When the Shift Hits the Fans and Paradigms Collapse

The actor playing the actor Fred Kwan, "Chief Engineer" on the Star-Trek-like show "Galaxy Quest" asks "has anybody got any change?" as his mates are beamed up by what they thought were fans of the show pretending to be aliens they just met at a conference. The paradigm shift is the "fans" turned out to actually be those aliens.   Change indeed. The shift hit the fans (and actors) as they were seen as the aliens they actually were.


What is a paradigm?

Paradigms are entrenched mindsets that acts as filters. They are like sunglasses that only let in certain colors but not others. They can go by other names. Paradigms are a more encompassing version of what Peter Senge  called  "Mental Models" and what  NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) calls "belief systems".  They vary in their scope from personal to global.

An example of a common paradigm in some societies is a child's belief in the Easter Bunny (not just a myth?).  

A business might have an unspoken paradigm of "don't give the boss bad news".  

Science has paradigms  like Copernicus' theory, the heliocentric view of the earth orbiting the sun. 

Paradigms are systems and act like living organisms with a will to perpetuate themselves. They do so in two main ways:

  1. Once a paradigm is accepted, it filters out information that would contradict it.
  2. The effect of self-fulfilling prophesy means those who hold a paradigm - whether they be individual people, segments of the marketplace, or an entire culture -  act in a way that expects the paradigm to fulfill itself, so it usually does. 


 “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it.”  Steven R Covey

However, while paradigms may seem durable while they last, they can dissolve quickly when met with the critical mass of contradictory information that signals the beginning of a new paradigm.  At that point it's better to be driving the car rather than standing in the headlight beams.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, some achieve paradigm shifts and some have paradigm shifts thrust upon them. Copernicus' heliocentric paradigm replaced the geocentric paradigm of the earth orbiting the sun, and has now  been supplanted by Einstein's relativity. 

How do you make sure you are the driver  - or, at least a passenger in the same car - and not the deer in the headlights when an old paradigm collapses as a new one comes in?

You can make paradigms your tools, instruments of a better life or a more successful business, when you learn to notice, utilize, and create Paradigm Vectors.  

 Let's consider next the three Paradigm Vectors...

The Three Paradigm Vectors

New paradigms and the responses to them follow 3 types of vectors. 

The characters playing the characters in Galaxy Quest took the vector of the Paradigm Adapter- they went with the paradigm shift (not having much choice) and took on the roles in real life of the characters they had played in the series.  

A Paradigm Adapter, one of the 3 Paradigm Vectors, perceives a paradigm shift and adjusts to it.

A Paradigm Leader initiates a new paradigm, either inventing it or bringing it into a new context,  and rides the vector of the new paradigm coming in like a surfer on a wave.

A Paradigm Victim stays stuck in the old paradigm, left in the past and minimized.  The plight of Borders bookstores, left behind in a declining business model as Paradigm Leader Amazon introduced the Kindle e-reader and Paradigm Adapter Barnes and Noble adapted with the Nook, is an example of this paradigm paralysis



The Three Paradigm Vectors:

  • Paradigm Leader: Sets a new paradigm in motion.
  • Paradigm Adapter: Perceives the new paradigm, adapts to it.
  • Paradigm Victim: Stays stuck in the old paradigm.


 Which side of the gun barrel of a paradigm shift do you want to be on? You can have a choice....

But, first, let's take a quick tour through history...

During and after the American revolutions, 80,000 Loyalists to the British throne, now labeled as traitors, left for Canada or Britain. And, as usual, the victors wrote the ensuing history books.  They defined the paradigm "revere the patriots of liberty" for US schoolchildren for generations to come. The patriots created the incoming paradigm while the loyalists clung to the old one.

Had things gone the other way, the founding fathers could have been the ones fleeing as traitors. Today they might be branded terrorists. Fortunately for them, they chose the right paradigm.

There can be a lot at stake when a paradigm shifts.



The Great Sphinx of Giza

Paradigm shifts can come from an outside view. For some time, the accepted view in Egyptology has been that the Great Sphinx of Giza was built by the Pharaoh Khafra around 2500 BC. Then, around 1989, American geologist Robert Schoch of Boston University made a strong case that there was erosion that couldn't have come from anything other than extended, heavy rainfall.

The trouble is, there hasn't been that kind of rain in the Giza area for thousands of years prior to the accepted beginning of dynastic Egypt in 3500 BC. Egyptologists said that was impossible, as there was no civilization at that time capable of making monuments of that scale. Who would have built it?



Gobekli Tepe

Then, Gobekli Tepe, full of beautifully sculpted, 1o-meter tall, T-shaped pillars was discovered in Turkey in the 1990s and authoritatively dated to 11,600 BC. Egyptology seem to be sticking to their story as the world goes "hmmmm." The field of geology has challenged an accepted paradigm in the field of archaeology.

Old paradigms can die hard as the world goes by. 

Switching time frames to more recent events, let's consider some modern examples of paradigm shifts, their leaders, adapters, and victims.


4 Recent Examples of Paradigm Shifts and their Paradigm Vectors


Buckminster Fuller wrote, "We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."  

Speaking of architects, Fuller was one, as well as a systems thinker and inventor who, among many other creations,  came up with the Geodesic Dome, the innovative and accurate Dymaxion map,  and the futurist Dymaxion car

Fuller also demonstrated his thought leadership by inventing a word: Ephemeralizationthe ability of technological advancement to do "more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing." According to Wikipedia, his vision was "that ephemeralization will result in ever-increasing standards of living for an ever-growing population despite finite resources."

Nice vision. Bucky was a guy who could hack a paradigm.

Speaking of ephemeralization, let's consider some of the things that a smart phone replaces - stuff we used to need for the  functions now provided by a device small enough to carry in a pocket or purse:

  1. Phone
  2. Camera
  3. Portable Music Player, aka "Boom box" aka "iPod"
  4. Television (via Hulu)
  5. GPS Device
  6. Fax Machine
  7. Radio
  8. Box that plays movies through your TV aka "VHS Player" aka "DVD Player" aka "Blu Ray Player"
  9. Notepad for shopping lists
  10. Rolodex
  11. Calendar
  12. Flashlight
  13. Music Instrument Tuner
  14. Metronome
  15. Video Camera
  16. Scanner
  17. Clock
  18. Thermometer
  19. Chess Set
  20. Pedometer
  21. Level
  22. Radar Detector (via Waze)

And this list could go on, but let's move on to our four recent examples of ephemeralization through paradigm shifts:

  • Elon Musk has given us more car with less (in fact, zero) fossil fuels needed in the Tesla: the first mass-produced electric car that I've wanted to own. 
  • Steve Jobs started a revolution with the iPhone, giving us more screen area, and thus a more usable computer,  in a pocket-size smart phone by moving the dialing to the screen. 
  • The Amazon Kindle was at the forefront of making it possible to carry thousands of books around with you.
  • Netflix has brought thousands of movies into millions of homes without the need for any physical media.

These new Paradigms, in addition to their Paradigm Leaders, also had Paradigm Adapters, and Paradigm Victims, as you'll see in the chart below:

Paradigm Fast and cool electric cars Touchscreen smartphones Read books on a tablet  Streaming Movies
Paradigm Leader Tesla iPhone Amazon Kindle  Netflix
Paradigm Adapter Porsche, with the Mission E  Samsung Barnes and Noble Nook Amazon Prime Video
Paradigm Victim VW with Dieselgate Blackberry Borders Bookstores  Blockbuster


More about the adapters and victims of these four paradigm shifts:

  • Porsche, is playing catch-up as the Paradigm Adapter to the Tesla with it's Mission E, which looks to be pretty awesome but is lagging behind the Tesla Model S by many years in the marketplace, even if it launches when planned. Its parent company, VW, is the Paradigm Victim (by its own doing) - suffering through the repercussions of cheating its way to performance with diesels, a way of economizing our driving that is looking ever more outdated every year.
  • Samsung as Paradigm Adapter followed Apple to market with products similar enough to Apple's to trigger a stream of lawsuits. Blackberry, the Paradigm Victim kept their touch-keyboard to their detriment.
  • Barnes and Noble played the Paradigm Adapter with the Nook e-reader while Borders Bookstores, with no e-reader of their own, wore the hat of the Paradigm Victim and failed
  • In video, Amazon has been the Paradigm Adapter with its counter to Netflix in the form of Amazon Prime Video. Blockbuster, straddled with a huge inventory of physical movie media, became a Paradigm Victim

Learning to perceive and adapt to new paradigms early can avoid the paradigm paralysis that otherwise could have made one a Paradigm Victim...


The greatest spoils, however, go to those who see the invisible and bring it to life: The Paradigm Leaders - those who can hack a paradigm, not just in themselves, but in the marketplace. Subscribe to join me in this evolving story. 


“…one lives and analyses data within a frame, unaware that the solution is most often just outside of that frame. Never underestimate the depth of your subjectivity.”   Darrell Calkins