Are You Trapped by Paradigm ParalysisLord Kelvin was a highly decorated and recognized 19th century British mathematical physicist and engineer. The list of his pioneering contributions to electricity, thermodynamics, and the emerging field of physics is a very long one. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his work on the transatlantic telegraph. The guy was a genius.

He’s also famous for his assertion that “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Five years later, Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity, which challenged the very simple set of rules laid down by Newtonian mechanics. It opened an entirely new field of science that dramatically changed our world.

This is one of many, many examples of experts who become deeply entrenched in the existing model or framework. From telephones, televisions, airplanes, personal computers, to the Internet, most of the technologies we now take for granted were once considered impossible by the experts viewing the world through the lens of existing models. They didn’t fit existing paradigms.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a paradigm as “a pattern or model, an exemplar.” Wikipedia provides a fascinating entry on paradigms. Much of it focuses on and quotes from the ground-breaking work of American physicist, historian, and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

This passage in Wikipedia’s discussion of paradigms really leapt out: “for well-integrated members of a particular discipline, its paradigm is so convincing that it normally renders even the possibility of alternatives unconvincing and counter-intuitive. Such a paradigm is opaque, appearing to be a direct view of the bedrock of reality itself, and obscuring the possibility that there might be other, alternative imageries hidden behind it. The conviction that the current paradigm is reality tends to disqualify evidence that might undermine the paradigm itself…”

That describes exactly what’s happening in the fields of Human Resources and Leadership and Organization Development right now. And as I described in Manifesto for a Leadership Development Revolution, I too became trapped by the current “bedrock” paradigm of needs analysis, gap analysis, and improvement planning. This weakness-based paradigm of leadership and organization development is so strongly and unconsciously held by most of today’s experts that it’s obscuring other possibilities.

Tomorrow we publish the December issue of The Leader Letter  combining all my November blog posts. It features many items on the big paradigm shift to strengths-based leadership development. This is a tough one for many of us heavily invested in our current training programs and approaches. Science-based leadership research is rendering many of those traditional approaches obsolete. The implications of this can be profoundly threatening to our status quo — and incredibly exciting filled with new development possibilities.

Performance management systems and leadership competency models have become another example of a deeply entrenched paradigm that’s becoming “a bedrock of reality.” And most of them are built on a set of shaky foundations and dangerous assumptions. Tomorrow’s lead item on “6 Reasons Many Leadership Competency Models Fail” explains what the most common ones are. It’s followed by “5 Keys to Make Competency Models Flourish.” These have both been combined into a new downloadable white paper on Leadership Competency Models: Why Many Are Failing and How to Make them Flourish.

Paradigms like our personal philosophies or worldview appear so normal we often don’t even recognize the pattern that’s trapped our thinking. That’s Paradigm Paralysis: “the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking.” Performance management and competency-based leadership development that builds on strengths is a new paradigm. This can change our world — if we can change our lens and see it.