Paradigm shift is tired and scary. Worse, it doesn’t make you look as smart as you might think.

Paradigm shift actually means a new scientific assumption that replaces the old, according to Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. For example, the planets revolve around the sun, not the earth, or germs, not ice cubes, will give your kids a sore throat. Check out Wikipedia for more examples.

You cannot believe that the planets revolve around both the earth and the sun or that both germs and ice cubes cause sore throats, or that we are in transition between old and new beliefs. Yet, when digital gurus talk about paradigm shift they are referring to a transition, not an abrupt rejection of the old in favor of the new.

download (5)Although the pendulum has swung toward digital in the more than 20 years since Don Tapscott’s Paradigm Shift was published, we still see many readers poring over printed books, some farmers hoeing manually and the odd business making copies with carbon paper. The paradigm is shifting; it has not shifted.

I think some management consultant who read this book simply liked the way paradigm rolled off his tongue. It sounds important, dramatic, revolutionary. It went viral, long before our paradigm shift about what viral means.

Today paradigm shift is usually featured on lists of overused jargon that should be ditched.

Google it and you’ll find that paradigm shift is used as a name for graphic novels, coating solutions, men wearing skirts, many political, self-help and religious movements, new management styles, building restoration, education reform… In short, pretty much any kind of change.

People find it pretentious, incomprehensible or a fancy way to disguise a change that is going to be uncomfortable and probably not good.

So what are the alternatives? How can you fire up employees, customers, shareholders and other important people about a big change?

For starters, don’t use hyperbole. After all the layoffs of the past few years, employees have come to associate terms like paradigm shift and transformation with job loss. Shareholders get nervous about unproven tactics. Only the early adapters rave about dramatic product shifts.

Remember that change, according to the Dalai Lama, is right up on the hurt list with physical and emotional pain. Any change brings discomfort, especially the big ones.

So deliver communication about change in teaspoons, instead of the truckload that paradigm shift implies.

If you are revealing the big, long-term picture, make sure you use simple language and refer continually to how your important people will be affected by the change. If you are replacing old assumptions with new, they will not accept, let alone champion, the new until you have placated fears about job loss, learning curve or stock plunge.

And don’t forget that you don’t really know how the changing assumption will evolve.

Isaac Newton did not anticipate that lolling under a tree would lead to the theory of gravitational force. He certainly did not foresee Einstein.

You can anticipate the results of smaller changes, but you don’t fully understand a true paradigm shift until the new assumption replaces the old.

When I asked readers to come up with alternatives for another tired term, low-hanging fruit, I received zero suggestions. Even on my IABC LinkedIn group, where people love to moan about business jargon, my commenters agreed that instead of pursuing zingers, we should focus on plain language.

They’re right. Their advice also applies to this bloated, intimidating jargon.

So here are my plain language alternatives to paradigm shift:


Transition, from one assumption that underlies how we do business, design products or whatever to another


Okay, they lack the punch of paradigm shift. But you won’t look pretentious. People will understand what you mean. And they won’t be so scared.

What are your alternatives to paradigm shift?

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Better ways to say: paradigm shift

3 thoughts on “Better ways to say: paradigm shift

  • April 12, 2013 at 10:31 am

    I would consider using strategy, adaption, concept, plan or design instead of paradigm shift. I worked for P&G in the mid 80’s, paradigm was the new business jargon at that time (we’re over it).

    I always appreciate your ideas for communication topics.

    Diane House

  • April 12, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Thanks Diane. If you’re using strategy, concept, plan or design, you need to add an adjective connoting change. So glad you’re over paradigm shift. Wish more people, except the scientists, were.

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