A few years ago, my wife and I bought
a small house. It was built in 1929. The
closets were tiny and the bathroom was,
well, closet-sized. Evidently, people in the
1920s had limited wardrobes and regarded
the bathroom as a task-oriented space
rather than one for lingering, preening
or soaking. The toilet and sink nestled
against the wall on one side of the room;
a bathtub dominated the other. The space
between the toilet bowl and the bathtub
was so narrow I was able to sit on the toilet
and place my feet comfortably in the
As the days passed, the knee-bruising space became more and more irritating. Mounting the toilet was like maneuvering my stocky, six-foot-two frame in and out of a Miata. Then one day, in frustration, I took to the toilet sidesaddle. In that moment, a paradigm fell like scales from my eyes.
I first learned about paradigm shifts
from business consultant Tom Peters a
long time ago. One of his case studies was
about the first digital watches. As I remember
it, the Swiss, who long dominated
the world market in watches, developed
the digital clock in the 1970s. Because it
did not square with their paradigm of
finely wrought, mechanical movements,
they were prevented from seeing value in
electronics. However, Texas Instruments
was not blinkered by the same paradigm,
and within a few years, Swiss watchmakers
had lost most of their market share to
inexpensive digital timepieces.
Discovering a paradigm at work in my
own bathroom was a “eureka!” moment.
In an instant, I recognized how a paradigm
required me to sit on a toilet with
my back against the tank. The truth of
the matter is that, if the seat is circular, it
makes no difference how you sit on it. The
fit is the same.
The more I thought about it, the more I wished other people could slough off the paradigms that blind them to possibility. Ossified cold warriors and their F-22’s, ayatollahs, captains of the health-care industry, Zionists, Rush Limbaugh and the Mormon patriarchy—it’s not that they are bad people. It’s just that they see the world through a distorting lens—as all of us do—and don’t realize it.
When it comes to their gay brothers
and sisters, Mormons leaders are
enclosed behind walls of paradigm higher
than those surrounding Temple Square.
It is nearly impossible for them to see
the horizon, so they fail to appreciate
the groundswell of support for same-sex
in the millennial
generation. It won’t
be long until gay
marriage is legal
and commonplace in
the United States. To
be on the ramparts
of the opposition, as
the Mormon leaders
are, will be to suffer
a badly tarnished image as the other
side prevails. But that’s not the least of
it. There’s the follow-on issue of temple
marriage. LDS Church President Thomas
Monson and his counselors would be
well advised to adopt Tom Peters’ paradigm-
shifting, outside-the-box thinking
as they consider this hypothetical case:
Mike, the son of a respected Mormon family,
returns from a mission and enrolls
at BYU. There, he meets Scott, another
returned missionary, and they fall in
love. After graduating, they find jobs in
San Francisco and are eventually married
by a justice of the peace in Vermont.
Because of their abiding LDS faith, they
long to return to the temple for a celestial
marriage, and even after a succession of
unproductive interviews with their bishop
and stake president, they won’t take no
for an answer.
Mike and Scott are fiction, but the scenario
seems inevitable, doesn’t it? Were
I at the helm of the Mormon church, I’d
be spending a lot of time dismantling
the paradigm that has caused so much
heartburn for the church and so much red
meat for its critics. I’d be in the wards listening
for the subtle slur, “those people,”
as an indication of ethnocentrism at the
core of the prevailing paradigm. Those
people are unpatriotic. Those people dress
funny. Those people clog hospital emergency
rooms. Those people are socialists.
Ridding an organization of the implicit
conviction that “we are better than you”
is a fine starting place, but it’s also very
tough work. The underlying paradox—you
can’t alter the paradigm because it won’t
let you—makes it so.
As I recall, Peters believes the contours
of paradigm are best
mapped by people from
outside an organization.
The clarity of outsiders’
them to introduce
changes in organizational
culture. Think of
what Mitt Romney did
for the Olympics. It is
possible for an insider
to do the same work, but he or she has to
be more a renegade than a loyal corporate
citizen. Think of Bill Cosby as a change
agent in the black subculture.
The work is hard but not hopeless.
Paradigms can be changed. They do
evolve. Paradigms are shape-shifters that
are influenced by new information. Think
of Steve Jobs and the point-and-click
operating system of the Macintosh personal
computer in 1984. Or think of John
Rasmuson and the circular toilet seat.
I have continued to tell the story of my
bathroom-breakthrough moment, but I’ve
yet to find anyone who is really impressed
by it. We did eventually renovate the bathroom.
As part of the project, we modified
the cast-iron sewer pipe so that our new
toilet faces away from the bathtub. I kept
telling my wife that because of a paradigm
shift, moving the toilet was a needless
expense. She ignored me. I expect the men
who run the LDS Church to follow suit,
but I am convinced that they ignore these
words at their peril.
Private Eye is off this week. Reply to Rasmuson at firstname.lastname@example.org.