Working Permanent Whitewater

June 1, 2012

220px-WhitewaterKayaking-BLMThe stable, consistent workplace of the past vanished amidst the headwaters of globalization, relentless technological advances, and the churning of financial markets.

For over half of century, industry after industry has moved from a world of stability or perhaps cyclical change to a world of permanent change, a world where paradoxically, the one constant is change.

Textiles, steel, automobiles, consumer electronics, telecommunications, financial services, power generation/transmission/distribution, higher education and health care have each moved into this world. Now, change is simply the order of the day, any day, every day. Indeed, forget your job description; your real job is change.

This is whitewater, the result of a fast moving river and powerful cross-currents. In the natural world, those cross-currents arise from the flow of water over and through an extremely varied landscape, a collection of jagged stones, a sudden drop in the stream’s floor, a fallen tree, or uneven erosion of a river bank. Turbulent cross-currents result. In our world, we have created what Peter Vaill termed “permanent whitewater”. This world does not contain flat or calm water. Our river roars on not from rapid to rapid, but as one big rapid or whitewater river. Iconic companies fail. Institutions falter. And the individual worker has to carry on and, ideally, even make enough sense of it all to survive, even to thrive.

Many people have told us to view our career as a sequential, orderly path onward and upward, with, at worst, temporary setbacks. That view does not suit the fitful reality of our permanent white water times.

Instead, think of your career as a series of experiments, some of which may work and some of which will not. That said, here’s some counsel, especially about bigger experiments:

  1. pick your experiments carefully (pick ones that will provide clear opportunity to develop key skills or relationships),
  2. check your resources (make sure that the experiment has at least the bare minimum of people, time, and resources to have a chance at success),
  3. set clear, written expectations, including about risks and rewards (you and others should understand clearly the nature of the river that you aim to travel),
  4. do not set out alone (find a sponsor or at least a noteworthy ally),
  5. have an exit plan (clear benchmarks and good advisers help you to know when it’s time to quit),
  6. win, lose or draw, consolidate learnings and report out, at least to your sponsor and allies and ask them who else might benefit from hearing what you learned.

(For more on working permanent whitewater, see Chapter 9 in Your Job Survival Guide.)