Category Archives: Leadership

leadership articles

Goals are not enough for success in a Chaotic world

Goals are promoted as the way to success in many coaching, counseling and training situations. Goals are not enough for success in a Chaotic world is the title of my latest youtube video embedded here.

The world changes, you change, change is inevitable except from a vending machine.  The point of this video is to overcome the concerns some have when I point out the shortcomings of goal setting.  There is an assumption that I am automatically advocating anarchy and that the only alternative to setting goals is mindless wandering, meandering and fatalistic acceptance of whatever comes our way.

However there is a more optimistic and practical view.  That is that it is unreasonable to expect or demand the world to stay still as we attempt to reach a goal, but that doesn’t mean we give up, rather that we should not think about goal setting as something we do early in the planning stage which is then followed by execution.  It is not a linear goal-setting – planning type process, rather it is cyclical, or in reality probably more like a DNA double helix of intertwined plans (or goals) and continually planning and revision.

I think that there is not enough emphasis put on the continual planning part of the process and this is why I have coined the term “planmanship” or planfulness if you prefer a less sexist label – to describe the continual process of devising plans, revising plans, copying plans, amending, freezing, recalling, nuancing, nudging and pushing plans.   All of these skills are assumed to be intact for the goal-setter, but rarely are these skills taught to people.  Nearly always, training involves telling people what they think a goal is (usually the awful Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based variety), and then getting people to articulate their goals.  Then it is straight off to implementation with lots of encouragement and injunctions to stay focused and to be persistent.  All of which are attempts to pretend that change doesn’t happen, and that sometimes SMART goals are very dumb and the smart person is better advised to abandon the smart goal, and instead get good at planmanship.

There is more on goals limiting the imagination here and on over-prescribing goals here and on goals and happiness here

What are you doing in your coaching to promote planmanship? How can we increase a person’s planmanship capacity?

Confront the complex!: The Career Challenge of 21st century complexity

The history of mankind can be understood through our reactions to complexity in the pre-machine, primitive machine, industrial and information technology eras.

In the the pre-machine era, complexity arose from our familiar surroundings and the challenge of feeding, nuturing and protecting ourselves and our groups.  The immediacy of these challenges and the limited opportunities or hazards for travel and communication.  Complexity asserted itself through the mysteries of illness, the vagaries of the weather, and other acts of God. Complexity was something accepted and tholed in equal measure and it was something that was not questioned.

In the primitive machine era – wheels, tools and similar simple machines offered opportunities, without greatly increasing the obvious presence of complexity at work. Machines simplified life in many respects.  Complexity was still considered in fatalistic terms as an occasional harbinger of trouble, or occasionally good fortune.

In the industrial era, automation, factories, the move from the land to the cities saw enormous change.  The machines of this era enormously increased the opportunities for many and changed the lives of all living in industrialized countries.  For the owners of these machines and those able to pay for the products and services arising from these machines, their benefits outweighed the increase in the complexity that accompanied them.   Work, for those tending these machines was routinized and predictable and relatively well paid. Indeed these jobs, especially those on conveyor belts were routinised to the point of monotony. Complexity was seen as being under our control and potentially tamed with the application of science, technology and engineering. Complexity could be reduced to simple building blocks and simple models of human behavior.  The clarion call was “Keep it simple”.

It has been the information technology era that has really made obvious the complexity that has always lurked in the shadows of life.  The rapid rise in communications technology allied to jet planes has made the notion of our group go from those we live close to, to practically anybody and everybody on the globe. The impacts of our decisions and the decisions of others can not so much ripple around the world, as to shake our world to its foundations.

An argument lost in a teleconference in Brussels can lead to a whole office of workers losing their jobs in Athens, Melbourne, or Detroit.  A technology developed in California can lead within months to the employment of hundreds of thousands in China.

The term “complexity” has been used increasingly over the last decade by theoreticians, politicians and practitioners to describe the world we live in. Complexity is now beginning to be seen once again as more inevitable and more regularly intrusive into our supposedly ordered existence.  Except increasingly people are beginning to appreciate the nature of complexity and how it is the very complex nature of things that provides opportunities and hope as well as being a source of unwanted influences.

The characteristics of complexity are set out in the Chaos Theory of Careers (e.g. Pryor and Bright, 2011) and include, inherent long term unpredictability, sudden and disproportional changes, and stability arising only from continual change.

The challenges of complexity for careers include: moving beyond a reliance on control and predict methodologies of planning and goal setting; a realization of the limits of our ability to control and predict the future; the development of personal strategies promoting opportunity awareness on one hand; and persistence and resilience on the other; the promotion of personal and corporate creativity and innovation to provide the momentum for the continual change that in turn permits a form of stability.

The greatest challenge confronting practitioners assisting individuals or organizations in developing successful working lives or businesses is to help them understand complexity and to thrive on complexity. The clarion today is “Confront the complex!”

 

How to get luck on your side

Here is an article in the Australian Financial Review on Luck in Careers. How to get luck on your side in your career. It is about luck in careers, luck readiness, and luck and career success.

Click this link for the article.

Click this link if you want to take the Luck Readiness Inventory.

 

 

 

 

Jim Bright talking change and chaos video from his Cannexus Keynote 2011

Here is a five minute video of my Keynote “Know Change and No Change: how I learned to love Chaos” presented at the Cannexus Career Development Conference in January 2011

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMrV1U5eHPk[/youtube]

If you like it, please mark it as liked on youtube and even leave a comment or two!

Jim Bright Keynote video clip on chaos, shift happening and spys in Ottawa

This is a 11 minute clip of my Keynote Know Change and No Change:how I learned to love chaos given to open the Cannexus Career Development Conference in Ottawa, January 2011.
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDSWTOuuzFA[/youtube]

Having the courage to live authentically on the edge of chaos

The most common way of dealing with uncertainty is to close our minds and limit our options and behaviors.  The trouble is that the world and the people in it are uncertain, and our typical response to that risks us not exploring that world or ourselves.   If you believe the world is flat and that you could fall off the edge of it, then it makes sense never to explore too close to the edge.

In effect, limiting our options and closing our minds means failing to acknowledge, appreciate or explore who we really authentically are.   We know ourselves a little less if we choose to stick to the one path, think only in black or white – either/or terms or stick rigidly to well worn routines.  The only challenge we pose for ourselves in doing this is to be persistent in stubbornly refusing to be deflected from these self-limited patterns. We are limiting are own systems to operate in predictable and controllable ways.  We try to avoid the challenge of the novel, new or different, and live in ignorance of how novelty or difference might alter our lives and therefore we miss out on understanding our hidden potential (and weaknesses). We lose out on insight and growth.

Within the Chaos Theory of Careers, there are 4 Attractors that describe different states of imposed limitation on how our systems operate.  The first is called the Point Attractor, which is seen to operate when people try to direct all of their behavior and thoughts toward a single point or goal.  The second is called the Pendulum Attractor which is in operation when people seek to reduce all situations and thinking to an either or choice. The third Attractor is called the Torus Attractor and is in operation when people try to limit their lives by following a highly predictable repeating routine, or choose to live completely within a set of limited rules.

It should be obvious that if people are successful in imposing these Attractors on their behavior, everything becomes highly predictable and controllable. They are all closed-systems for closed minds.  There is no room for growth, novelty, uncertainty or creativity.

While acting in these ways can be useful or even necessary from time to time, in the longer term, behaving as though the world can be tamed into a narrow goal, a simple binary choice or a set of rules or routines is going to be confounded by the complexity and chaos of the world (and the people in it).  The goal posts will shift, the either or decision suddenly has more (or less!) choices, and exceptions to the rule emerge.

Nonetheless living within these Attractors is attractive for many people, because you do not typically need the courage of embracing uncertainty to live within such self-limiting approaches.

The fourth Attractor which is the hallmark of Chaos is called the Strange Attractor.  It describes people as the genuinely are – a dynamic mixture of stability and predictability laced with continual change and with the potential for dramatic and unpredictable change as well.  Over time, the Strange Attractor leaves its mark with an emergent pattern of behavior that shows a complex mix of self-similar trait-like behavior in the context of continual variation and change – we call such Patterns Fractals and they are the unit of analysis in the Chaos Theory of Careers.

Within the Strange Attractor is a place called the edge of Chaos – this is the point where you (the system) is sufficiently closed to permit some stability and continuity, but also sufficiently open to new ideas, ways of doing things, new experiences etc, that there is the potential for quite radical transformation.  The edge of chaos is an exciting but uncertain place to be, and it is a place from where all change comes. It is a place that requires courage to live there.

The forces of complexity and hence change will affect us whether we like it or not.  Our attempts at making ourselves closed off will over time break down.  For those who doggedly pursue closed approaches to their lives, they will be unprepared for change, and may even try to deny its presence.   Those who have the courage to live on the Edge of Chaos are continually learning about and adding to their own resilience and learning more about who they are as a person.

Brene Brown talks persuasively about having the courage to be authentic (link) and acknowledging our vulnerability. I see this in Chaos Theory of Careers terms as living on the Edge of Chaos – by being an open system we are acknowledging that we are vulnerable and subject to unpredictable change.  It takes courage as Brene so eloquently expresses to live like that. Ironically, the more we attempt to deny our vulnerability by trying to live within the closed system Point, Pendulum and Torus attractors, the more vulnerable we really are when that change comes.

Finding the courage to live on the edge of chaos provides us with a way to be who we really are, to explore our potentials, to take chances, to be open to change and to recognize our vulnerability.

 

 

 

Transform your Career by shifting: Shift 7 From Goals, Roles And Routines To Meaning, Mattering, And Black Swans

Shiftwork is the work we have to do to manage, thrive and survive in a world where shift happens.  I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here), so far I’ve addressed the first six, and in this post, I address the seventh shift.  The earlier ones you can read by following these links:

  • first shift Prediction To Prediction And Pattern Making (see here)
  • second shift From Plans To Plans And Planning (see here)
  • third one From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness (here)
  • fourth shift From Control To Controlled Flexibility (see here)
  • fifth shift  From Risk As Failure To Risk As Endeavour (see here)
  • sixth shift From Probabilities To Probable Possibilities (see here)

We live in a world that is complex, changing and therefore inherently uncertain. These fundamental features of our world apply to everything from cellular reproduction to operating the windscreen wipers on a car.   It is how we respond to the challenges that complexity, change and uncertainty pose that influences or determines how successfully and happily we live in this world.

Ironically, one of the most common responses to complexity, change and uncertainty is to act to reduce or eliminate them, or if we cannot do that, to pretend they do not exist.   We can cope with the idea that one factor causes or influences another thing – like heat turning bread into toast, and we are especially happy when the relationship is controllable – the longer in the toaster, the browner the toast.  However when there are nine different options to operate the windscreen wipers it is all too much.  I know someone who has just sold their car for a cheaper and simpler one for this reason!  If only the world and the people in it obeyed simple rules, life could be conquered, neatly bundled up and put in a box.

To be fair, this approach has been spectacularly successful in many regards.  Sit under an apple tree long enough and you will appreciate Newton’s insights about gravity and apples. Lots of things in the physical world do appear at the human scale to behave in predictable and lawful ways over reasonably long periods of time.  Stonehenge is still standing, Warwick Castle remains, the Pyramids are still around.

However, when it comes to humans and human interactions, simple models of behavior have proved to be less successful, humans and their interactions have proved to be less predictable, less controllable.  There are simply too many different influences coming to bear at any one time with a tendency to change from one moment to the next.

This has not stopped us from trying to account for behavior in the relatively simple terms of personality, star sign, gender, sexuality, head shape, body shape, political views, family history, birth place, birth order, early childhood experience, love of cats or dogs and many more.   In nearly all cases evidence can be found that suggests these factors do play a small part in our behavior. However the emphasis is on the small part they play, and even when combined there is still a very large amount of uncertainty in behavior remaining.

Nonetheless the desire for a predictable live leads us to implementing strategies that are predicated on the world being an unchanging, controllable and predictable place.  The three most common strategies are Goal Setting; Role Setting and Routine Setting.

Goal setting is the most popular behavior change strategy employed by individuals and organizations. It is almost uncritically accepted, a point I and several others have been making for some time (see this article and this one).

In complexity terms, goal setting involves reducing all of the complexity in a situation simply to the actor and the goal – from here to there.   The strength of goal setting is that it demands that we focus upon a clearly defined target, and very often it further demands that we move toward that target within a specific time frame.

As I’ve pointed out before (along with others) goal setting works well in psychology labs and in the short-term. Over longer periods (typically more than 3 – 6 months) the potential for things changing in our environments, or us changing is so great that the goal posts shift or are obliterated.

In situations where there is a lot of ambiguity and change, there is a danger that goal setting will lock us in too early to an objective that is ultimately undesirable.  Goals work best in simple situations in the short-term.  Goals can be useful, but to rely on them overly or exclusively runs the risk of missing opportunities that change brings, or becoming rigid, stereotyped and irrelevant in a complex changing situation.

Another way of simplifying the world is to think of ourselves and others as occupying roles.  We do this to ourselves when we think in terms of “worker”, “homemaker”, “parent”, “lover”, “child” etc.   Like goals these can be useful ways of making sense, but ultimately they are limited and too rigid to capture the complexity of a changing world.  The simplistic messages first adumbrated about work-life balance highlight the limitations of dividing the world into these categories.  The reality is messier, the boundaries are blurred.  In organizations in the past, the extensive application of roles in the workplace led to demarcation disputes, inflexibility and a lack of competitiveness.   Organizations with rigid structures have typically not fared well in the 21st century business environment.  Similarly those with an overly rigid sense of self, reinforced by a role label also struggle.

The third strategy is to impose routines as way of increasing predictability and reducing complexity.  Everyone knows where they are with a set of rules.  Funnily in sport, the most artificial of rule-governed environments, where doing the best within the rules is the whole raison d’etre, the rules often change from one season to the next. For instance check this site to see how the rules changed in baseball. Changes are made as players adapt and exploit loopholes or even as was the case in 1975, a shortage of horses meant they needed to find another type of hide to cover the balls!

The point is that there is always an exception to the rule.  Things change unpredictably requiring the rules or routines to change.  Rules and routines are always a response to complexity, they never lead or tame it.  Further because things are complex, the rules or routines will never be able to fully capture or anticipate that complexity.

We all have experienced the exasperation of dealing with “more than my job’s worth” little pedants – or their voice activated counter-parts, or sometimes whole bureaucracies that just cant or wont respond to your particular circumstances.   Rules, regulations, policies and the like are an essential part of life that provide a degree of certainty and consistency of expectation in human interaction, but like Goals and Roles, when applied rigidly, without finesse and wisdom, they can become rigid, inefficient, and sometimes damaging or even inhumane.

Shift 7 is about recognising the value and importance of these strategies, but seeks to add other approaches to life that transcend these attempts at trying to control and predict everything.   The move to Meaning, Mattering and Black Swans underlines the fundamental importance of these things to the human condition.

Doing things that have personal or community meaning is an important but neglected consideration in our work and organizations.  Instead of jumping straight to the goal setting tool bag to solve our problems, time spent reflecting on what is the most meaningful thing that I or we could do, may provide a bigger guiding framework into which shorter-term goals or roles or routines begin to make sense.  Having this sense of meaningful work also provides a home for wisdom – the wisdom to recognize when goals are not appropriate or should be changed or abandoned.

Mattering is a related concept to meaning and it relates to doing work that matters to us and to others.  It means doing work that resonates with our sense of calling, purpose or vision, and work that has a tangible and important positive effect on others or society.  It is about social connection and doing something useful and worthwhile. It is work as social contribution.   Again mattering is superordinate concept to Goals, Roles and Routines.   It guides us as to their use and application.

Ironically Meaning and Mattering are the things that provide the motive force to maintain Goals, Roles and Routines.  It is when we start to question whether what we are doing is meaningless or feel that is does not matter to us or to others that we begin to waiver, before getting stuck.  Often a failure to think sufficiently and frequently about Meaning and Mattering risks us following Goals, Roles and Routines on autopilot, and in so doing we do not take into account the shifting sands of our lives and the result is we run aground and get stuck fast.   As Norm Amundson points out many people (and organizations) report feeling “stuck” when they hit a crisis point.

Finally, the Black Swans refers to the term I think was termed by Nassim Taleb in his eponymous book from 2007.  He makes the point that Europeans assumed that all swans were white until a black one was discovered in Western Australia.  The point is that in many situations (more than we tend to appreciate) it only takes one thing of which we were previously unaware to change everything.  Black Swans are a reminder that what we dont know we dont know has the greatest potential to impact our lives and they are things that we cannot predict with goals, or simplify into Roles or Routines.

The presence of Black Swans in our lives (that Taleb credits for every event of signifcance in human history!) is a potent reminder of the severe limitations on our ability to predict, control, goal-set, role-set or routinize our lives.  It is a reminder that if we want to be successful in our lives, we need to do what is meaningful, what matters and to be excited and content to live with the uncertainty of Black Swans.