What the Much-Maligned “Paradigm Shift” Can Teach Us About Agile Transformation

If there’s a word to describe wholesale change in an organization today, it’s transformation.

But that wasn’t the first word for wholesale change—or the last.

Every decade or so, the business world comes up with a new word to signal the need for dramatic change, as well as the need to manage that change. Not too long ago, the word was “disruption.” A decade before that, everyone was talking about “paradigm shifts.” And a decade before that, it was evolution. Go back further, and it was the “shake up.” (Watch out: Next up to the plate will be the idea of “Liminal spaces.” Just watch.)

All of these are different ways of gesturing at the same thing. Same concept, cool new word to get it across. But of all these, paradigm shift is worth taking a closer look at, mainly because it, unlike the other phrases, has a very specific source—a birthday, if you will.

It comes from the work of a philosopher and historian looking at the way science is done. Understanding how it was used, historically, doesn’t just give me an excuse to flex my PhD in Philosophy. It can also give us some insights into how to handle the transformations (agile transformation, digital transformation, business transformation) of today.

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Paradigm Shifts and the Background of “Normal” Science

I’m talking, of course, of Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), and his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. Kuhn was interested in the history of science, and his book was a look at the way science progresses. In it, Kuhn argued that science did not make progress solely by accumulating bits of knowledge at a slow and steady pace. He used multiple examples from the history of science to show that there were just as many instances of a wholesale sea-change in the scientific community: The Copernican model of the solar system. Oxygen and its role in chemistry. Newton’s laws of motion and his theories on optics.

What these examples had in common was that they were dramatic changes in scientific theory that happened against a backdrop of science-as-usual (what Kuhn called “normal science”). When problems arose for science-as-usual, and the questions it could not answer began to accumulate, a “crisis phase” would result where scientists would start to question the very assumptions and methods of their field. Doing so sometimes led to a completely new way of thinking about the field—a new paradigm. Sometimes the shift to the new paradigm was gradual (Vitamin C as a cure for scurvy) and sometimes it occurred very quickly (plate tectonic theory).

One can see, then, how this might be picked up by business consultants and gurus making a case for change. A paradigm shift wasn’t just a small change in how something was done; it was a change in the entire outlook of a field or specialty, complete with a change in vocabulary and the exemplars used to teach the next generation.

What is perhaps just as fascinating, though, are the things that consultants usually don’t tell us about Kuhn and his take on science. In other words, what most people don’t know about Kuhn could be what kills you.

What Your Consultant Never Told You About Paradigm Change

There are some things that are conveniently forgotten about Kuhn’s theory of paradigm change. Unearthing those have, I think, some important lessons for us about change and change management.

1)  Kuhn actually abandoned paradigm talk pretty early on.

It didn’t take long after the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for critics to pounce on the word “paradigm” and point out that Kuhn’s use of the word tended to be overly broad, even vague, mashing together many distinct ideas. Kuhn himself dropped the talk of paradigms some years later, preferring instead to talk about “exemplars”: The kinds of problems (and accepted solutions) that are presented to the next generations as (ahem) paradigmatic examples of how to do science in a given field. (Even later in his career, Kuhn focused mostly on talking about scientific taxonomies—in other words, how scientists carved up the world.)

Does that mean there’s no use continuing to talk about paradigms? Not necessarily. But we need to realize that it’s a somewhat vague term (as are other terms for change, like transformation, disruption, and evolution).

2) Most of science happens “within” a paradigm—it’s “normal science.”

Paradigm shifts do not happen frequently. Indeed, most of the time, scientists toil away in a given paradigm…and produce a lot of great science.

Change that happens continually, for the sake of change, is not transformation—it’s chaos. A true transformation leaves an organization with something better in its wake. Something that can be used to create and deliver new value over an extended period of time. If you are transforming all the time, that’s a problem. You’re not embracing change; you are actually stuck.

3) Paradigm shifts aren’t just changes—they are wholesale replacement.

Change happens even in the course of normal science. A scientist might come up with a new hypothesis, and then gather new data that supports (or disproves) that hypothesis. So normal science isn’t a lack of change.

Likewise, paradigm shifts are more than change. Along with the shift comes a new vocabulary and a new understanding of how to do science. Scientists in different paradigms don’t come to agreements or collaborate, because they are talking past each other. Is this really what change managers want in an organization.

Probably not. Even “disruptive” companies are still working on many of the same problems that their disrupted competition is working on. We only see an entirely new vocabulary in just a few areas (cloud computing, the combination of SEO and social media for marketing, etc.). Most other industries want to keep their vocabulary and worldview heavily regimented, and for good reason.

4) Paradigms are largely a social and cultural phenomenon. 

Because two different scientists working under two different paradigms are solving different problems, using different vocabularies, and adopting different worldviews, they aren’t likely to come to an agreement on anything. They don’t resolve debates; one side just becomes less popular with the next generation of scientists.

This means that the change that happens in a paradigm shift is a cultural shift. By definition, it is not programmatic. It’s more like fashion than like a plan you would see in a Powerpoint deck.

That doesn’t mean that people can’t work to bring a paradigm about. Quite the opposite. Paradigmatic change can come about, but it takes sustained effort over time—along with the right training. A track record of success doesn’t hurt, either.

Back to Agile Transformation

So what does this all have to do with business transformation? And agile transformation specifically? Here are some of my takeaways from my re-reading of Kuhn and his critics:

  1. Talk about “transformation” is cheap. Actually getting a series of changes to stick across an organization, that’s the difficult part. And that will require a wholesale cultural shift.
  2. If your organization is constantly changing (constantly transforming, constantly evolving, etc.) in big ways, then something is wrong. For whatever reason, the transformation has not stuck. Burnout is inevitable.
  3. Still, changing in small ways can be “normal.” Being agile means, in part, getting feedback and adjusting what you are doing. That’s a sort of change. The goal is to put a structure in place that makes this sort of constant readjustment possible without having to reinvent the wheel every time.
  4. Agile is always getting relegated to the world of software; but every function understands change and change management. Maybe agile transformation isn’t a plan we hoist on development teams. Maybe it's a commitment that a company, and a generation, makes as a whole.
  5. The words we use matter—but they are not to be taken too seriously. Sometimes, shifting your vocabulary can do wonders for shifting your viewpoint…if you are willing to do some research and exercise your brain a little.

I’ll close with a big “thank you” to Sketch Development for letting me pen a guest post—hopefully, I’ve gotten their take on agile transformation right. I highly recommend one of their webinars or, if you’re strapped for time, their series Raise the Bar.

This guest post was authored by our colleague Brandon N. Towl over at Words Have Impact.

Why Your Company is On Its Third Agile Transformation

Brandon Towl

Brandon is the owner and head writer for Words Have Have Impact, where he has had the good fortune to write several articles about leadership and organizational change, including articles on agile and its application to business. Before founding Words Have Impact, Brandon was an adjunct professor with a PhD in...

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