Normal Science

Kuhn Cycle

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Normal Science is the first step of the Kuhn Cycle. The cycle was first described in Thomas Kuhn's seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in 1962. The book showed how scientific fields all undergo the same basic cycle. They begin in Prescience where they have a problem area of interest but are unable to make much progress. When at last they have a guiding model of understanding, which Kuhn called the field's paradigm, they advance to Normal Science, where they remain most of the time except when their paradigm undergoes a cycle of paradigm revolution. The basic cycle is shown.

Kuhn writes that: (page 10 of the 1996 edition of his book)

In this essay, Normal Science means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.

At we have broadened Normal Science to include not just research but any problem solving activity. This broadens the application of the Kuhn Cycle concept.

Examples of past towering achievements are Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica of 1687, Darwin's On the Origin of Species of 1859, and the way Henry Ford perfected use of the assembly line in mass manufacturing between 1908 and 1915. Lesser more common examples are Alcoholics Anonymous' invention of the Twelve Step Program, Eugene Odom's Fundamentals of Ecology, which established the field, and the way The Limits to Growth project unpeeled the first layer of the sustainability problem, using the totally new approach of system dynamics modeling. Each of these achievements established or greatly strengthened a field or gave an organization its central successful operating paradigm.

How to determine where you are on the Kuhn Cycle and what to do about it

Scientists are problem solvers. The Kuhn Cycle thus applies to any individual or group of problem solvers, not just to traditional scientific fields like physics. If you or your organization has been having severe trouble accomplishing your goals or mission, then you are not in the Normal Science step. Determining where you are in the cycle can then help you to more efficiently get to the Normal Science step, which is the only step where you can routinely solve you most important problems.

You may want to get an overview of all the steps of the Kuhn Cycle before reading what follows so it will make sense. If so, read the Kuhn Cycle first.

Kuhn points out that: (page 5)

Normal Science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Much of the success of the enterprise derives from the community's willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary at considerable cost. Normal Science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of is basic commitments.

Kuhn CycleNormal Science - If you or your organization are succeeding most of the time in solving your most difficult problems, then congratulations. You are in the Normal Science step. Your "scientific community knows what the world is like."

Kuhn Cycle

Pre-science - What if a field doesn't know what the world is like, and hence is failing to solve its central problems? Then the field is not in the Normal Science step. It's somewhere else. If it's never been able to solve its problems and has thus never had a Normal Science to practice, it's in Pre-science. Otherwise it's in one of the other steps below.

Model Revolution, or Paradigm Change.

Kuhn Cycle

Model Drift - If your field has recently been able to solve its biggest problems but is becoming less able to do so, you are in the Model Drift step. Your model of understanding, your approach to problem solving, your central paradigm has drifted away from its normal ability to succeed. Your best plan of action is to formally realize your paradigm is deteriorating and shift your attention to fixing it. Define your paradigm in writing, model it, or do whatever it takes to define it in detail. Then determine why it is failing slightly. Then repair the problem and return to Normal Science. If it's unrepairable then you are about to embark on a Kuhn Cycle. Knowing that, you can accelerate the steps.

Kuhn Cycle

Model Crisis - This is the step to avoid because in this step you are failing most of the time. You are no longer succeeding. If that's your situation, don't worry. There's a reason. Something in your central approach to doing what you do is broken. It no longer works. This is a crisis because accomplishing your mission has become impossible.

In the Model Crisis step, your plan of action must be much deeper than the one in the Model Drift step because your life, so to speak, depends on getting out of this step and back to Normal Science as fast as possible. For business the way out is reengineering or the many other ways to redesign the core of your company. For NGOs or researchers, which is who this website is for, the challenge is stiffer because it's not the company that needs redesign. It's your core assumptions.

Changing your core assumptions will not be easy because of internal change resistance. People usually don't like change at deep levels because it's so disruptive. It requires changing so many habits and values. It can even affect your self-esteem. Deep change, such as to an organization's central paradigm, is thus frequently seen as threatening. That why Kuhn wrote above that "Normal Science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of is basic commitments." Fundamental novelties is short for problems your paradigm can't solve or events it can't explain. Too many of these throws your paradigm, your model of understanding, into Model Crisis.

The only way out of Model Crisis is change, massive change. Your paradigm has failed. It's best to explain to everyone this is normal. It's how all fields advance. Thus the only way forward is to admit your present approach to problem solving is badly broken and must be radically changed so that the new approach, your new paradigm-to-be, works. This way you can get most of your people on board for the project. Good luck!

Kuhn Cycle

Model Revolution - You're in this step if you've been struggling to figure out a new way forward that works, and have viable candidates for your new paradigm. You haven't yet settled on one. That takes considerable head scratching, experimentation, and input from many people. Done right, this is an extremely productive phase. It's your chance to throw out what doesn't work and replace it with what does. All sorts of house cleaning can happen here. All those bad practices, those cobwebs that have been so hard to clean out, are easily tossed out here.

Don't rush this step. Revolutions don't have to be painful and traumatic. They can be uplifting and a chance for personal growth for everyone. Cast your net for new ideas wide and be glad if they challenge your core assumptions, because that's what has to change.

Kuhn Cycle

Paradigm Change - This is the final step of a paradigm revolution. It's obvious when you're in this step. It begins when general consensus is reached on what your new paradigm should be. This may occur in upper management, but it's best if it's the result of an organization wide search for a new way of achieving your mission that works. That will make Paradigm Change so much easier.

In this step the new paradigm is taught to newcomers to the field or your organization, as well as to those already there. Not everyone will accept the new paradigm. If they invested a lot of their life or career in the old paradigm, the new one is a threat. It subverts their reputation and how they view themselves (peer-esteem and self-esteem). Thus, as Thomas Kuhn found, you should expect a substantial fraction to not change, unless you have a vibrant, deep-change-is-okay culture.

When most people are practicing the new paradigm, the Paradigm Change step is complete and you're back to Normal Science. If you are Kuhn Cycle aware, the cycle didn't take long.

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How to Stay in the Normal Science Step All the Time and Skip the Debilitating Effects of Paradigm Revolution

There is an alternative to traveling around the Kuhn Cycle whenever your central paradigm falters, as all fields and most organizations do. Once you achieve Normal Science, it's possible to stay there all the time while simultaneously undergoing paradigm revolution.

This can be done by setting up a Process Quality Management Center. Your process is your organization's paradigm. It's your method of solving problems and achieving your mission. A process center formally defines your process, teaches it in a high quality manner to all, monitors the process, and most importantly, continuously improves the process. This applies to all types of activities, not just manufacturing.

Give it a try. This approach was perfected by Japanese quality gurus in the 1950s, building on the statistical process control practices taught by W. Edwards Deming from the United States. Ironically, it was not until Japan pulled well ahead of the US in many manufacturing industries that process quality management became popular in US industry, starting in the 1980s.

Process quality management has never made its way to the world's NGOs. Will yours be one of the first? Will the 2010s be The Decade that Quality Came to Public Service Activist Organizations?