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What does paradigm shift mean to you?

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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 bathtub.

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 marriage, especially 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’ views enables 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

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