Career improvisation

Making it up as you go along is probably one of the most effective success strategies you can implement. The trouble is that patrons of the predictable try to brainwash lesser mortals like you and me with their grand narratives (tall stories) about how anyone can achieve complete control of their lives. These narratives are eagerly devoured by those wanting quick and simple solutions and those who feel the cold chill of accountability for past and future action in their roles.
Making it up as you go along is an anathema to the controllers and quick-fix folks, and those who employ this strategy consciously often have to conceal it with a cloak of plausibly logical actions whereas many use it without being completely aware of it and suppress it under a cloak post-hoc rationalisation. Making it up as you go along is seen as somehow illegitimate, shallow, ill-considered, reckless even. Merchants of mediocrity will try to sell you their flow diagrams and 7 point plans. They will encourage the use of pros and cons lists, planning tasks and simple formulas for success. They push the view that if the plan cannot be articulated in every detail, it has not been “thought through” or is the product of a fuzzy and unsound mind. We all love and draw confidence from a well-thought out plan.
With colleagues Robert Pryor and Tony Borg, we have developed a butterfly model of career development. Imagine a race track in the shape of a figure of 8 on its side that you are continuously driving around like a race track. Each journey around the circuit never exactly repeats any other. Do this for long enough and what results begins to resemble a butterfly and hence the name of the model. Imagine now that the left-hand circle on the track represents all your planned behaviour and the right hand circle of the track represents all the unplanned behaviour.
What it demonstrates is that career development is a continually developing series of planned actions which are impacted by unplanned events which in turn lead to revisions or new plans, which in turn are impacted by the unexpected and so on. The model is slightly more complex because you can circle around for periods in either the planned bit of the circuit or the unplanned bit, and then move unexpectedly into the other realm. This explains why in life we can experience periods of relative calm and predictability, and others that seem to be never ending turbulence. Overall, the point is that there is an ongoing and inevitable relationship between the predictable and the unpredictable, between pattern and surprise and between composition and improvisation.
Making it up as you go along is often called improvisation. Improvisation implies there is a structure around which you can improvise. Improvising without any framework at all simply results in a self-indulgent blast of white noise that achieves nothing other than to alienate all who witness it. There is a saying in jazz circles “improvisation is composition speeded up, and composition is improvisation slowed down.” It implies that improvisation ultimately has rules and structure, but these are loose or fuzzy enough for creativity to be invited in.
Often in jazz, the musicians establish the structure of the piece (“the head”) and then the musicians improvise around that. It is not a bad way of thinking about yourself or your organisation as a beautiful complex composition around which you can improvise.
Why is it some people seem to be able to make it up as they go along, whereas others struggle or are scared of this approach? Part of the answer lies in the concept of life purpose. Those who have a clear sense of life purpose will intuitively act in ways that keeps intact their sense of purpose, and hence purpose becomes the force that drives, directs and limits action. In a sense knowing your purpose is a bit like being able to recognise your essential tune (or core business for an organisation) – it provides the structure and sets the boundaries for improvisation. Purpose is not about goal setting, purpose defines what can become a goal, goals do not define what can become your purpose.
Getting a sense of the bigger pattern, the linkages, the limitations and the opportunities will help to inspire confidence to improvise and will also increase the likelihood that the improvisations are bold, original and creative. In other words successful.


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