The new rules of career planning: Embrace chance

Learn to live with the unexpected – careers can be like Charlie Parker’s improvised jazz solos
Even our best laid schemes have the nasty habit of going awry

WHERE would you like to be in a decade’s time? It seems a natural question. Surely the captains of industry didn’t get to where they are today without the requisite amount of career planning and strategic networking?

This may have been the case in the past, when a job meant learning a trade and working your way up through a single industry, and it’s still the case in specialist fields like science and medicine. But a number of business school professors and economists argue that, for large swathes of the economy, things have changed. Len Schlesinger of Harvard, and innovation experts Charlie Kiefer and Paul B. Brown, think linear career plans (I’ll graduate, work in company X for five years, do an MBA and then re-join as a partner, for example) are counterproductive.

“The world is not this predictable. And it is in settings of high uncertainty where traditional career planning is a waste of time and potentially dangerous,” they argue in the Harvard Business Review. It’s said that the average person now has seven careers in a lifetime, although the provenance of this statistic is dubious. Rather than plotting every detail of a successful vocation, people increasingly have greatness thrust upon them. So what’s to be done?

Linear career planning assumes that the labour market will perpetually comply with your ambitions, which can be problematic. How many physics PhDs foresaw a career on Wall Street in the 1980s? As an alternative, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen thinks that an “emergent” plan may be better.

Emergent planning takes an iterative approach. Victor Cheng, a consultant and career coach, explains in a blog post: “You take your best guess at what you think is the right strategic approach, and then you try it (preferably cheaply and quickly) and see what happens.”

It’s a far more organic idea, one that sees every stage of your career as a mini experiment, rather than a necessary stage on the way to some pre-determined destination. Typically, opportunities will present themselves (“emerge”) in the course of these job experiments, and you won’t be tied down to a concrete plan.

If this all sounds a bit abstract, Schlesinger, Kiefer and Brown have some tips on what it might mean in practice. First, think about what matters to you, and how this translates into a profession. “Is it working in a specific industry? Managing people or not? The answers will point you in productive directions.” Next, try things out. Perhaps you don’t need to change jobs, and there’s a way of learning a new skill or taking on responsibility within your present role.

If not, Cheng points out that university alumni organisations are a good way to get an idea of what other jobs are like day-to-day before you make any radical changes. And keeping a savings account with three to six months’ salary can tide you over between opportunities.

“It’s not career planning. It’s acting your way into a future you want,” Schlesinger, Kiefer and Brown say. Admittedly, the high level of uncertainty may be difficult to deal with for some. But what’s the alternative? If you’re currently working towards some Platonic ideal of a role, they point out, you might find that it simply doesn’t exist in 10 years.

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