Step 2: Introducing Paradigms

Posted by Stuart Herbert @ 12:51 AM, Sat 08 Nov 08

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The Cycle of Self-Improvement continues with changes to our paradigms. This is where we start to gain an understanding. By changing our behaviours, and learning what works and what doesn t, we start to change the way we think about ourselves and our work. If we make a conscious effort to study whatever we are trying to improve at, we will create new models in our heads of how this particular area works.

Behaviours Alone Are Not Enough

In his audiobook on Principle-Centered Leadership, Dr. Stephen R. Covey gives a classic example of why great behaviour alone isn’t sufficient to perform well, using the metaphor of a map. Imagine you’re in a city you’ve never visited before, and you’re trying to find your hotel using a map. Unfortunately you have the wrong map. If you’ve cultivated a level of industriousness, you might persevere, charging up and down each street until eventually you might stumble across the hotel. If you’ve cultivated enthusiasm or (heaven forbid) positive thinking, you might not mind that you can’t find the hotel. But the problem stopping you from finding the hotel isn’t your behaviour – it’s that you have the wrong map.

The hotel in the example represents your goal, and the map represents your current understanding of whatever environment or context that your goal exists within. With an incomplete or faulty understanding (the wrong map), you cannot find your way to your goal (the hotel) except by luck and chance. Success based on luck and chance isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t repeatable or reproducible in the future.

Our behaviours – the way we act – create our own personal learning environment. To consciously learn from this environment, we have to attend to our thoughts and understandings, and evolve our paradigms to be both broader and deeper.

A paradigm is a view of the world, a mental model that we construct in our heads in order to understand the world around us, and in order to interact with it. We build these models all the time subconsciously, and our society teaches its own models to us throughout our childhoods. They are often described as our programs – the underlying rules of an individual’s thought that guide our behaviours in life.

Our paradigms are the causes of our problems, and they also where the solutions lie.

Your Paradigms Must Evolve

Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve our problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Our problems are caused by faulty paradigms – mental models that fall a little short when put to the test. But what causes more problems – faulty paradigms themselves, or the inability to evolve better paradigms in the face of fresh evidence? According to Einstein, it’s the inability to evolve better paradigms. But why is this true?

There are always things that we don’t fully understand, perhaps because it is a new subject that we are still learning, or our learning is incomplete or misdirected, or because we’ve had unusual experiences arising from extreme circumstances. As a result, many (if not most) of our paradigms will be incomplete or inaccurate. It’s not just our own paradigms that are incomplete, it’s also the paradigms of everyone else too. It’s self-evident that incomplete paradigms aren’t a major problem, because life goes on and we continue to make progress despite (or because of!) them.

A faulty paradigm can also be a mental model that was accurate or complete, but is now out of date. It may have been effective once, but it sure isn’t effective any more. The people we manage and the work we manage never stands still; it is always changing. The world in which we live and work is also changing all the time. Our own place in the world is also changing all the time. What happens when life moves on, but people can’t move with it? What happens when new paradigms are required, but people continue to apply the same paradigm even though it is no longer effective?

Every bad manager I have observed all shared the same characteristic: they were unable to evolve their paradigms. They were stuck in the past, trying the same actions time and time again. They would persist with this behaviour long after it became clear that these actions were no longer effective or appropriate. In the worst cases, the managers were trying time and time again to apply the same paradigms even though they had never worked in the first place!

By their inability to change and adapt, they weighed everyone down.

The Cost Of Persistently Faulty Paradigms

People who cannot evolve their paradigms become larger and larger sea anchors for their organisations, slowing down the whole ship and stopping everyone else getting to where they are trying to get to. Your good people – the people you need to build a successful business around – can see through this behaviour every single time. They have an almost natural aversion to managers who are stuck in a rut; managers who cannot evolve their paradigms. And the results – friction, conflict, insecurity and a breakdown in basic trust and respect – are completely unhealthy, both to you, your staff, and your organisation.

You owe it to yourself, and to everyone around you, to learn to evolve your paradigms, to elevate your thinking above wherever it currently is. You also owe it to everyone to deal decisively with subordinates (especially managers and leaders) who cannot.

But how exactly can we evolve our paradigms? I will answer that in the next article.

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One Comment

  1. Invest In Loss - » 5 Steps To Managing Yourself: The Cycle Of Self Improvement says:
    November 8th, 2008 at 12:53 am

    [...] Paradigms are where we start to gain an understanding.  By changing our behaviours, and learning what works and what doesn’t, we start to change the way we think about ourselves and our work.  If we make a conscious effort to study whatever we are trying to improve at, we will create new models in our heads of how this particular area works. [...]