We've all experienced a VUCA world firsthand in this past year with the devastating pandemic, increased environmental impacts and growing social unrest. The world has shifted from generally more linear, stable and predictable to a VUCA environment. Most leaders’ responses are outdated, resulting in unsatisfying and often failed results. In this blog, we'll explore what VUCA means, the impacts it has on senior leaders and what it takes for you to navigate VUCA successfully.
Imagine you're enjoying a cup of coffee on a quiet Sunday morning, reading the newspaper. The door swings open, someone rushes in, grabs the paper from your hands, and inserts it into a whirring blender they brought with them. You stare in stunned disbelief as they dump a mound of shredded newsprint onto your lap.
"Sorry for this intrusion, but it has come to our attention that you ordered the VUCA edition, and you were reading the standard edition." They grab the blender and quietly leave.
You wonder if you always blink this much.
The ding of a text message interrupts your shock. It's your boss. "Make sure you read the feature section on the strategic future of our industry in today's paper."
Such is VUCA.
We've all experienced a VUCA world firsthand this past year, far beyond this simple analogy. With the devastating pandemic, increased environmental impacts and growing social unrest, our world has shifted from generally more linear, stable and predictable to a VUCA environment. Most leaders' responses are outdated, resulting in unsatisfying and often failed results. In this blog, we'll explore what VUCA means, the impacts it has on senior leaders and what it takes for you to navigate VUCA successfully.
What is VUCA?
VUCA is an acronym originally coined by the U.S Army War College:
V = Volatility. The rapidly emerging nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
U = Uncertainty. Acute lack of predictability, elevated prospects for surprise, combined with low awareness and high misunderstanding of issues and events.
C = Complexity. The multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, with no apparent cause-and-effect chain resulting in generalized confusion.
A = Ambiguity. The haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.
How Was the Term VUCA Adopted?
VUCA as a term emerged after the Cold War when geopolitics shifted dramatically. The timing is not a surprise. It reflects the predicted acceleration in the rate of technology change and related social and cultural impacts. Leaders subsequently adopted VUCA to describe the chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing organizational environment that has become our "new normal."
Why Have Senior Leaders Failed When Responding to VUCA?
Imagine a senior leader sitting there with the shredded newspaper, trying to make sense of their world. In the next minute, they must understand their industry's strategic future when the available information is a jumble of bits.
The natural response is to do what has worked in the past: try to problem-solve our way out of it. Break things down, simplify, make decisions incrementally while waiting for sufficient data, all to try to maintain a sense of control (while feeling foreboding panic). This understandable approach inevitably produces failure, as breaking things down severs crucial inter-dependencies and does not solve volatility. Underlying these behaviors is the leader's mindset that attempts to tame chaotic external conditions into comfortable, predictable order.
What it Takes to Navigate VUCA
VUCA cannot be tamed. You can only navigate it. And the only way you can achieve this is by going upstream. Way, way upstream – not upstream of the forces at play in the external world, but to the forces at play inside your mind. Therefore, the most important take-away about VUCA is this: navigating it requires a significant OS upgrade. That is, the operating system of your mind.
The vast majority of large organizations are still based on mindsets that pre-date VUCA. Their values, structures, and cultures are rooted in a perspective that traditional engineers and lawyers successfully looked through for centuries. This worked when the prevailing business environment was more stable and predictable. However, research now shows this approach's insufficiency. According to Harvard Professor Robert Kegan, 80% of leaders are in over their heads. Meaning their mindsets are below the development threshold required to navigate VUCA. Four out of five leaders are attempting (in vain) to transform their organizations by taming VUCA.
Navigating VUCA means seeing and working with one's mindset in action as the most fundamental aspect of visioning, strategy, and execution.
Navigating a VUCA world means:
- Embracing the vulnerability of “not knowing” as a required phase before patterns emerge. Voltaire famously said, "Doubt is not a very pleasant status, but certainty is a ridiculous one"
- Reliably and powerfully cutting through the noise of oceans of information and focusing on the clear and relevant signals
- Staying calm and centered amid hurricanes of activity and demands on one's time, and see a path to breakthrough
- Relating to others using open communication: truth-telling and self-disclosure; listening to be influenced, achieving breakthrough together
- Leading co-creatively and realizing that command-and-control fits the "taming" view, not the required "navigation" approach
- Connecting previously random dots of information into coherent patterns, in increasingly meta views that enable a BIG WIN where whole systems benefit
How to Lead in a VUCA World
Leading and solving complex challenges in a VUCA world requires a mindset upgrade. This means busting through existing conventional paradigms to expand your perspective to see and include more of the dynamics at play. With a bigger mind, you can take on bigger challenges with new insights, innovations and solutions.