Getting stuck, not being able to think out of the box, being politically blocked, playing it too safe, and getting trapped by groupthink are common challenges for those who lead.
These obstacles don't simply dominate the spheres of politics and business, they appear in all aspects of our social life. From science to art, we're trapped doing incremental exercises, making mild adjustments, and rarely taking a step beyond the bow. We plug along, recreating the same problems, and refashioning the same solutions.
There is one author who has elaborated on the trappings of being stuck and on the risks of moving forward, and his name is Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science. Kuhn is often cited, but not read enough. His notion of paradigms is familiar, but how many have really delved into his seminal volume, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions?
The book explains that scientific progress isn't a simple progression toward the truth. Instead, he argues, science is influenced by non-rational procedures. Published in 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has become a landmark book and is required reading for any student of science, philosophy, and the social sciences.
However, I hope that leaders of all stripes read Kuhn's work because it forces them to think beyond their assumptions and challenges their pre-set beliefs. This is a relevant exercise--especially in a world where the economy is tottering, jobs aren't safe, and technology is quickly changing how we interact with the world.
Before The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published, textbooks told a very simple story. The dominant belief was that scientific progress went in a straight line. New truths led to more truths and so on.
But Kuhn argues that this straight-line presentation of science is not exactly true. Instead, he posits that the leading developments in science were, for the most part, revolutionary and subverted the bulk of scientific progress that came before it.
Galileo turned astronomy on its head. Newton redefined physics, and Darwin revolutionized biology. These massive scientific discoveries displaced old ideas with new ways of thinking. They weren't tinkering steps, but instead a massive overhaul. Kuhn calls these groundbreaking discoveries "paradigm shifts." When science bumps into anomalies and goes into a "crisis," Kuhn believes, "paradigm shifts" begin to occur which ultimately lead to scientific revolutions.
Kuhn, a physicist, also states that science can't be separated from scientists and the social milieu. Therefore, the dynamic of scientific movement isn't smooth, but staggered, complicated, and hinged on social problems beyond the laboratory. Kuhn's observations are helpful for leaders since, at their center, they revolve around ideas of uncertainty and innovation. Scientific progress doesn't follow a straight line--and neither do business plans or end-of-the-month goals.
Leaders armed with Kuhn's insights can begin to look at their field in a new light. They can start to see that progress doesn't have a formula or firm rules. They can see how they sometimes engage in the perpetual process of recreating the wheel because that's what's safest. Moreover, Kuhn's analysis can help leaders understand how uncertainty impacts their daily operations. Linear models, plans, and objectives can be thrown out the window. "Paradigm shifts" and revolutions happen--and leaders have to be on their guard.
At a workshop my colleagues and I recently conducted, the word "paradigm" kept coming up in the discussion. I realized that the word had become diluted, that it had lost the depth of its original intent and its sense of drama. Now the concept of a "paradigm shift" is a throwaway line that rarely reflects, celebrates, or appreciates the depth of Kuhn's original definition.
Finally, Kuhn's book is a just a plain and simple good read. It's a slim volume packed with great anecdotes and humorous stories with historical relevance. I've been assigning it to my students at Cornell for over 30 years. All leaders should read it to appreciate how easily they can get trapped in their little rooms. All leaders should read it to appreciate what it means to simply move deck chairs on the Titanic.