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Careers: Attractors, Bifurcation Points and Bull Durham

This week, we’re staying with the idea of career choice but are going about as far as away as you can get from Holland’s career congruence and person-environment fit — so hold on.

In the 1988 film “Bull Durham,” aging minor league baseball catcher and slugger Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) complains to Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) about the inherent unfairness that she, rather than he or Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), gets to decide which of the two will receive her personal favors and coaching mentorship for the season. He asks her, “Why do you get to choose?… Why don’t I get to choose? Why doesn’t he get to choose?”

She replies, “Well, actually, nobody on this planet ever really chooses… I mean, it’s all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing. Why, there are laws we don’t understand that bring us together and tear us apart.”

Organizational writer Gareth Morgan, in his Images of Organizations (Sage, 1997) explores the use of nine metaphors to examine ways of considering organizations. One of those metaphors, “flux and transformation” (see chapter nine) presents us with four “logics of change,” embracing all of the ideas to which Annie alluded — and much more.

Morgan’s second logic of change, “shifting `attractors;” the logic of chaos and complexity is particularly interesting. Though this book was written with regard to the relationship between organizations and their environments, it’s fun to layer some of these ideas onto individuals and their careers. As we discussed last week, the applicability of choice when considering careers is open to question. A great career fit based on congruence may or may not exist. If it does exist, it may be difficult to discover — or its competitive nature may exclude all but the most skilled and talented. It may be a career that’s gone in 20 or even 10 years, or it may require the careerist to play a role that doesn’t seem quite as attractive a few years down the road.

So, then where else might we look in making career choices?

Drawing from the theories that inform Morgan’s second logic of change, here are some ideas for you ponder.

Chaos theory posits competing attractors – i.e. circumstances or “contexts” that pull a non-linear system toward one situation or the other – for example, away from an existing context and into a new one. In order for the pull to resolve in favor of a new context, a system gets pushed far from its equilibrium into an “edge of chaos” situation, where “bifurcation points” (forks in the road) emerge. These bifurcation points represent different potentials. Inevitably, some sort of new order will emerge, though it cannot be predicted or imposed. Morgan advises that the implication for managers is to “shape and create `contexts’ in which appropriate forms of self-organization can occur.” New contexts, he continues, can be created by generating “new understandings of a situation or by engaging in new actions.” Further, in non-linear systems, it only takes very, very small changes at critical times to trigger “major transforming effects.” Anyone, he continues, who wishes to change the context in which he operates should search for “doable, high-leverage initiatives that can trigger a transition from one attractor to another.”

This is all very esoteric, but what it might really come down to for the individual is being on alert to recognize situations in one’s employment context where competing attractors have the potential to create “edge of chaos” situations. If there is a practical lesson here – other than continually scanning the horizon of one’s employment context – it might just be to think small instead of thinking big.

Here’s a personal example, which only in retrospect makes sense – as I certainly had no idea what I was doing at the time… When I was downsized (made redundant) in 1993, the company I worked for worked very hard to provide helpful support to those of us who had been displaced. It staffed and opened a full-time outplacement center, provided a generous severance package and gave us two weeks to vacate. I had planned to use the career center – but first, went around the building leaving handwritten notes on the doors and desks of people I knew, advising that I would be available to help with projects, if needed, until I figured out what I was going to do. (Broad-based work solicitation wasn’t permitted within the old context). Well, I only made it to the career center once — because that one small series of note-leaving acts resulted in a deluge of consulting work that launched a new career. The downsizing had created an “edge of chaos” situation that led to a new context – one in which my skills could now be used for the benefit of the organization. Through naïvete and uncertainty, I had somehow navigated a bifurcation point in a way that has worked out pretty well – at least so far. I’m a little embarrassed to be using this personal example because there was such an element of luck involved — and this good fortune is not something I take for granted.

Just please take the following away: If you and your career are verging on an edge of chaos situation, are there small actions that you can leverage into major transformations?

If anyone has thoughts or examples, please share.

Till next week. All my best,
Jan

Morgan, G. Images of Organization. (1997). Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi, Sage.

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