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one man and his paradigm

A paradigm is the set of expectations with which one tackles a problem. When I step into a car, I expect to find a steering wheel, a brake-pedal and an accelerator-pedal. Call that my car-paradigm.

A paradigm is a good thing. It is powerful and useful. It enables me to step into any vehicle and drive it. One might say that humans learn by creating paradigms. So no-one escapes paradigm.

But what happens if the car is different? What if it has a joystick instead of a steering wheel? What if you accelerate the car by moving forward in your seat, while moving back in your seat would make it stop?

For such a futuristic vehicle, my car-paradigm is an obstruction. It makes me waste time looking for the steering wheel and the pedals. If I could start with a clean slate, I would figure it out quicker. So this is the down-side of paradigms: they obstruct the understanding of new situations.

why the CD is not commercially viable

In 1970 Sony started research on the CD, only to abandon the project in 1976. They concluded that the CD was not suitable for music storage.

In fact, Sony had good reasons to think so. Sony engineers were looking to replace the 12" LP, and noted that such a CD would hold over 20 hours of music. At the music-rate of those days, it would have to sell around $ 100 or more. But music is often an impulse purchase, and therefore should never be priced more than $ 25. Logically, Sony concluded that the CD could not compete with vinyl records.

And then in 1980, Philips introduced a 5" CD...

Sony were laboring under the false paradigm that a CD should have a 12" diameter. This resulted in the wrong decisions, even though Sony's information was accurate.

scientific revolutions

The paradigm-concept was discussed by Thomas Kuhn, in a book that is really required reading: the structure of scientific revolutions. Kuhn developed the paradigm-concept for physics, but it can equally well be applied outside the scientific realm.

Kuhn pays particular attention to what he calls paradigm-shifts. The shift from Newton's classical physics to Einstein's relativistic physics is an example. As Kuhn tells it, measurements conflicting with the Newtonian paradigm (so called 'anomalies') had been around for some time. But late 19th century physicists either ignore these anomalies, or expect that they can somehow be fitted into the paradigm.

A few scientists lose faith in the old paradigm, but have not found a new one. This causes anxiety and even depression. Apparently, man needs his paradigm.

Then a clerk from the Swiss patent-office comes along and suggests a brand new way of looking at the world: Einstein's relativistic paradigm. Suddenly, everything makes sense. Old Newtonian physics fit. And the nasty anomalies can also be fitted into the new paradigm. There is a brief but intense paradigm-shift as scientist change they way they look at the world.

When the dust settles, everything has returned to normal. Once again, all physicists adhere to the same, vested paradigm (although this is now the relativistic paradigm). But as time goes by, new anomalies pop up. Scientists (who are only human) prefer to ignore them. But the anomalies create tension on the vested paradigm. And this sets the stage for the next scientific revolution.

As said, Kuhn's paradigm can be applied outside the scientific realm. Just like scientist, people cling to paradigms. They ignore and deny anomalies. They continue to cling to a paradigm long after it should have been obvious that it is untenable. People's minds do not work differently from the minds of scientists (and vice versa).


There is a strong analogy between paradigm-shifts and earthquakes. Tectonic plates move slowly and build up pressure along the fault lines. At some point, the pressure becomes too much and an earthquake occurs. Like earthquakes, paradigm-shifts can be violent periods of upheaval. When the dust has settled, there is a new lay of the land. But deep underground tectonic pressure is already building up again.

In business, one might distinguish between internal and external paradigms. Good strategy requires an assessment of paradigms existing within the business. It also requires an understanding of the external paradigms under which the competition and customers are laboring.

External paradigm-shifts are particularly important. During the long periods of constant paradigm, change can only be achieved with great effort, if at all. A company may have a better product, but still be unable to conquer a new market. But during the brief periods of paradigm-shift, everything becomes fluid. Suddenly, great strides can be made with hardly any effort at all.

Good strategy requires an idea of the paradigm-shifts that might happen. A company needs to be positioned to take advantage of the shift, when it happens. One might say that Shell Oil was in that position when the 1973 oil crisis happened (see here).

all of politics

The current political discourse is dominated by two paradigms: the progressive and the conservative. Since politics is a contentious issue, I will try and describe these paradigms as neutrally as possible.

The progressive paradigm holds that society should be progressing toward an ideal. This may happen though evolution or revolution. Many different political philosophies labor under the progressive paradigm. To name but a few:

Please note that lumping these political philosophies together as 'progressive', does not imply that they are equal. They have completely different ideals. But they labor under the same paradigm.

The conservative paradigm holds that society can change, but can not progress. Human nature remains unchanged. Therefore, the fundamental problems can only be mitigated, but not solved. It believes that either the present, or some specific society of the past is the best possible. It strives to conserve a society that is real and/or historic.

In America, conservatives hold that the American Revolution, the ideas of the Founding Fathers and their constitution are as good as it gets. Any change moves away from this best society, and is thus detrimental. In Europe, conservatives lack such an outspoken historic ideal, and must make do with the past, when "things used to be better."

Again, conservatives may have very different opinions, for example:

But they are all laboring under the same, conservative paradigm.

The consequences of these paradigms are profound.

The entire political discourse in media, books and the academia really boils down to the endless repetition of the above narratives. A crucial aspect of these paradigms is that they can not be falsified. Any news, good or bad, fits the paradigm. No event could ever prove that the paradigm is false. (An interesting question to ask an opinionated person is: "What event would prove your opinions to be false?". But don't hold your breath.)

This is true not just in politics, but in general. Powerful and useful as paradigms are, they delude the owner into shutting out or distorting crucial information; especially information that should serve as a warning that things may not be as previously believed.

the problem with strategic consultancy

When developing strategy, you move down the decision-chain. Talking about strategy, motives and tactics is easy. These feet-on-the-table brainstorm sessions are a lot of fun. But discussing paradigm is a lot harder. People would rather have you mess with their wife, than with their paradigm. And a paradigm-shift can cause real anguish and frustration.

Understandably, strategic consultants limit themselves to the fun part. When the client walks away with a happy feeling and a shiny strategic report in his hands, the consultant is likely to get his invoice paid. The consultant may even see returning customers, which paradoxically is proof that he did a poor job.