Breaking with old ways of thinking

“All significant breakthroughs are breaks with old ways of thinking.” 

Thomas Kuhn

 

INCOMMENSURABILITY.
From Ancient Greek Mathematics
[noun] To have no common measure. Denoting the incompatibility of dualling paradigms.

 

Despite the horrors of two world wars, and the social upheaval that followed, the 1950s was a golden era of scientific progress, marked by rapid, often breathtaking, discovery and development.

From medical science to physics, cosmology and technological advancement, researchers seemed to announce new, exhilarating discoveries almost every day.

Central to the science of this era was the deeply embedded idea that all knowledge was progressive and sequential.  Linear. That we could continuously improve every aspect of our lives by drilling down on what came before, amplifying it, and expanding on it.

Knowledge was a pyramid, and if you kept adding to what was already known, you would eventually reach the apex of truth.

Then, in 1962, this thinking was dramatically and controversially upended.

Thomas Kuhn was an American philosopher of science who became deeply interested in a concept he later termed incommensurability. Essentially the antithesis of a knowledge pyramid, incommensurability conceptualised radically new ways of thinking about the same set of variables, but in ways that were wholly incompatible with what had come before – or what existed alongside.

Kuhn’s seminal work was The Structure of Scientific Revolution, in which he challenged thought leaders to re-examine what constituted the building blocks of progress, and progressive thinking. And he did so by introducing, for the very first time, a concept that has since become synonymous with transformative thinking: The concept of paradigm shift.

Before Kuhn, before anyone had ever heard the term paradigm, let alone paradigm shift, progress was seen as a long, steady march towards an ever-greater understanding of the world.

But Kuhn saw the world, and the thinkers who shape our world, very differently.

Progress, he argued, was not cumulative or continuous. Rather, progress was a set of ragged, often haphazard discontinuities brought about by moments of crisis. Discontinuities which culminated, inevitably, in disruption, revolution, re-evaluation and, ultimately, in new frameworks of thinking.

New paradigms, which often bore scant resemblance to what had come before. In fact, paradigms which very rarely bore any resemblance to what had come before. Because, he argued, all significant breakthroughs are inevitably breaks with old ways of thinking.

Kuhn’s theory was deeply controversial. Not only because it challenged prevailing assumptions about how progress happens – a pyramid of more – but also because it questioned whether more of a good thing was inevitably a better thing.

Because real progress, Kuhn argued, often looks nothing like a pyramid of more.

 

Turn the ship around

 

Captain David Marquet, Commander: USS Santa Fe

 

Forty years after The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published, US Navy commander David Marquet experienced, first-hand, Kuhn’s incommensurability of paradigms.

It was early 1999, and Marquet had been newly appointed to take command of the nuclear submarine, the USS Santa Fe. This was, by every measure, a dream post. One of the US Navy’s new generation attack submarines, the Santa Fe was an impressive vessel. Sleek, fast, ultra-modern, with a complement of 98 sailors and 12 officers.

But it was also, Marquet quickly realised, a hugely challenging commission.

Despite being one of the newer additions to the nuclear fleet, commissioned only six years earlier, the Santa Fe was a ship in crisis. In fact, she was the worst performing submarine in the entire US navy.

Morale was poor. Performance was low. Crew retention virtually non-existent.

A career military officer, with almost two decades’ active service, Marquet approached his new posting as commander of the Santa Fe from the only paradigm he had ever been exposed to: a rigid, centralised command and control mindset that valued duty and compliance over everything else.

“My assumption, based on my experience up to that point, was that people needed to be told what to do, otherwise they simply would not be able to contribute anything of great value,” Marquet recalls.

“I operated from the assumption that the world is predictable, and performance manageable, which means we can follow a very specific set of steps, or processes, to reach a desired outcome. And always on the assumption that spending more hours on something always makes it better.”

Except, this approach simply didn’t work.

For weeks, Marquet watched, with growing frustration, as his best command and control efforts failed to turn the failing ship around. A vessel-wide leader-follower mindset meant that while his new crew would do everything he ordered, they could not – or would not – take ownership of the solutions that were required to truly turn the ship around.

They remained followers, awaiting instructions.

So Marquet stopped talking, and started listening. He stopped issuing commands, and co-opted consultative solutions. He delegated authority and encouraged autonomy. And he treated every crew member as a co-leader with shared responsibility for the overall success of the submarine.

In short, he abandoned every aspect of the command-control paradigm and adopted a new way of thinking, doing and co-creation, that was wholly incommensurable with what he had been taught.

Without realising it, Marquet was giving life to Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift, as an alternate to the linearity of a pyramid of more.

The results were incredible. And virtually instantaneous.

 

Within months, the Santa Fe went from worst in fleet to best in fleet.

 

Morale was not only up, it was starting to spill over to other crews with whom his men came into contact, and Marquet’s methods were being studied, and emulated.

Twenty years after David Marquet turned his ship around, many organisational leaders are facing their own defining Santa Fe moments.

The swirling seas of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity our people and leaders are having to navigate, compounded by the tsunami of COVID-19, have exposed our old paradigms of thinking and leading as inappropriate, ineffective, and incompatible.

Our pyramids of more – built on a baseline of outdated thinking about what our people want and need – have been exposed as fundamentally broken.

The outdated command-and-control model is not only failing us. It is endangering us.

Many of our organisations are adrift, our teams dissatisfied, and our people disengaged, because our leaders are failing to heed Kuhn’s warning, or follow Marquet’s example.

They persist in constructing ever-more irrelevant pyramids of more – more control, more command, more rigidity, more linearity – all the while trying to pretzel old ways of thinking into new ways of doing, being and working.

We must do better. And we must do different. Not by adding more layers to old foundations, but by stridently and purposefully abandoning old paradigms that no longer serve us.

 

A new lens on leadership

 

Over the next few weeks, TPA will share our thinking about what leadership looks like on the other side of the outdated command-and-control, pyramid-of-more model.

Presented as an eight-part Leadership series, we interrogate the defining elements of purpose-driven, Big Why leadership, and examine, anew, what constitutes the essential qualities of leadership in a post COVID-19 reality.

Vision. Passion. Integrity. Courage. Authenticity. Resilience. Curiosity. Connection.

And impact.

 

Yours in leadership,

Natalie

 

Oct 4, 2021

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