There is a pattern to how new ideas come into a society

We are living in a world where we experience multiple and often competing world views every day, and leadership assumptions about how the world works are behind every political or business strategy. Many of these strategies are being created in a real time fashion, as we strive to navigate the disruption we are experiencing in this pandemic combined with the social protests against systemic racism. A system, I might add, where benefits and burdens are not widely shared.

Although it seems unexpected our current situation is one that has actually been predicted by several experts. For example, both Thomas Kuhn’s iconic work The Structure of Scientific Revolution (now in it’s 50th anniversary edition) and Joshua Cooper Ramo’s more recent book The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks talk about the patterns that occur when a paradigm shift is about to happen. These patterns are quite relevant to our current situation, and worth examining more closely.

Moving from one paradigm to another

When paradigms begin to show initial signs of failing or shifting, there are usually some very loud supporters of certain ideologies who do not want to see that the world is changing. This can be seen during the fall of an aristocracy, for example, or at the advent of industrial age economics. During these times new ideas are usually suppressed, denied, or ridiculed.  I’m paraphrasing the quote ““First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win, ” as representative of this pattern. (Side note: this is often attributed to Gandhi,  but was actually uttered by trade union activist Nicholas Klein in 1918.)

The conflict between those people clinging to old ideas while others strive to evolve and adapt to the new paradigm causes immense pressure.  Some hug tightly to existing forms while others acknowledge that the current paradigm is no longer an accurate description of a new landscape. As this happens, a new narrative emerges that is much more descriptive of this landscape, with its newly linked networks, strengthened connections, and expanding interdependent systems. Those who see and understand this shift are the ones who benefit the most as they accelerate their adaptive capacity to meet the changes happening in their external environments. Those who deny the shift do so because they have usually benefited from the old paradigm – and they simply don’t want the world to change. 

Joshua Cooper Ramo provided an example of this pattern when he described a visit to the War College after the Iraq war, where he learned how the enemy’s ground network tactics shocked and stunned military leaders. The  generals had gone to war with superior might, equipment, and training, expecting to win if not easily, then swiftly. Instead, they ran into a landscape that did not operate by their existing rules on how war was meant to be waged. Encountering this new paradigm, they had to shift their world view to radically and rapidly adapt every previous lesson learned on battle to their current situation.

Patterns in Nature

Over the past 3.8 billion years Nature has demonstrated patterns that emerge when it is ready to let go of a form that no longer serves the higher purpose of the system. Another way of saying this is that within the adaptive cycle Nature demonstrates its fluidity by letting go of forms that no longer serve function. A human system that has been sustained for a long time also often stops adapting to changes in the external environment. As the human system holds tighter to its forms, it becomes rigid. We can see that clearly as people start holding even more tightly to the status quo and they try to strengthen the forms holding the old paradigm in place. This accelerates the inevitable collapse because this attempt to “hang on” actually disconnects their organization from the changes occurring in the external environment. (This may remind you of some patterns happening in our own world today, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that point.)

Signs a paradigm is about to shift

As living systems experts, we watch carefully for common indicators that shifts are about to happen, or may already be happening. Some of these include:

  • Rigidity. Right before the adaptive cycle releases the status quo there is increased rigidity in the ideology of the current paradigm. This rigidity of holding onto the traditional worldview or paradigm, and the refusal to see  see the emergent paradigm, can happen in lots of different sectors, from education, to science, to military, etc. Noticing the frequency, energy expenditure, and intensity of the rigidity of ideology has helped me predict when we are getting closer to the collapse of one paradigm.  It’s also helped me see when we are beginning a cycle of rapid adaptation toward something else.
  • Increased resistanceAnother sign that a system is about to transform itself can be seen by the level of resistance and the sheer power applied to asserting the old paradigm. That force increases as we get closer and closer to failure of the old paradigm.
  • Volume. Right before the old paradigm falls, voices and the old forms that hold it in place get much, much louder.  This is another sign that something new is trying to form to help the system transform and evolve.

Nature, of course, doesn’t resist like human systems do. Nature simply adapts and moves forward as we can see in major weather event like fires, earthquakes, or hurricanes that help reset the ecological system.  Nature has a beautiful ability to let go of forms that no longer serve its function and purpose. Nature is a system that regenerates itself, designed to evolve when forms no longer support the life of future generations. It “resets”  by letting go of the status quo exploring the next iteration in its evolution.

Humans, on the other hand, tend to fall in love with the forms we build around ideas, programs and structures. We generate laws that hold old forms of power and privilege in place. Within organizations we create structures and processes that hold hierarchies and compensation models in place long after their usefulness has disappeared. Nature would see these laws, structures, and processes as things that can and should be removed, so that the system can continue to evolve and transform.

Today we are witnessing similar patterns and tensions that happen when an old way of thinking is being replaced by the new. For those who are seeking to recreate a society that is more restorative and regenerative, we can take heart that underneath the rhetoric and power a new way is most certainly coming into being. Just like Nature, human systems are required to evolve and transform in order to survive.