A butterfly career is a direct response to the uncertainty of the modern world of work. Instead of workers having a fixed job remit, a butterfly career is more adaptable, enabling employees to take on work sprints and develop new skills without having to rigidly change from one role to another. As Pryor explains, by accumulating a “body of capabilities, connections, and skills through these career experiences,” not only are employees more satisfied, they also broaden their options to mitigate the risks of periods of rapid change.
In discussing how such a work model would change career progression, Pryor and Boudreau draw a comparison with another medium: video games. Looking at modern games as an example, where there is often no fixed-win state, Boudreau suggests employees will move fluidly between different positions acquiring skills and thereby “leveling up.” Instead of “winning” by getting to the next obligatory rung on the ladder, employees will accumulate fulfilling microexperiences, maintaining optionality in the face of uncertainty.
Moving Toward a New Work Operating System
What’s clear is that for butterfly careers to flourish, the way we work and how we define work relationships would have to change at a fundamental level. That’s why Boudreau calls for a “new work operating system.”
As Boudreau explains, in the standard working system, new experiences are limited by the availability of new jobs. Employees working in set roles are restricted to the capabilities they brought with them. “Almost all work systems are built assuming jobs will be the unit of analysis, jobholders will be how we count workers, and proof points will be qualifications and very specific degrees.” The question is, how can businesses create career paths with smaller incremental steps forward—or, in fact, steps in a totally different direction?
Instead of viewing workers in terms of their job role, businesses should begin to think of their employees in terms of capabilities. Rather than strictly defined roles, work can be broken down into projects, tasks, or gigs, creating a network of “free-floating pieces.” With the implementation of talent marketplaces, employees can more easily highlight their own skills and interests and find new opportunities. “It might be a stint with a certain group. It might be a learning experience. It might be a class,” says Boudreau.
With one major upheaval after another, the world of work has become increasingly unstable. Moving forward, the businesses that succeed won’t be those that try to predict those changes and plan policy accordingly. Instead, it will be the businesses that build adaptability into their work operating system, enabling their employees to gain new experiences more organically and creating a culture with learning and development at its core.