Are You Trapped by Paradigm Paralysis?

Lord 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.

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.


For over 30 years, Jim Clemmer’s practical leadership approaches have been inspiring action and achieving results. He has delivered thousands of keynote presentations, workshops, and management team retreats to hundreds of organizations around the globe moving his audiences from inspiration to application. He’s listed in the World’s Top 30 Most Influential Leadership Gurus based on research with 22,000 global business people, consultants, academics and MBAs. His website is

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