Tag Archives: flexibility

Transform your Career by shifting: Shift 4 From Control To Controlled Flexibility

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) and the first shift (see here) and second shift (see here) and I provide some tips about how to achieve the third one here.  Below I address the fourth shift.

From Control to Controlled Flexibility

We like to believe that life is controlled. We need to believe that life is controllable, but we know that there are severe limits on our ability to control our lives. I write this in the aftermath of the second Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand, the aftermath of the devasting floods in Queensland, Australia, the lethal mudslides in Brazil, and of course the ongoing human and nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

All of these tragic events are sombre reminders of our inability to fully predict and control our lives.  Norm Amundson and Gray Poehnell in their books Active Engagement and Hope Filled Engagement talk about the “crisis of imagination” that causes us to become stuck in our careers.  This crisis of limitation of imagination is also partly responsible for us failing to anticipate the impact of the natural disasters so many have experienced in 2011.

At the time of writing, it appears that the Japanese nuclear reactors had insufficient safety mechanisms to handle the tsunami.  Nobody had imagined an emergency on that scale.  This is not unusual.  On Nov 4th 2010 flight QF32 flying from Singapore to Sydney suffered massive engine failure on the brand new A380 super-jumbo.   Apparently pilots had been trained to deal with 2 systems failures occurring at the same time on this new plane.  The pilots on the day had to contend with 60 system failures and failures of some form or other in every system on the plane.  Apparently nobody had imagined that this could happen.

These stories point to the fact that very often our plans are confounded by events that are beyond are imagination, what Nassim Taleb terms “Black Swan” events in his eponymously titled book, events that arise from “what we do not know we do not know”.   Career planning is no less susceptible to this problem, and consequently we need to make the Shift from Control to Controlled Flexibility.

Controlled Flexibility means being able to address a situation in a flexible manner, but not one that is so flexible that there is no structure or one where the response becomes essentially random. Confronting the unexpected by taking random actions is  sure sign of panic. Rarely is such an approach effective, and if it is, it is due to pure “dumb” luck.

Controlled Flexibility requires us to understand that our plans are likely to need to be altered to a greater or lesser degree as we embark on our course and discover hidden contingencies along the way, or meet with completely unexpected challenges.  Armed with this understanding from the outset we can implement two general strategies: insurance plans and pro-active problem solving skills.

Insurance plans , the oft-mentioned “Plan B” is a very common approach to dealing with fluid or ambiguous situations. However the Plan B approach tends to work best in fairly simple and slow moving situations.  Too often, Plan B becomes irrelevant or ineffective as events develop.

Plan Bs too often are remarkably similar to the primary plan, meaning that they are only likely to apply if conditions change in only a small way.  Change of any significance renders the Plan Bs redundant.

Plan Bs can induce a sense of complacency in the individual or group who feel secure or insured against the worst outcome. This complacency reduces motivation to continue to develop plans or ideas about other courses of action.

A more sophisticated version of the Insurance Plan is Scenario Planning.  Scenario Planning involves the regular and in-depth exploration and simulation of different complex situations that may confront an individual, group or organisation.

A Scenario Planning session begins with imagining a problem.  Then the problem is explored to understand its structure, implications, severity and opportunities it affords.  Then personal or group resources are reviewed to understand what is available to address the problem.  The problem is most likely then broken down into logical components driven either by the structure of the problem or the availability of resources to address it. Then action steps are proposed and implemented to address the problem.

A key aspect of Scenario Planning is that it is dynamic and simulated.  This means that the initial consideration of the problem, the perception of the resources available and the initial responses to the problem have an impact on what happens next.  It allows the Scenario Planners to understand the impact of their initial thoughts and actions.   This information informs a second round of responses and so on, until the problem is fully explored and an effective strategy emerges.

All of this information, each step and decision, is debated and documented, so at the end of the exercise a complete record of the decision-making processes, decisions, outcomes and the final strategy are all stored ready for future potential use.

A critical feature of Scenario Planning is the importance of regularity.  Successful Scenario Planners schedule regular Scenario Planning sessions to explore new problems.   This is important because it builds up a library of explored and solved problems that become a resource to consult when confronted by problems in the future.

Regular Scenario Planning is also a potent way to develop the problem solving and planning skills of those involved.  For groups and organisations, it allows teams to learn from each other, and for corporate knowledge capture, enhancement, transfer and preservation. For individuals it helps to maintain an awareness of the need to be able to address complex issues in their careers at any time and without notice.

Shell Oil is a company that many business schools cite as a good example of the effectiveness of Scenario Planning.  Shell weathered the Oil crisis of 1973 when world oil prices spiked far better than many of their larger competitors.  One reason for their performance at the time was attributed to their management being able to draw on their Scenario Planning experience. They had already worked through a similar scenario and therefore were able to address the issue with more agility than their competitors.  Shell moved from being a middle-ranking to a world leading firm on the back of this.

The second Controlled Flexibility strategy is to develop Pro-active Problem Solving skills.  As we’ve seen Scenario Planning is a potent way to develop these skills, but there are many other methods available such as using DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats (White, Red, Black, Green, Yellow and Blue), or considering Sternberg’s (2003) Analytical, Creative and Practical Intelligence, or Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Spatial, Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic).

What De Bono, Gardner and Sternberg are getting at, is that we need to pay attention to different, or in De Bono’s terms “parallel” ways of thinking if we are going to boost imagination and creative problem solving.  Their models give us some frameworks to encourage a broader engagement with a problem than simply falling into “argumentative thinking” (De Bono) or relying on Analytical (Sternberg) or Logical-mathematical (Gardner) thinking.

One final point to make here, is that I am not promoting a view that career problems are a jigsaw puzzle that can be solved, rather I like the metaphor I read Dave Snowden using that we should see complex problems as mysteries.  We are NOT going to get THE correct solution, or THE complete picture. Rather we are going to see fragments of structure, and from these we can start to implement strategies and plans knowing that we are inevitably going to have to modify these strategies or develop completely new ones as things inevitably and unpredictably change.

 

So for career success, the first step is to appreciate the limitations of what we can control and predict.  The second step is not to respond by falling into helplessness or fatalism.  Nor should we settle for simple insurance plans like the Plan B strategy, but rather we need to commence and maintain a program of scenario planning, and secondly to work actively on developing problem solving skills.  Through these mechanisms we can develop controlled flexibility.

 

References

Amundson, N. (2009). Active Engagement. 3rd Edition. Ergon Press.

Bright, Jim (2008) Beyond Personal Mastery® http://www.beyondpersonalmastery.com

Bright, Jim (2008). Beyond Corporate Mastery® http://www.beyondcorporatemastery.com

De Bono, E. (1999) Six Thinking Hats. Back Bay Books.  http://amzn.to/ff5kLq

Gardner, H. (1993).   Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books. http://bit.ly/glfSoE

Poehnell, G. & Amundson, N. (2011). Hope-filled Engagement. Ergon Press.

Pryor, R & Bright, J (2011). Chaos Theory of Careers. Routledge. London & New York. http://bit.ly/d1tK8R

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

Transform your Career by shifting: Shift 3 From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness

Shiftwork is the work we all have to do to manage, survive and thrive in the face of a world where Shift Happens.

I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here) and the first shift (see here) and second shift (see here) below I give a few tips about how to achieve the third one.

Shift 3: From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness

When trying to make a decision it is easy to become overwhelmed by the choices and so it makes sense to narrow down those choices to a couple of alternatives or even better to one option.  This strategy is useful when:

  • making the wrong choice doesn’t matter much
  • when the situation is simple and you can think through all the implications of your various options
  • when all the alternatives are obvious and easy to understand in advance
  • when things are not not changing or not changing rapidly and can be predicted accurately
  • when you can reverse the decision and start over with the same alternatives still available to you

However many decisions, and many career-related decisions are not like this.  Often things are changing and changing unpredictably.  There are many complex factors bearing on the decision, and because of this uncertainty, changeability and unpredictability, it may not be possible to “undo” a decision.  Under these circumstances being too focused on one course or action of goal may mean failing to spot a better one along the way. Bright & Pryor (2007, Career Planning & Adult Development Journal) call this Luck Readiness (a term coined by my friend from Life Strategies Roberta Neault), or opportunity awareness.

Ways in which you can focus on openness include:

  • engaging in possibility thinking
  • entertaining “wildest dreams”
  • reading lots
  • reading material and attending meetings addressing topics outside of what you think of as your area
  • go to a gallery
  • go to a museum
  • see a music gig
  • talk to friends
  • talk to enemies
  • listen without talking
  • look for 10 reasons why someone else has got a point
  • see other ideas as gifts not threats
  • hold opinions but never be sure
  • be oppositional with your own ideas and open with others ideas
  • change your viewing/reading/learning/cultural habits
  • using the “I’m feeling lucky” link on google
  • read blogs
  • follow links on twitter
  • accept invitations
  • make invitations
  • vary your social life
  • sit in a different chair

  • rearrange your office
  • talk a walk in the woods/high street/mall/in your mind
  • travel
  • look at a scene, turn away, look again and see something different. Repeat 10 times
  • when things go wrong dont curse, instead say how curious I wonder why?
  • never conclude
  • appreciate quitting is often success – like smoking, drugs, reckless driving, make quitting work for you
  • network by giving and sharing yourself, your ideas and tips
  • if you must set goals set fuzzy ones
  • see yourself as lucky
  • experiment with everything
  • take things apart
  • be curious, especially about what you take for granted

Fear – the major barrier in career development

There is a common psychological factor that is involved in many career-related issues and that is fear. What comes to mind for you when you hear the word fear? For me there are many different images such as of being a child in a dark place, concerns for physical safety, a feeling of nausea and dread that something bad is about to happen to me or to people I care about, a sense of paralysis or inability to act when you need to, the realisation that it is tax time again….

Fear is hard to pin down, and it is often difficult to detect in other people. Simply observing the behaviour of others may give a false impression. Some people can do things that we feel are immensely brave and then we discover the person was acting out of, or in a state of fear. Sometimes it is the opposite, and people who say they are fearful of something, ultimately when confronted with it, display fearless behaviour.

fearful employee

Fear can be classified into: subjective apprehension (e.g. worries), physiological changes (such as tremors in the hands), expressions (e.g. saying I’m scared) and attempts to evade or avoid situations. It can be focused and on-going such as a neurosis of being alone, or a phobia for spiders or it can arise suddenly for instance during an assault. It can also seemingly have no obvious cause or focal point.

Fear presents a major barrier in career development. For many people applying for a job is a key trigger, to the point that some will shake and others will avoid applying for jobs, or not turn up for interviews. Deciding to stay in a job or leave is another career development decision that is often accompanied by fear. Common fears relate to feelings of inadequacy, unpopularity, unfamiliarity, and advancement.

Fear is a major component in a failure to stand up to or to confront rude, aggressive and bullying behavior in the workplace. This applies not only to workplace bullying but also to commerce, where the fear of losing a contract, a licence, client or customer can lead to quite extraordinary behaviours. One of the most common reactions, sadly, is for those who are fearlful to lash out at others who they perceive to be even more insecure than themselves. Think of Basil Fawlty venting his insecurities on Manuel rather than addressing his own problems to get an idea of how people and companies sometimes respond when acting out of fear.

Fear can also be a reason for the very often pitiful feedback given to employees, and communication between people at work more generally. Some people have an enormous sense of dread about giving feedback to others, that results in them either avoiding giving it, or delivering it in a very charged and emotional manner that rapidly gets out of hand, becomes personal and aggressive and undermines the whole purpose of giving it.

Fear stifles some of the most important career behaviours we need to exhibit to be successful in the 21st century workplace such as flexibility, openness, persistence, curiosity, creativity, teamwork, and leadership.

Fear insinuates itself in the most of our lives, so it more a case of mastering fear rather than striving to eliminate or avoid fear. Spending your career running scared of real or imaginary demons is no way to spend a life. A first step might be to reflect on any areas of your career where you hold fears, and to develop strategies to manage that fear, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. As Mark Twain said, “ Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”.