Career counseling and development may depend as much on random events as scheduled ones, according to a theory that’s gaining ground.

Chaos may not be the first word you associate with career planning.

However, according to Jim Bright, managing partner of career development service provider Bright and Associates, who has a PhD in psychology and more than 24 years of experience in career development and psychology research, unexpected changes need to be given as much consideration as carefully laid plans.

Bright’s 2011 book, “The Chaos Theory of Careers: A New Perspective on Working in the Twenty-First Century,” written with Robert Pryor, who has taught at Sydney University, Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales, outlines their unique career development approach—which includes unanticipated events that can spark change.

Bright’s theory doesn’t stress causing chaos; quite the contrary. Instead, he suggests, employers (and employees) need to be ready to respond to it—as one of Bright’s blog posts says, “continually planning … revising, reviving, resting, restoring, rearranging, rescheduling, timing, abandoning, copying, conceiving.”

The chaos career theory centers on the reality that, even with the best-laid plans, variable factors can necessitate employees’ projects, responsibilities and even entire career paths to undergo potentially frequent adjustment.

(Bright also covers the subject in a 10-hour chaos theory course, designed to help business professionals coach individuals and groups who are in periods of change and transition. The webinar series sessions cover topics such as finding fractal patterns in clients’ actions, based on what’s going on in their lives, and encouraging spontaneous, yet authentic action as a result.)

After all, things do happen. Career interests change; people get married, move, have children, go back to school, get tired of the industry they’re working in, want new challenges—all of which can require adjustments ranging from minor scheduling tweaks to a total revamp of an individual’s intended job path.

Even small changes, as “The Incidental Career: Chaos Theory and Career Development,” a paper by Victor C. Massaglia, M.A., University of Minnesota Law School, and Janine Papenfuss, M.S., Concordia University – St. Paul, notes, can result in a vastly different outcome for the individual involved.

Employees can be left to manage the process on their own; or, if employers hope to retain in-transition workers, they can try to identify common patterns that may emerge out of such unplanned life events. Learning to anticipate and adjust to such changes by watching for future incidences with other employees can help companies guide workers into more fulfilling positions.

In a recent interview at Vanderbilt University, Bright said that matching employees to tasks by interest categories or personality traits doesn’t necessarily equal success; recent research has indicated that employees doing jobs that match their interests aren’t necessarily more satisfied or successful than people doing the same job without an interest correlation.

It’s not that interest level doesn’t play any part, according to Bright; but other factors can help increase job satisfaction, including networking to better find out and understand employment situations, trends and opportunities that an employee might potentially desire (or not want).

For students, Bright says, that might mean workshops and coaching sessions, helping to broaden their scope of career options. For other workers, approaching the job search process in a different way could mean creating multiple resumes to tell different stories about the skills a person possesses—and positions that individual may enjoy.

For the system to successfully work, both employer and employee would likely need to be involved. That would require a fairly high level of open communication on both sides—but also, a potentially large retention and job satisfaction pay-off.

Curious about how career chaos theory might play out at your organization? Find out more about how it works in this interview with Bright at Vanderbilt University.

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