Penny de Valk: 'Paradigm' might be a stupid word, but it can also be a useful one

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It's a wonderful piece of New Age jargon, I know, but the reality is that the economic and social shifts we are experiencing are a paradigm shift. So here is a story about paradigms.

There's this man who is driving his beautiful sports car down his favourite stretch of road. It's a great day and he's really enjoying himself. As he comes to a corner, a car screams around the corner on the wrong side of the road, coming in the opposite direction. It is careering all over the road and comes at him in his lane. Just as they are about to collide, it swerves away, and as it races past he sees there is a woman driver and she yells out "Pig!"

He yells back and waves his fist; he's furious, how dare she, he was on the right side of the road. Angrily he changes down and turns the corner quickly, and smacks straight into the pig.

From the existing paradigm of "you call me a name and I'll call you a name!," he was blinded to the warning she was giving him about what lay ahead.

Paradigms are just sets of rules that enable us to organise the world. They establish boundaries and tell us how to be successful by solving problems within these boundaries.

They filter incoming experience. We view the world through our paradigms all the time. We constantly select from the world the information that best fits our rules and regulations.

Although paradigms are useful because they give us rules for what works in our lives, we have to be aware of being limited by them. What worked yesterday won't work today.

The rules are being broken today more than ever, our paradigms are shifting. And they are shifting because the established rules of the game no longer provide effective solutions to our problems.

Paradigms are important – they focus our attention, they concentrate our efforts on what we have deemed to be important, they give us the confidence to solve problems. But they can also block our vision. They seduce us with their success. When confronted with a profoundly new and different way to look at the future, we may reject it because it doesn't fit the rules we are already so good at.

Penny de Valk is chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She spoke at Public Sector Skills on Monday night

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