Tag Archives: Taleb

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.

 

Transform your Career by Shifting: Shift 6 From Probabilities To Probable Possibilities

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 five, and in this post, I address the sixth shift.  The earlier ones you can read by following these links:

 

Sometimes the best ideas come out of necessity.  It is Orlando Florida, in July 2005 and I am attending a session at the National Career Development Association Conference.  The presenters were two friends of mine Spencer (Skip) Niles and Norm Amundson – two of the most respected and accomplished Counselors in the business.  Unbeknown to me they are stuck for a topic for their joint session. Norm discusses with Skip an idea he has been kicking around about Probability Thinking and Possibility thinking and this becomes the topic for an engaging presentation.   So much so that I ended up writing a paper on the topic with Norm and Robert Pryor in the Career Development Quarterly (Pryor, Amundson & Bright, 2008). It also lead to the development of the Creative Thinking Strategy Card Sort (see this post).

Probability Thinking refers to our tendency to explore and privilege thinking about strategies that we judge to be the most likely to succeed in being implemented.  It refers to the most likely outcomes and rests on our ability to envisage such outcomes readily.

Probability thinking is both useful and seductive.  After all, it makes intuitive sense that we should focus on strategies or outcomes that are likely to happen, rather than wasting time considering “long-shots”. Probability thinking allows us to apply heuristic rules of thumb to situations rather than wasting valuable time considering each new situation in depth. Rather we can adopt a philosophy of past behaviour predicts future behaviour and this can get us a long way in solving our problems for little effort.  There is no point in re-inventing the wheel is there.

The probable is probable because it is probably going to happen. So Probability thinking can be a good strategy.

Well it turns out there are lots of reasons Probability thinking may not always be the most appropriate way of solving our problems, especially for those of us who are professional advisors, counsellors, coaches or guidance people.  The major problem with Probability thinking is that is encourages stereotyping of problems (lumping problems together under one banner) which leads to a stereotypical response (responding in the same manner to the same perceived class of problems).  However, given that people and the world are essentially chaotic in nature (Pryor & Bright, 2011) this means that a complex array of continually changing factors may undermine our assumptions that the problem we are facing is the same as one we faced in the past. Strategies that worked last time may not work this time.

The dangers of Probability Thinking for Professional Advisors is that many clients will hold off seeking assistance with their problems as they try to apply Probability Thinking strategies to their situation.  It is often when these fail that they seek our help.  Sure, sometimes, we can point out an obvious Probability-based thinking strategy that has been overlooked, but oftentimes the “obvious” solutions have already been considered or even tried. Offering more of the same is likely to frustrate the client, and not help them address their problem.

A good example of Probability Thinking in Career Development is the conventional use of interest inventories like the Self-Directed Search, or similar types of instrument.  These sorts of tests typically sample past behaviour or attributes (for instance skills that we believe we possess or have developed), or at least people tend to recall their past work, training and education when filling in these forms.  This can result in the vocational recommendations reflecting what a person has done in the past rather better than what they may want or be able to do in the future.   The vocational recommendations are based on what is probable given the person’s self-reported circumstances.  For instance it is not uncommon in Vocational Rehabilitation for a client who is prevented by injury from working in their lifelong occupation to complete one of these inventories only to have it recommend precisely the occupation that they are no longer able to pursue.

So Probability Thinking sometimes leads to unimaginative, uncreative, stereotypical solutions to problems.  It also can reinforce self-limited thinking.  Probable solutions to problems very typically reside within our realm of experience of the individual and are judged to be probable based on a self-estimate of ones capacity to implement the solution. It follows that if a person’s self-estimates are self-limited, they lack imagination or have limited experience, Probability thinking is likely to be limited in its effectiveness.

It is impossible for their to be a probable without a possible. If there is no possible, there cannot be a probable, it must be a certainty.  From a Chaos Theory of Careers Perspective (Pryor & Bright, 2011) certainties are few and far between. So we adopt the perspective that in nearly all situations there is a possible.  This is a fundamentally optimistic stance toward problem solving and this can help a client in of itself.

Possibility thinking is about thinking beyond the Probabilities to entertain more apparently distance, extreme and unrealistic options and strategies.  The word “apparently” reminds us that for many people, the block to their creative thinking is that they have a poorly calibrated rating mechanism for possibilities.  The negative and self-limited thinker is as quick to label strategies “unrealistic”  as the stereotyped and cautious thinker.

Possibility thinking brings in notions like wildest dreams, miracles, left-field thinking, Green Hat Thinking (DeBono), scaleable thinking (Taleb, 2007).   There are a range of ways of inducing Possibility thinking and the Creative Thinking Strategy Cards are a good way to help individuals and groups with their Possibility thinking.  The advantage of these cards is that it also addresses Possibility thinking as well, which allows individuals or groups to consider alternative strategies that vary in terms of their apparent plausibility, but also encourages people to plan out the Possibilities to turn them into Creative Strategies (see this post).

Creative thinking by using Possibility Thinking has the potential to both recognise andrealize the possibilities.  In so doing we can turn Possibilities into Probable Possibilities for implementation.

As Professional Advisors, I believe a lot of work could be profitably diverted to privilege Possibility Thinking supported by exercises like the Creative Strategies Card Sort, rather than too quickly being drawn into Probability Thinking.  The need for people to be strong Creative Problem solvers in their lives has never been stronger. Fortunately there are things we can do to help people in this quest.

References

Bright, JEH & Pryor, RGL. (2011). Creative Thinking Strategies Card Sort. Bright & Associates. (see this post)

Pryor, R & Bright, J. (2011). The Chaos Theory of Careers. Routledge. UK & New York.

Pryor R.G.L., Amundson, N., & Bright, J. (2008). Possibilities and probabilities: the role of chaos theory.  Career Development Quarterly 56 (4), 309-318.