A while back I wrote a couple of blogs on the new paradigm in publishing. Now I need to spend a few lines of text on where these ideas come from. Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) was an American physicist, historian and science philosopher who wrote a book in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This was not well received in scientific circles, but the business community picked it up, making Kuhn a successful, but controversial figure. The book introduced the term “paradigm shift,” which means everything you ever thought about something could now be wrong.

Kuhn outlined a number of characteristics of scientific progress. First, he noted that science actually progresses through “paradigm shifts” instead of through research in a smooth, continuous line. Next, these paradigm shifts often invalidate things that were thought to be true and produce new theories. This means that scientific truth isn’t something that’s objective, but instead it’s subjective and defined by consensus in the scientific community.

You can see why these weren’t popular observations. Kuhn went on to say that these paradigm shifts were never sparked by anyone who was deeply invested in a particular theory. Instead, it takes someone from outside, someone on the fringes who can look at something with fresh eyes, to point out what’s wrong with it.

Commitment to the paradigm allows the mass of average scientists to make great strides within the boundaries of current thought, but according to Kuhn, they will never be the geniuses who make the jump to the next great theory. For example, it takes Albert Einstein, a patent clerk with a teaching degree, to point out what’s wrong with Newtonian physics, or for another example, the lawyer Antoine Lavoisier who identified oxygen’s role in combustion and thus destroyed the Phlogiston Theory.

The classic example of a paradigm shift in business is the move to digital watches. From about 1900 to 1970, the watch industry was dominated by Swiss watchmakers. They produced fine quality mechanical watches powered by a spring that were highly regarded by the market. In the 1960s three groups of engineers in the US, Japan and Switzerland all independently came up with a design for an electronic watch. Swiss watchmakers refused to believe anything could topple the Behemoth of the Swiss watch industry. They rejected the idea, but within ten years the fine Swiss watch was totally obsolete. The paradigm had shifted.

Go figure.