Why Should Practitioners Know Their Paradigms, Theories and Models?

Sections of this topic

    Why Understanding Our Models, Theories, and Paradigms Is Important

    Paradigms, theories, and models – we all have them and work from them. Many of us don’t know it. But we really should.

    When we practitioners in human development (consultants, coaches, trainers, etc.) come to conclusions about our clients and their organizations, we should closely examine those conclusions. Are they accurate? Are your clients accurate? What did you see in your client’s situation? What might you have missed? What were your assumptions about the situation? Were they valid? What do you know that might not be so?

    The more we practitioners can understand and importance of paradigms, theories, and models, the more we can learn about ourselves and the more effective we can be in our practice. Also, the more we can explain to our clients and learners about what we do and why.

    The overall field of human development has grown rapidly, especially in recent decades. Accordingly, so have different perspectives and opinions, including about the following terms. The terms paradigm, theories, and models are highly related and integrated. As important as coming to any standard definition of each is the readers coming to their own definitions. Obviously, the following opinions are but mine.

    So, What’s a Paradigm?

    The term “paradigm,” especially in the broad field of human and organization development, refers to our overall way of seeing things – our overall way of thinking about something.

    For example, my field, the field of Organization Development (OD), often suggests a new paradigm about organizations. Many OD professionals assert that it’s no longer useful to have an overall “mechanistic” view of the organization – as if it’s a machine with various parts that must be controlled in a top-down, highly centralized, and controlled manner – as if employees are motivated primarily by external forces, such as authority and money. These professionals assert that, because of today’s very diverse and rapidly changing world, organizations must constantly learn and adapt.

    Therefore, these professionals assert that we must undertake a “paradigm shift” to a more organic view of the organization – that the organization must constantly be changing and that this change comes from more decentralized designs that empower people to act and learn at the same time.

    • What’s your paradigm on organizations and people? Families? Economies?

    Well, Then What’s a “Theory”?

    A theory is a suggested explanation of why something occurs as it does. It suggests causes and effects. Our overall view of the world – our paradigm – greatly influences what theories we choose to learn and use. Our theories, in turn, influence our paradigms.

    Perhaps the field of psychology is the best example to use here because those theories are often the basis for how consultants, coaches, and trainers work with people and organizations. We’re familiar with many of the theories of how people behave.

    For example, there are theories on what motivates people. Theory X suggests that people are naturally lazy and dislike work, so they need to be closely monitored and directed. The Theory suggests how we should design organizations and supervise people. We can see how this theory is closely aligned with the mechanistic paradigm.

    Theory Y suggests that people enjoy satisfying and fulfilling work, and are self-motivated. Thus, if work is designed to be satisfying and fulfilling for them, they don’t need to be closely monitored and directed. Theory Y is closely associated with a newer paradigm of organizations and people.

    Some people group theories into overall types of theories. For example, various theories in the field of psychology are often the overall types of theories held by consultants, coaches, and trainers. The psychoanalytic theories (developed by Sigmund Freud) derived from those of Alfred Adler and Carol Jung. Adult development theories include solution-focused therapy, which is often referred to by the field of personal and professional coaching. Another example is Systems Theory, which includes many theories about how systems work.

    • What theory or theories explain why you do what you do with your clients?
    • Can you explain them?

    OK, So What’s a Model? (Sometimes Referred to as a “Framework”)

    A model depicts a theory. It depicts the relationships, causes, and effects suggested by the theory. For example, many coaching schools have the same paradigms and similar theories but differentiate themselves by using different models.

    In coaching, one of the most popular models is GROW, which is an acronym for the phases of a coaching process, including 1) clarifying goals, 2) understanding the current reality, 3) identifying relevant and realistic options to address the goals, and 4) deciding what a person will do about the situation. The GROW model probably is aligned with various theories, but certainly seems to be with Theory Y and also with a newer paradigm on organizations and people.

    Some people might refer to a model as a “framework,” meaning the phases or steps and their sequence. For example, many OD consultants refer to the action research framework, which has numerous variations based largely on the sequence of 1) doing a plan, 2) taking actions based on that plan, 3) observing the results and 4) reflecting on the results to learn from them, and perhaps to modify the original plan.

    Theories and models often generate associated tools. For example, there are numerous systems tools associated with systems theories.

    • What are some of the models in your work?
    • Can you explain them?
    • Are they associated with any theory(s)?

    What About Just Using Our “Gut Feel”? What’s Wrong With That?

    Many practitioners might assert that they just operate by “gut feel” – they intuitively sense the situation, how to work with their clients, and what should occur as a result. They work almost unconsciously. Many practitioners are extremely successful with that approach.

    The field of training and development often refers to stages of competencies and how people must progress through them in order to achieve long-lasting development. The stages include:

    1. Unconscious incompetence
    2. Conscious incompetence
    3. Conscious competence
    4. Unconscious competence

    “Gut feel” practitioners have somehow reached stage four.

    But it can be extremely difficult to further develop one’s skills unless those developments go through the stages, as well. At some point, the practitioner must consciously recognize what he is doing and why in order to more fully develop their skills.

    Here’s another reason to go beyond gut feel. There is increasing competition among practitioners in the fields of human and organizational development. It helps tremendously if practitioners can clearly explain their models to potential clients in order to differentiate themselves from the increasing number of practitioners in the field of human development. Practitioners are not likely to be successful in this competitive environment if they explain that they go by “gut feel.”

    • If you are very successful at using “gut feel,” then perhaps there are theory(s) and model(s) behind your powerful intuition. Draft a basic model that describes the basic steps and their sequence that you use with clients. Then describe to yourself, especially why you use those steps and that sequence. So is that your “model” after all?

    For many related, free online resources, see the following Free Management Library’s topics:


    Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD – Authenticity Consulting, LLC – 800-971-2250
    Read my blogs: Boards, Consulting and OD, and Strategic Planning.