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.


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.