Want Big Change? Embrace Chaos
Plans are comforting. Neat to-do lists, 10-step outlines, and orderly pro-and-con comparisons help to tame our anxiety and offer the feeling of being in control--that's why they're so popular.
These techniques certainly have their place, but they're not what you need if you want to fundamentally change your life. What you need is something entirely different: a moment of chaos and uncertainty.
Or to put it another way, what you need is an "inflection point," according to a new book on the thinking of Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson.
An excerpt of Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work, by Eric C. Sinoway, was published on HBS's Working Knowledge recently, and it contained a bit of wisdom for those seeking profound rather than incremental change in their lives.
Climbing slowly up the road in front of you is one thing, but if instead you want to change paths--for example, by making the leap from employee to business owner or taking your company is a new direction--you need to spot a moment when the situation is fluid and the future is unclear and make the most of it.
Stevenson called these moments "inflection points," writes Sinoway, who offers a story to illustrate the idea. During a walk with Stevenson, Sinoway told him about his friend Michelle whose boss and mentor had unexpectedly announced her retirement:
Despite Michelle's success, she felt that her future was uncertain now that her professional champion was departing...She felt frozen…For the first time in her career, she didn't know what to do.
Michelle's plan, I explained to him, was to keep her head down and wait to see how the department might be reshaped. After she learned what opportunities would be presented to her as part of the potential reorganization, she would decide what to do next….
When I finished the story, Howard shook his head, kicked a pinecone out of his path, and grumbled, "Wasting a good opportunity."
"Her problem is that no one has clarified what her options might be," I explained.
Howard stopped and gently poked me in the chest. "No. Her problem is that she doesn't recognize the opportunity staring her in the face."
"She's waiting for someone to decide her fate for her," Howard remarked. "She doesn't realize that she's being given a gift."
"What kind of gift?"
"An inflection point," he said. "In Michelle's case, it's coming at a moment in time when the structures are removed and the rules are suspended. A moment in which she can reflect inwardly about what she wants, and then act to redefine the situation in such a way as to help her accomplish it."
Planning and preparation are often necessary and help things proceed comfortably, but for real change you need to allow yourself to come out of the bunker of your blueprints and your comfort zone. Don't hunker down and simply endure uncertain situations. Instead, approach them as opportunities to be seized--even if that's the scarier alternative, as Stevenson realized.
"Opportunity provided by an inflection point is a lot easier to overlook or ignore--until the window for action passes. As a result, most people are like Michelle: They won't realize they're at an inflection point until it has passed," Stevenson said, according to Sinoway.
"Very few people see inflection points as the opportunities they often are: catalysts for changing their lives; moments when a person can modify the trajectory he or she is on," Stevenson concluded.
Are you crisis managing your way through your inflection points rather than taking advantage of them?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.