Paradigm Blindness

Posted by Ryann Malone - June, 21 2016

In a recent leadership training, I learned about “paradigm blindness” which implies that individuals, groups, and organizations are unwilling or unable to accept any challenge to their core ways of making sense of the world—in essence, their worldviews (or in the case of a company, we could call it a “workview”).


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“Who wants to hear actors talk?” – Harry Warner, Warner Brothers Pictures, 1927


If a paradigm is a fundamental, unquestioned set of assumptions that determine our worldview or workview, then paradigm blindness keeps us from creating something new because we firmly believe the way we see it, is the way it is and the way it always will be. Paradigm Blindness shuts down innovative problem solving and creativity.


However, even the best of leaders and innovators are susceptible to paradigm blindness.


“The phonograph… is not of any commercial value.”- Thomas Edison, 1880


“Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not impossible.” –Simon Newcomb, 1902


“It is an idle dream to imagine that… automobiles will take the place of railways in the long distance movement of passengers.” – American Road Congress 1913


“I think there is a world market for about five computers.” ­­– Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943


Yes, it’s all absolute… until it’s not.


As storytellers, we know audiences love unexpected twists and surprising endings. As Alchemists, transformation is central to our trade.

Let me use two Mercedes Benz ads to illustrate why it’s so important to get over “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Tell me—which ad do you wish you could zoom in on and read?



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Ad A from a few years ago that tells me that Mercedes-Benz is innovative but – yawn– you wouldn’t know it by this ad.

Ad B is an award-winning ad that shows you innovation and stands out amongst the 5,000 marketing messages you encounter daily.

Mercedes, Disney, Apple, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Nike… all industry leaders and all paradigm shifters in the world of advertising. One might argue their high market shares enable them to create disruptive advertising that smaller brands can’t risk. To that excuse, I’ll throw out a paradigm that still seems true to me:


If you want to be a leader, act like one.


Those people inside a company or a system often suffer ‘paradigm blindness’ which means that they cannot see the pieces that would bring about the most profound shift or transformation. That is why a person entering the company or system from outside is often able to bring about a paradigm shift as they are not predisposed with the collective blindness that pervades organizations. If you are looking to disrupt the status quo, get a fresh perspective from the outside.

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