In her seminal book, Thinking In Systems, Donella Meadows lists 12 leverage points for intervening in systems. High on her list in terms of effectiveness are those interventions that result in paradigm shifts. Citing Copernicus, Kepler, Einstein, and Adam Smith, Meadow says “people who have managed to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.”
When people were living in a pre-Copernican paradigm, they didn’t think that they were living in any particular paradigm; they were simply seeing the world as it was. The Sun revolved around the Earth; you could count on it. Every day. It was obvious that the Earth, as God’s special creation, was at the Center of the Universe. Then came Copernicus. Sorry, it seems that the Earth is not the center of the universe, that it, along with other planets revolves around the Sun. And whole world-views were turned upside down. First, one man saw it, then a few, then many, and finally a new post-Copernican paradigm emerged. Not without much resistance and soul-searching. In the end, the pre-Copernican paradigm was seen as simply wrong.
We are now living blindly in an outmoded self-centered paradigm, one in which our personal experiences are felt to be the touchstones of reality. In this paradigm, how we feel about ourselves, others, other groups, who are our friends and who our enemies, all of these are experienced as solid reflections of the reality of who we and they are. We are simply seeing the world as it is.
We are systems-centered beings and much of our experience is shaped not by who we are but by the nature of the systemic conditions we are in. Organizationally, those at the Top are prone to falling into painful and destructive territorial issues with one another; those in the Middle become alienated, competitive and evaluative of one another; and those in Bottom groups fall into the conforming pressures of groupthink. The feelings these people have about one another seem to them to be solid, based on the reality of who they are. Culturally, we observe religious and ethnic groups across the globe experiencing one another as dangers to be avoided or controlled or, in the extreme, destroyed. These feelings too feel solid and based on the reality of who these others are.
Shifting from a self-centered to a system-centered paradigm provides a fundamentally different understanding of these relationships. We notice how system processes shape our consciousness. We focus less on individuals and more on wholes system processes. We see systems differentiating (parts becoming more different from one another) and homogenizing (parts maintaining their commonality); we see systems individuating (members moving independently, pursuing their individual objectives) and integrating (members coming together in common purpose.) And we notice the consequences when these processes go seriously out of balance: territoriality, alienation, groupthink, racial and ethnic conflict, among them.
Shifting from a self-centered to a systems-centered paradigm opens up fundamentally different strategies for system intervention: from self-centered interventions: fix, fire, divorce, separate, therapize, control, destroy one another, to systems-centered interventions: alter the configuration of system processes, balance over-differentiated systems with homogenization, balance over-integrated systems with individuation, and so forth.
The self-centered paradigm is outmoded; it produces erroneous understanding and misguided interventions. A systems-centered paradigm is being born. First, one person sees it, then a few, them many, until a new paradigm emerges.