Tag Archives: goal

Is the Chaos Theory of Careers doing Practitioners out of a job?

The Chaos Theory of Careers says its all down to chance right? So why do you need a career practitioner if it is all chance?  So the logic goes that gives rise to the question and title of this blog.  It is a question that I am told was asked at a recent CDAA meeting.

Let me give two answers to this question.  The first answer is “no, go read our book The Chaos Theory of Careers (Pryor and Bright 2011)”. Those who are convinced need not bother reading any further.  My second answer is no and I’ll try to explain why by using the Chaos Theory of Careers to counsel my questioner.

Firstly lets deal with the misapprehensions.  The Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) DOES NOT say it “is all chance” see also this link.  The CTC states that there is inherent uncertainty in all actions of a complex dynamical system such as a person operating within and between other complex dynamical systems.   However, a feature of CTC is that over time a form of dynamic order emerges, that can be visually represented in a fractal pattern.

A good example of dynamic order is the physical appearance of your face over time.  Your face changes as you age, but remains self-similar over time.  If it didn’t we could never recognise ourselves in the mirror let alone other people.  So our faces are always changing but also maintaining a kind of stability over time.    In fact if our faces did not change over time through cell-reproduction, it would mean we have died (and even then it would change through decomposition).  Alternatively it means we have had disastrous plastic surgery. But I digress.

So the CTC certainly does suggest that chance events are to be expected and that they should not be considered rare or trivial.  One implication that flows from this is that it places severe constraints on rigid plans or goal setting. The CTC says that order and chance are not opposites but are composites. This means we cant live and plan as though everything is ordered and chance wont happen to me.  We need to acknowledge the chance in our lives and careers.  The question becomes how do we go about doing this?

My questioner has expressed a view of chance that is not uncommon.  They have implied that the appropriate response to chance is to give up and become fatalistic.  Both myself and co-author Robert Pryor have observed this response amongst some of those who have sustained a workplace injury. In effect they choose to see themselves as one of “luck’s victims”.

This response amounts to fatalism – the view that there is nothing one can do to influence the course of one’s life.   Such thinking is often a reflection of a person caught in Pendulum Attractor thinking. In the CTC, we set out 4 different “Attractors” which describe the varying amounts of constraints people place on their thoughts and behaviours.  Those who display Pendulum Attractor thinking tend to see things as being either black or white.  In this case, the questioner seems to construe life as Chance as equating to being all out of control, whereas Order implies control. I might even want to administer the Change Perception Index (Bright & Pryor, 2005 see this link to get a second opinion on this hypothesis as this is one of the things (amongst 9 others) that this psychometrically validated instrument measures.

The counselling challenge then is to help the questioner re-conceptualize chance events. Bright, Pryor, Chan & Rijanto (2009)  demonstrated that when considering chance events, people have a bias towards recalling events that are high impact and over which we have little or no control.  For instance being in a motor vehicle accident as a passenger and being severely injured.

However as Bright et al (2009) point out, there are other types of chance event.  Specifically there are two types of chance event that have high levels of personal control.  For instance, imagine you go to a party and a fellow guest you’ve just met, offers you a job and tells you to call their office the following day.   This is a chance event where you have as complete control as reasonably possible over whether you take up the invitation or not.   You also have more or less complete control over some more trivial chance events, such as noticing a $5 note on the pavement of an otherwise empty street.

The trouble is as Bright et al (2009) point out, we tend to forget these high control events more quickly than the low control ones.  This in turn fuels a tendency to construe chance events as being out of our control and it is a short step to fatalism from there.

The good news is that we experience far more of the high control chance events than the low control ones.   Clearly because there is a high degree of control in such events, there is a lot of scope for Practitioners to assist their clients with strategies and techniques to leverage such events.   This may include networking, social media, job application assistance, promotional or profile raising activies and so on.   In fact the sorts of thing that Practitioners routinely undertake with and on behalf of their clients.

Once I’ve discussed this perspective on chance events, I might use the Luck Readiness Index (Pryor & Bright, 2005) to gauge my client’s Flexibility, Strategy, Optimism, Persistence, Efficacy, Risk, Curiosity and Luckiness.   It should be fairly clear why helping my client develop a more Flexible, Optimistic, self efficacious and strategic approach to the complexities of an uncertain world could prove important.

Then I might work with my client in helping to develop their own creative solutions to their career dilemmas.  I might do this using the Creative Thinking Strategies Card sort (see this link) (Bright & Pryor, 2005).

The appropriate response to uncertainty in the world and in our careers is not simply to give up and become fatalistic.  Nor is it ideal to thole the uncertainty by merely trying to cope.  As Robert Pryor pointed out in a recent conference paper to the Society of Rehabilitation Counsellors, the CTC allows clients to go beyond coping into developing the skills of personal creativity to allow them to reinvent themselves or creatively re-arrange their transferable skills so that they can offer a more varied and changing proposition to a labour market increasingly demanding changing and variable skills.

In being adept at being personally creative, we learn to survive and thrive living on the edge of chaos, and in so doing allow ourselves a better opportunity to take opportunities that present themselves and to respond positively to both expected and unexpected change.

So far from Practitioners being made redundant by the Chaos Theory of Careers, quite the opposite is true. The CTC practitioner has a major role to play in assisting their clients confront and embrace the complexities of their lives.  When we formally evaluated the CTC counselling approach by comparing it to a more traditional interests-inventory and vocational recommendations type approach, not only did the CTC score higher on every success and satisfaction measure, it continued to do so 1 month later. The counselor doing the CTC counselling reported finding the CTC sessions far more engrossing and stimulating (McKay, Bright & Pryor, 2005).

The CTC is ultimately as much a theory about order as it is about disorder, because those elements of careers are composites.  The problem with theories that have gone before is that they have generally over-estimated the amount of control or agency that a person has, while simultaneously under-estimating the inevitability and impact of continuous and non-linear change.  The CTC provides a principled framework for understanding why and how change operates in careers, and we have also begun to provide a series of empirically evaluated and validated counselling techniques, concepts, card sorts and tests that can be usefully employed by practitioners to assist their clients in a more effective and relevant fashion that addresses the world as it is now.

The CTC will not do Practitioners out of their jobs, but it may for some provide an exciting opportunity to alter and expand their jobs in a way that is deeply satisfying, relevant and effective.

 

References

  1. Bright, JEH & Pryor, RGL (2005). The Complexity Perception Index. Bright & Associates/Congruence.
  2. Bright, Pryor, Chan, Rijanto.  (2009). The dimensions of chance career episodes. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 75(1), 14-25.
  3. McKay, H., Bright J.E.H. & Pryor R.G.L. (2005) Finding order and direction from Chaos: a comparison of complexity career counseling and trait matching counselling.  Journal of Employment Counseling. 42, (3) Sep 2005, 98-112
  4. Pryor, RGL & Bright, JEH (2005). The Luck Readiness Index. Congruence/Bright & Associates.
  5. Pryor, RGL & Bright, JEH. (2011).  The Chaos Theory of Careers. Routledge.

 

 

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.