within a paradigm.
You lead between paradigms.

Nobody will buy obsolete excellence. (165)

13 Shifts for the 1990s–a Barker’s Dozen

And then again, maybe it could happen. (171)

14 And So It Goes

No matter how much you study the future, it will always surprise you; but you needn’t be dumbfounded!–Kenneth Boulding

I have made the following points in this book about paradigms:

  1. Our perceptions of the world are strongly influenced by paradigms.
  2. Because we become so good at using our present paradigms, we resist changing them.
  3. It is the outsider who usually creates the new paradigm.
  4. Practitioners of the old paradigm who choose to change to the new paradigm early, must do so as an act of faith rather than as the result of factual proof, because there will never be enough proof to be convincing in the early stages.
  5. Those who change to a successful new paradigm gain a new way of seeing the world and new approaches for solving problems as a result of the shift to the new rules.
  6. A new paradigm puts everyone back to zero, so practitioners of the old paradigm, who may have had great advantage, lose much or all of their leverage.

It is the irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out by physicists there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty”. (199)

To be tolerant to new ideas; to be tolerant of people who are suggesting those new ideas; to have tolerance toward people who see the world differently from your view; These are the key lessons of the Paradigm Principles. (200)

It is still a great risk in our society to offer new rules for the game. (206)

Looking forward only in one direction leads to a special kind of strategic blindness. One must scan the horizon constantly to identify the important changes occurring on the sidelines, at the edges. After all, isn’t that what exploring is all about? (209)


The moral: During the next decade many people will be coming around blind curves yelling things at you. They will be too busy to stop and explain, so it will be up to you to figure it out.

| If you have paradigm paralysis, you will be hearing nothing but threats.

| If you have paradigm pliancy, you will be hearing nothing but opportunity!

| I would submit, in the context of all that I have said, that the choice of which you hear is entirely up to you. (211)