WE ARE ALWAYS SOMEWHAT AMUSED by the business periodicals and the themes for their writings. This year has been about our “unprecedented times,” “the new normal” and “the future of work.” I guess if that’s what you’re thinking about, it’s worth writing about.
Amid all this is a term that’s been resurrected from the bowels of leadership thinking— VUCA. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Intending to be a better descriptor of the world’s environment, VUCA emerged from the U.S. Army around the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution (1992). And if you haven’t yet seen it pop up in those leadership and management journals, you will.
Here’s why you might care. It’s not the first time, but COVID-19 pushed us quickly into damage-control mode, followed rapidly by “where do we go from here?” to now wonder-ing when and if this will ever end. Workforces and organizations are tired and anxious.
Let’s think through the elements of VUCA and identify the leadership necessary.
VOLATILITY: rapid, unpredictable change. Remember mid-March? Now, that was volatile. Driven by 24/7 media, volatility distracts from our strategic focus and impacts us individually according to our level of “affect tolerance” (some respond to change better than others).
Leaders must reorient perspectives. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Great Depression, COVID is another blip in history. Leaders must also create emotional safety. Get out of your offices and engage your folks. They need to see wisdom, experience and calm in their workspaces. So be there.
UNCERTAINTY: doubt driven by imperfect or unknown information. In the face of un-certainty, we often reframe what we see with what we think we should see. Stop! Among other challenges, our thinking about the future also trends in binary terms while, in truth, the future is seldom A or B.
Leaders should acknowledge different circumstances and champion “red teaming” to-ward new solutions. For that binary challenge, think probabilities. When was an outcome truly one thing or another? Opening up the middle offers a range of less alarming outcomes.
COMPLEXITY: difficulty resulting from circumstances and their interdependences. Complexity is driven both by internal factors (organizational growth) and external factors (COVID-19, trade wars, etc.). Responses that challenge our organizations include unreasonable attempts to “process it away” or adopt-ing short-term fixes that threaten long-term organizational aspects, like culture. Leaders, stop rationalizing and enabling complexity.
Not everything “depends.” Dealing with complexity, like other VUCA elements, requires individual development. So, develop—and forego modifying process guides and handbooks.
AMBIGUITY occurs when there’s more than one interpretation to a given set of facts. We tend to pile on the busy work to deal with multiple interpretations. Leaders would do well to consider developing people to solve ambiguous problems, rather than to manage larger projects or teams. Size doesn’t matter—ambiguity does. One approach is to explore Colonel John Boyd’s OODA (observe, orient, decide and act) loop approach and remember that when addressing ambiguity, teams deal with it more effectively than individuals.
Hey, none of this is as straightforward as we’ve shared, but neither is it all rocket science. And, when you see VUCA in that business journal, you’ll now know what they’re talking about. As always, if you’d like some help thinking about this stuff, please give us a call.
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