DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS OF EMERGENT ORDER
Careers can be understood as dynamic, interactive systems in which
competencies meet opportunities in unexpected ways (Bird, 1994;
DeFillippi and Arthur, 1994; Arthur and Rousseau, 1996). A useful
vocabulary for understanding and explaining these qualities can be
drawn from complexity science and dynamic systems theories (Gleick,
1987; Dooley, 1997; Eve, Horsfall and Lee, 1997). The characteristics
of complexity research that apply to dynamic career systems include
discontinuities in career progression (Thelan and Smith, 1994), non-proportionality of effects of effort (Goerner, 1994), sensitive dependence on initial conditions (Thiétart and Forgues, 1995), and viewing a
system in terms of constraints and triggers for change (Lichtenstein,
2000a). Each of these concepts will be briefly introduced, then illustrated in two case studies that follow.
One of the hallmarks of complexity is the recognition that systems do
not develop in incremental, gradual ways, but through discontinuities—
cycles of slow movement punctuated by bursts of change. On the surface, a period of densely clustered events appears to indicate intense
progress, whereas periods with virtually no movement can feel like
stagnation. However, theories of complexity recognize that all events
are interdependent, which means that every experience, however
seemingly inconsequential, is inexorably linked to the evolution of the
system as a whole. This creates an often unnoticed cumulative build-up of experiences which, if properly triggered, can “explode” into an
emergent structure that brings all of the events together in a new,
A closely linked aspect of dynamic systems is non-proportionality. In
traditional linear systems models, a given input will cause a proportional output response. In contrast, a dynamic system rarely exhibits this
kind of regular behavior. Instead in an interdependent system that has
built up a lot of cumulative energy and experience, outputs are not
directly proportional to inputs. For example, after an especially challenging day during a period of high stress and intensity, our response to
a small problem may be much more explosive than the problem actually warrants. Likewise, career experiences can exhibit this quality of
non-proportionality. The pace of new projects or assignments can vary
over time (Bridges, 1994) as can the results or outcomes derived from
them relative to the amount of effort (Jones and DeFillippi, 1996). Initial
efforts may yield little benefits despite extensive efforts, while later efforts
with minimal effort can lead to unexpectedly large outcomes. These non-proportionalities are inherent to dynamic systems like careers.
A third characteristic of dynamic systems is sensitive dependence on
initial conditions. In conventional terms, system outputs loop back to
the inputs, providing feedback. When the feedback loops in dynamic
complex systems are non-proportional, the systems take on special
properties that are referred to as chaos. Chaotic systems appear random, but from a mathematical perspective, at every point in time the
system remains within a specific region of behavior, called an attractor.
The key insight from chaos theory is that the entire system attractor is
highly sensitive to initial conditions (Lorenz, 1963; Gleick, 1987). In
other words, one small action or distinction made early on in the system’s formation will be dramatically amplified over time, creating a
chain reaction that can transform the system itself (Briggs and Peat,
1989). At the same time, a particular issue or quality can become
embedded in the system, keeping it stuck within a relatively small
arena of behavior.
Fourth, dynamic systems can be explained with reference to external
constraints on action, and internal triggers for change. Constraints are
more than blocks or impediments—they are system-wide issues that
limit the total amount of energy that can flow into the system itself. Triggers are also systemic, creating “cubic centimeters of chance” that can
be leveraged if and when the individual is open to them. More than
opportunities, triggers are critical change points, which can allow individuals to generate a new attractor or region of behavior for their
These four qualities offer a new lens with which to view traditional and
non-traditional careers. These can be illustrated through the following
case of Sarah, whose 20-year career appears traditional and organization centered. However, the new lens from dynamic systems theory
helps identify discontinuous elements in her career, the periods of non-proportional activity, the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in
her career, and the impact of external constraints and systemic triggers
that she used to create new opportunities for herself.
SARAH’S MANAGEMENT CAREER
Sarah began her career after high school working as a licensing clerk
for a security firm. Sensing little future in this position, she enrolled in
a computer school and received a certificate in office information systems. Sarah applied her training to her next jobs, first as a technician
for two years and then as a word processing supervisor for another two
years. She worked well and pleased her boss. However, he liked her
performance so much that he would not allow her to apply for other
jobs in the large insurance company. Sarah became frustrated by the
stagnation and apparent lack of opportunities. She explored a new
industry, making a lateral move to an executive secretary position at a
locally based manufacturing corporation, reporting to a divisional vice
president of Finance. Here, she acquired additional competencies
such as presentation and budgeting skills; however, the division was
closed down a few years later.
Sarah transferred to corporate headquarters in 1991. Due to her strong
performance, she was appointed to a payroll consolidation project that
her boss was running. She enjoyed work on this project and learned
about the compensation side of human resources. One manager on
the task force offered her a job as an HR associate. Sarah had not
completed her bachelor’s degree; hence she was limited to the associate position instead of a generalist one with more responsibility. Still,
this position expanded her horizons. Her assignments involved assisting in the restructuring of a unit, a project that extended her prior work
on payroll consolidation. This work was somewhat out of the range of
the typical HR associate’s assignments.
The manager who hired her into the restructuring position then left. A
new manager, Karen, took a special interest in Sarah (becoming her
mentor) and giving her new assignments to stretch and develop her
such as gathering data and completing Equal Employment Opportunity reports, merit planning, and benefits. Sarah then took another
roughly lateral step to one of the divisional headquarters. Sarah’s new
boss was a financial manager who judgmentally scrutinized Sarah’s
work while not developing her skill base. During this manager’s tenure,
Sarah became interested in an HR generalist position; however, the
lack of a college degree limited her progress. She made a proposal for
on-the-job training and movement into a HR generalist position but her
critical manager declined, stressing the need for a college degree.
Sarah had been taking two courses a semester pursuing her baccalaureate degree but had about sixteen courses remaining.
Some months later around 1995, Sarah applied for a generalist position at a nearby division of the corporation. This was a heavy manufacturing division and Sarah worked extensively with labor representatives, further building her HR skill repertoire. She continued here for
four years quietly developing her skills.
In 1999, she applied for a promotion into another corporate division.
The first time she did not receive the position (because of her degree).
The position was given to a journalism major without much background in HR. When this individual did not work out, Sarah was called
and asked to apply again for the position. This time she received the
Later that year she was nominated as the division’s United Way representative. Individuals are chosen for this role because of their reputation, personality and high potential in the organization. Sarah had mixed
feelings about the position. It offered her visibility with senior management and opportunities to network, but the prior representative was laid
off upon returning from the full time service assignment. After speaking
about her concerns with Karen her mentor, she accepted the offer and
found the assignment helpful in developing new competencies such as
public speaking, organization building and leadership.
As the United Way activities were finishing, a corporate-wide freeze
on hiring was established, confirming her earlier fears. Then, someone left in the management of expatriates area, and Sarah was told
that she had to take this position. She started training for the new
position and began training a replacement for her current position.
Then, that position was withdrawn, and she returned to the HR generalist position she had held prior to the United Way post. She again
has a new boss and that individual is offering her enriching experiences, such as greater involvement in business partnering with internal clients.
Her managers have repeatedly encouraged her to complete her
degree and she is making progress. They have also suggested that
enrollment in their executive MBA program is possible in the near
future after completion of her bachelor’s degree.
THE NON-LINEAR DYNAMICS IN SARAH’S CAREER
Sarah’s career involved several discontinuities. She began her work
career as a licensing clerk, then moved to office systems as a technician and then as a supervisor and finally executive secretary work
before making a larger jump into human resources. The periods in
between these moves lasted from a few months to several years,
including the period of technical schooling between her clerking and
office systems careers. Although her modal time in positions was two
years, the intervals were neither regular nor predictable. Since moving
into the field of HR, she has spent approximately three and one-half
years in the associate position and another four as a generalist before
moving to another division and accepting the United Way staff position,
which lasted a 3-4 months. Although she is currently experiencing
some uncertainty about the immediate future, her career seems poised
for another shift or abrupt change. As with the prior changes, the timing of this one will be variable and hard to predict.
Second, her career was not strictly progressive in terms of regular
upward movements. The move from office systems supervisor to executive secretary entailed some increase in status but was mostly lateral. Even the move from executive secretary to HR associate was not a
large upward step, but more lateral in nature. It was, nonetheless, a
major change in function and raised the ceiling for later progression.
Although the steps were irregular and uneven, the development of
skills was cumulative. The office systems and listening skills of secretarial work are useful for HR systems and listening to clients needs in
a partnering context. This cumulation of competencies has been more
crucial to her career development than the few promotions she has
Third, Sarah’s career exhibited several instances of non-proportionality. In some periods she worked long and hard with no apparent payoff.
For example, she spent 3-4 years in labor activities when she began
as an HR associate, with no tangible consequence. At other times she
made larger moves, due to an unexpected opportunity, such as the
payroll consolidation project or the United Way position.
Fourth, project opportunities and competency development were a key
to her success. These short-term assignments provided access to
people and to the generation of new skills that she could leverage in
ways that significantly expanded her career options. For example, the
initial restructuring position proved to be a breakthrough opportunity.
Here, she gained a positive reputation, leading to recognition by a
manager that hired her into a new, expanded role. This position developed career momentum and initial energy. Similarly, the United Way
position extended her reputation throughout the corporation, interacting with representatives and senior management from all divisions.
These contacts will lead to new potential opportunities that have yet to
Finally, the presence of constraints and triggers were significant and
crucial to her career. Two of her bosses became roadblocks to her
success, keeping her away from desired opportunities. Her lack of a
college degree was often mentioned as a constraint, yet she was still
able to gain access to jobs with higher responsibility, in part due to her
commitment and progress toward completing the degree. She also
used education as a trigger in her technical training, which provided
the initial impetus for movement into office systems. Karen continues
to serve as Sarah’s mentor, pointing out opportunities and giving
advice. Even during this stagnant period, she maintained contact with
Karen to remain motivated and to find out about possible opportunities.
Sarah’s case highlights the role of projects and of mentors in creating
trigger points for change. At the same time, these triggers would have
been ineffective without the long periods of very slow but patient competency building, which set the stage for her to take advantage of a
confluence of opportunities. As such, the internal dynamics of careers
can take on a life of their own, as competencies cumulate and emerge
as structural opportunities that bring the individual into new realms of
Emergent career opportunities represent situations for learning and
growth for both the individual and the company. From the individual
perspective, each project assignment allowed Sarah to expand her
skill base by pursuing tasks and facing situations she had not previously faced. From the organizational perspective, Sarah provided
needed resources for the achievement of specific organizational goals.
In this way the development of career competencies has motivating
benefits for the individuals involved and for the larger organizational
system. As such, the continuous development and learning of members is a critical component of sustaining competitive advantage, and
is a hallmark of dynamic careers systems thinking (Hall and associates, 1986; Morrison and Hock, 1986; Lichtenstein and Mendenhall,
1999; Boyatzis and Kolb, 2000) For boundaryless careers, the actual
outcomes of projects may be less important than development of competencies of individuals working on them. Thus, learning organizations
encourage risk-taking and new projects as a means of pushing individual and organization competencies (Bowen, Clark, Holloway and
Wheelwright, 1994). As these project experiences contribute nonlinearly to individual career development, so do the contributions of individuals contribute nonlinearly project and organizational success.
These concepts are illustrated in the following entrepreneurial case
MICHAEL’S ENTREPRENEURIAL CAREER
Michael’s diverse and entrepreneurial career started after receiving his
college degree—a B. A. in History. Although he graduated from a prestigious liberal arts college, in his words he « never set out to do anything. » At the same time, he recognized two skills that he knew he
could be confident in: he was an excellent salesman, with an ability to
sell just about anything to anyone. Michael was also the most persistent and diligent person he knew. He took a job selling cars in a large
local dealership, making what was then (particularly to a college graduate) a significant amount of money.
His parents, however, along with his mentors and other family members, decried his new job, arguing that being an automobile salesman
did not befit his Phi Beta Kappa education. They insisted that he use
his degree in a more “productive” way. After several months of arguments, he agreed to take a job at “Region National Bank, ” where his
starting salary was half of his previous income. He worked for four
years there and at two other evening jobs just to stay ahead of his
expenses. By 29 years old he had lost his job, was virtually broke and
had very little that looked positive in his future.
Fortunately, he did secure a position at “BigCo Business Credit” as a
lending officer in the Machinery and Equipment sector. Living paycheck to paycheck, he felt he had begun to develop an interesting
career. After some time he was asked to develop new “lending specialties” at BigCo—lines of credit for industries in which there was no
history of business financing. In other words, he was given stacks of
reject loan files, and told to « do something with these files! » The stack
of rejects represented businesses that no one was willing to lend to,
and Michael was giving the task of creating business credit programs
for these industries.
Michael was innovative and persistent, and pioneered capitalization
programs for numerous emerging or misunderstood industries including jet aircraft, investment-grade diamonds, fine arts, and the exploration of in-ground oil and gas. In each case, he had to learn everything about the industry and develop his own acumen for convincing
large financial institutions to finance these areas. His persistence and
sales acumen paid off, and he was successful in initiating and institutionalizing the practice of business credit financing for companies in
these areas of commerce.
One of the areas he became involved in was the communications
industry, creating a specialty in the financing of radio, television, cable,
and satellite businesses. Of all the industries he had worked with, this
one was the most interesting and dynamic, and he threw himself into
it. By the late 1970s BigCo Business Credit was the only institutional
lender to private communications companies in America, initiating over
$350 million in loans annually.
In 1981 BigCo was sold to Barclays’ Bank, and Michael found himself
part of a slow and massive international bureaucracy which did not fit
his style. A year later he quit, having only two real assets to his name—
a $50,000 nest egg, and a reputation for being the only source of
financing in the radio and television broadcasting industries. He made
a spontaneous decision to set up a company helping others buy and
finance radio and TV stations. He knew how to structure financing
deals, and he figured that by charging a fee for work he had been
doing for more than half a decade, he could lead his own
Michael chose a partner with whom he had worked in the past, and
they got started using only their own meager capital. With virtually no
excess cash they secured the temporary use of a large storage closet
in a friend’s office building, turned it into an office by setting up two
phone lines on cheap metal desks, and put themselves in high gear.
Their first deal was a small television station in Vermont, which they
agreed to purchase for $4,000,000. After agreeing to the purchase—
without knowing where the capital would come from—Michael and his
partner got on the telephone day and night, seeking financing for the
turn-around station. They pulled the deal together and bought and
managed the station, which flourished under their leadership. Four
years later they sold the TV station for nearly $25,000,000.
This initial deal drew the attention of a large-scale investor, who wanted to develop an entire consortium of stations. The investor wanted to
meet Michael and his partner in their office, which the investor
assumed would be a well-appointed corporate headquarters in a fancy
professional building. Michael and his partner quickly said yes to the
visit, and, thinking on their feet, rented a fancy conference room in an
across-the-hall law firm. Acting as if the conference room was their
own, they brought in a delicious meal and a meaty proposal, and won
the bid for the work. Within a week of the financing deadline Michael
and his partner had raised over $100,000,000 and tied up what would
be the initial linchpin deal in their entrepreneurial business.
Setting up this high-profile consortium was the initial catalyst to their
long-term success. From 1982 to 1995 the small company generated
an annual average of $350 million in loan deals, creating the largest
private investment-banking firm for the communications industry in
America. In addition to financing deals worth over $2.25 billion,
Michael and his partner purchased and managed their own group of
stations which grew to 20 radio and 10 television companies throughout the United States.