Writers, what are your alternatives for ‘paradigm shift’?

Here’s another term that has drifted from its original meaning, picking up an onerous connotation along the way. The author explains, and offers alternatives.

The phrase “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 around 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.

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 that 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 descriptor 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 adopters 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 a potential job loss, learning curve, or stock plunge.

Remember 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 the hypotheses of 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.


OK, 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”?

Toronto writer and blogger Barb Sawyers is the author of the book “Write Like You Talk Only Better” and the e-learning series Writing is Serious Business.

(Image via)


One Response to “Writers, what are your alternatives for ‘paradigm shift’?”

    Robert Stolpe says:

    July 3rd, 2018 I like this article and I am sharing with an online nutrition class that uses it as one of the sections. It only hurts the author in trying to share his message. Cross your fingers that someone will listen to reason. Thanks again!

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