How to deal with Paradigm Shifts


Last week saw the death of Joe Frazier.  Unsurprisingly his funeral yesterday was attended by some of his equally acclaimed adversaries, including Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. Between the 3 of them they put some of the greatest heavyweight bouts in the history of the sport.  There was “The Thriller in Manilla between Ali and Frazier, and ‘The Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

George Foreman is a unique man in that he is equally famous as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers who has ever lived, and as the inventor of the George Foreman Grill.

Hearing of Frazier’s death,  I was reminded of both these particular bouts and strangely also  of a lecture given by Dr Mohammed El-Erian at the Oxford Martin School in November 2009, which referenced the Jungle Rumble.

Dr El-Erian is and was at the time CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO, one of the world’s largest bond investors, managing assets of nearly US$1.34 trillion.  The title of his lecture was “The End of Business as Usual” and dealt with the impact and consequences of the global credit crunch and used the now widespread phrase ’ the New Normal’ (which is distinctly different to the way it is used by The Futures Company and the Future Foundation).

He posited that we are moving from the old economic paradigm where the USA was at the core, as both the engine and as lender of last resort, to a new paradigm where the core of the global economy will be made up of several countries including the BRIC economies.  He saw getting there it as a bumpy ride, not least because in confusion and facing a paradigm shift it is human nature to hang onto the familiar old paradigm (what behavioural economics calls ‘anchoring’).

He referred to Don Sull’s book The Upside of Turbulence, to give examples of how often we react to paradigm shifts by doing more of what we have always done (a process called ‘active inertia’) with the end result being defeat and, in business terms, closure or merger.

And this is where the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ analogy comes in.Dr El-Erian uses this fight as an example of how best to react to paradigm shifts such as the ones we are now facing. Indeed recent events suggest that we are facing shifts not just confined to economics, and that indeed the scale of the shifts bot economic and cultural are are much greater than was foreseen in 2009.  He sees the key strategies for success being ones of agility and adaptability.

At the time Ali was seen as an ageing fighter past his prime and up against a powerful younger undefeated world champion.  Unsurprisingly the betting markets had George Foreman odds-on to win.  Shockingly Ali won what is still considered by many the greatest heavyweight fight ever. Subsequently lots of studies have been done into how Ali triumphed, and Dr El-Erian points to the fact that Ali’s team recognised the paradigm shift he was facing, and that adopting the same training regime as had always been used, i.e. active inertia (to support his ‘float & sting’ style) would not work.  Just being agile would not be enough; he had to be adaptable as well.  So instead, at his training camp Ali faced ex-convicts in the ring was virtually beaten up everyday.

The experts’ expectation was that as soon as the fight began. Ali would start running around the ring (‘floating like a butterfly’) eventually tire George would land a big punch – fight over.   Instead he did the opposite, he put his hands up, covered his face and went back on the ropes to absorb better the power of the blows he received.  He was beaten up badly, but when Foreman tired Ali reverted to his old style and by the end of the 14th round Foreman had had enough.

It is this combination of agility and adaptability Dr El-Erian sees as fundamental to us successfully navigating the paradigm shift we face.

Perhaps George Foreman’s shift to grills is an example of how he responded to the shift that confronted him at the end of his boxing career.

We are seeing the impacts of the economic paradigm shift all around the world and often at national and local levels, and perhaps they are greater than even Dr. El Erian foresaw in 2009.  But his call for agility and adaptability are as prescient now as then.  We need to respond as individuals, communities, societies, companies and governments.  We can already see examples of politicians and organisations entrenched in the old paradigm, as well as movements such as “Occupy” calling for radical change. In the business/marketing arena initiatives such as Alex Bogusky’s Fearless Revolution represent an attempt to create new models.  The Jury may be out on Pepsi’s Refresh initiative, but it and others like it may just point to awareness for the need to adapt and be agile enough to encourage collaboration,  and point to a brighter future.


What do you think?

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