Paradigms: A book review by Bob Morris

Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future
Joel Arthur Barker
HarperBusiness (1993)

Quo Vadis?

Since it was first published, this book has become a “must read” for those who are struggling to understand what is happening and, more to the point, what will probably be happening in the global marketplace. Peter Drucker has suggested that one of the greatest challenges for any organization is to manage the consequences and implications of a future that has already occurred. I agree. However, I also agree with Barker that it is possible to recognize what he calls a “paradigm shift”: a major change of the rules and regulations that establish or define boundaries, a change which suggests that new behavior will be required within those redefined boundaries.

One of the most important concepts in the book is what Barker calls “paradigm pliancy”: “the purposeful seeking out of new ways of doing things. It is an active behavior in which you challenge your paradigms [i.e. the status quo, assumptions and premises] by asking the Paradigm Shift Question: What do I believe is impossible to do in my field, but if it could be done, would fundamentally change my business?” Have you asked this question? Do you realize that one or more of your competitors may have already asked that question?

Although the book’s subtitle is “The Business of Discovering the Future”, the fact remains that (back to Drucker) the challenge is to identity and then measure the degree of probability of various contingencies…many of which may have already occurred or are now in process.

Barker asserts that every organization must anticipate and then innovate to achieve excellence in an age during which change is the only constant. He suggests that there are five components to “strategic exploration”: Understanding influences which shape our perceptions, divergent thinking which enables us to consider more than “one right answer”, convergent thinking which enables us to integrate data while prioritizing choices, mapping which reveals pathways from the present to the future, and finally, imaging which (with words or drawings or models) documents what is learned during the process of exploration.

This is a business “classic” that will continue to be relevant so long as leaders of organizations remain hostage to assumptions and premises that are either already obsolete now or will soon become so. What about yours?


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