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.



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

Bright, Jim (2008) Beyond Personal Mastery®

Bright, Jim (2008). Beyond Corporate Mastery®

De Bono, E. (1999) Six Thinking Hats. Back Bay Books.

Gardner, H. (1993).   Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books.

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

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

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