Changing the Story Changes Everything: A New Paradigm for 21st Century prosperity

This article is dedicated to the late Bryan Ungard, former Chief Purpose Office for the Decurion Corporation. I did not know Bryan personally, but I know of his work, and it has enhanced and inspired my current thinking and action. I hope that I can pick up the baton and carry it forward a bit with honor.

“Real flourishing requires a paradigm shift.” –Bryan Ungard, speaking at the Teal Around the World Conference in March 2021.

Guest Post by Betsy Sheppard

Is technological development proceeding so rapidly that it will soon surpass human strength and intelligence? Are machines really becoming smarter than humans?

Before you read further, I promise you that this is not an article of despair and doomsday scenarios. It is about human brilliance and hope, once you get past the scary part.

Today, there are many thought leaders from different disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology, evolutionary biology, quantum physics and more who believe that humans are facing a species moment. Can we evolve fast enough to avoid being overwhelmed by the large, complex, and urgent challenges all around us?

According to Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and current President of the Center for Humane Technology, there is a much earlier moment in time before the risk of machines becoming smarter than humans. That moment is when machines overwhelm human weakness by preying on our fears and human frailties, holding our attention hostage to the point where we don’t know what to believe or whom to trust. Unfortunately, that moment is already here as described in the docudrama The Social Dilemma. Holy cow! What chance do we have of tackling these big challenges in front of us?

The good news is that we humans have plenty of innate energy and potential available to us, if we choose to activate it. We have the power to shift the invisible cultural forces giving rise to human downgrading as depicted in The Social Dilemma. We can create a new human story, or way of being in the world, that evolves individual, organizational, and community capacities to imagine future possibilities, to co-create groundbreaking solutions, and to thrive in complexity. We can unleash human brilliance and collective intelligence, supported by but not dominated by machines.

Paradigms, Mental Models, and Mindsets

When dealing with systems thinking and complexity, an essential first step is differentiation. It is easy to conflate and confuse common terms that seem similar but are different in subtle and important ways.

A paradigm is a set of beliefs and assumptions about how we think the world works. At the societal level, a paradigm is the invisible cultural field that shapes what you perceive, what you think, and how you should behave to fit in and be accepted by others; it is the unwritten rules for how the game is played. Humans are born to culture the way fish are born to water. “There is no such thing as human nature independent of culture,” according to renowned cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

At the individual level, you can think of a paradigm as the non-conscious perceptual filter that determines what you notice, pay attention to and value as important. This filter is sometimes referred to as a mental model or internal map of reality and it is heavily influenced by the system or culture in which the person operates. It is a primary driver of behavior. A simple formula is what I perceive is what I believe is how I behave.

Mindsets are about individual reactions or attitudes toward events, tasks, opportunities etc. For example, a problem-solving versus potential-driven mindset, or positive versus negative mindset. These three terms, often used interchangeably, are distinct yet interdependent and mutually reinforcing. For example, if an individual or an organization wants to initiate a major change, an important first step is to develop positive feelings or attitudes toward the change perhaps reframing it as an opportunity. This simple shift or pivot opens the door for the sustained commitment necessary to shift deeper thinking and behavior, but by itself a mindset shift is insufficient for transformational change that sticks.

Paradigms and Transformation

The ability to discern, disrupt and redefine today’s dominant societal and economic paradigms is one of the great challenges of our time. Organizations are microcosms of the larger society, and many organizations today are fundamentally rethinking and reimagining their operational structure and management practices as described in popular business books such as Reinventing Organizations, Brave New Work and Lead Together.

In systems thinking, leverage points are places to intervene in a system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. The highest leverage point in a complex system is the paradigm out of which the system arises. Changing the paradigm influences everything else in the system: the goals, the power to evolve or self-organize system structure, rules, information flows etc.

Leaders who try to transform an organization by implementing new programs and policies with little regard for cultural paradigms and individual mental models will most likely be disappointed in the results. Complex systems are difficult to change without alignment across all aspects of the system; changes in only one or two parts of the system are usually canceled out by hidden counter reactions elsewhere in the system.

The biggest mistake in leading major change efforts is an over-emphasis on external action and tangible programs, ignoring inner intangible aspects. Bryan’s message to people engaged with transformational change is, “our efforts will be continually undermined by not understanding paradigms.”

Training, Learning and Development

Another set of terms that requires differentiation is training, learning and development. All three are important, but they are not the same and require different approaches.

Training relies on standards, memorization, and repetition to internalize a skill so that you can perform it consistently without thinking. Learning involves acquiring knowledge and concepts that can be applied to achieve real world outcomes. Development is about expanding what the mind can see. It is about unlearning and letting go of non-conscious, deeply engrained patterns of beliefs and behavior.

According to developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, development is shifting how you know not what you know. “The development itself is about how humans construct reality, the underlying logic used to make sense of the world.” A shift in mindset can occur rapidly and can also be temporary. Whereas development occurs gradually over time, and it is a permanent shift.

An Undetected Threat

This moment in time demands more from the human species than temporary quick fixes and superficial solutions. It demands a conscious choice to pause and re-examine the logic on which our thinking and behavior is based. As Bryan called for, “real flourishing requires a paradigm shift.”

If many people sense that neither the planet nor humans are flourishing, and we have the innate capacity to adapt our behavior, then why aren’t we moving decisively in a new direction? As mentioned earlier, humans are designed with the capacity for brilliance as well as frailties and fears. Because the human brain’s #1 job is survival, it is strongly biased toward detecting sudden changes to the environment and immediate threats, not slow, gradual changes.

Peter Senge and others employ the fable of the boiled frog to illustrate this phenomenon. The frog immediately jumps from a shallow pan of boiling water but stays put until it’s too late in a deep pan of water heated very slowly. There is also a natural tendency for humans to stick with old, familiar patterns rather than risk the uncertainty and discomfort of something new. It is far easier to make incremental improvements that appear to be working rather than sense and respond to the need for deeper, destabilizing change.

Bryan’s talk at the March conference was titled “Changing Paradigms – Can It Be Done?” Paradigm discernment, disruption and redefinition is the key. Part II explores how to begin creating a new human story.

Bryan Ungard (1960–2021) was the Chief Purpose Officer for the Decurion Corporation, a Los Angeles based company that was recognized in the book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. As a DDO, Decurion’s purpose has been to provide places for people to flourish. Over the 15+ years he spent at Decurion, Bryan helped build an entire philosophy and operating system that created the conditions for people to develop more fully into themselves while enabling the organization to achieve excellence. In the last five years of his life, Bryan had been exploring an integrated and systemic approach grounded in a higher order living paradigm — a new way of seeing the world, being in it, and acting toward breathing new life-generating energy into ecosystems (e.g., customers, communities, industries, social-ecological systems, and so on). He believed genuine human development, in contrast to learning, knowledge, and problem solving, was the door to that possibility. Bryan passed away on May 17th, 2021.