Tag Archives: Thinking Hats

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.

 

 

 

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.