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4 Ways to Lead in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous (VUCA) World
Considering the last two years of COVID, George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement, the capitol riots, and now the war in Ukraine — it’s clear that we live in a complex, and frequently uncertain world.
In thought leadership, coaching, management, or business, the acronym ‘VUCA’ is used to describe the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous landscape just about all of us are facing these days.
Though the term began in a military context, with its main use case in foreign policy, it has become relevant for leaders and teams of all types as we work on our readiness and ability to perform in highly variable and often unpredictable circumstances.
As Volodymyr Zelensky has proven in the last week, leading through a turnaround or in crisis is unquestionably one way a great leader or manager can prove their ability.
Think for just a second how few people predicted this war would really come about, or have been in a position to react to it. Or when it came to the pandemic, how many predicted we’d be stuck largely inside for 24 months?
That’s to say nothing of how that event would come to change our work models in favor of remote and hybrid work.
In this new world of work, change is now the rule, rather than the exception. Our workways are subject to change and disruption. And it’s those who understand this who will become the leaders we need. To take a phrase from Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We must be ready to apply that logic.
What We Mean When We Talk about VUCA
Let’s first break down what we’re talking about when we discuss VUCA. Then we’ll be able to dive into what reacting and adapting successfully to a VUCA world needs to look like in our organizations and our workways.
V – Volatility represents a scenario fraught with unexpected events of unclear duration. (If that doesn’t describe both the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I don’t know what does.)
U – Uncertainty represents a lack of information — namely, a circumstance where lack of good information makes good decision-making difficult.
In the context of the Iraq War, Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “There are known knowns […] there are known unknowns, which is to say we know there are some things we do not know, and there are unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” He was talking about working within uncertain parameters.
C – Complexity refers to interconnected, multiple variables and moving parts in a given scenario.
A – Ambiguity means we don’t understand the whole picture, and there’s no known, familiar precedent.
Each of these represents one facet of the constant change we see in our life and work today. When we come to understand that crisis in modern life is the rule, not the exception, we can more easily prepare ourselves, and our teams, for its inevitability.
Sunnie Giles, an expert on leadership in VUCA contexts, argued in Forbes that most organizations are simply not prepared for leading in such scenarios. She explains how volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity work within the modern world, using the example of the Arab Spring. It began with the frustration of a single Tunisian fruit vendor, harassed by police to pay seven dollars for a seller’s permit.
He didn’t have the cash they demanded, and in despair, he set himself on fire. Onlookers filmed, and the flames spread across social media, leading to riots, an uprising, and the flight of the Tunisian president. From that singular, horrific moment, came a series of domino effects: the war in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe, and ultimately Brexit, which led to market destabilization worldwide.
This is what we mean by complexity and uncertainty: scenarios in which one event or act may have unexpected repercussions outside its original scope. Giles’s example is political, but it impacted businesses. The same is true of the pandemic, or of many other incidents.
If we are committed to readiness and preparing ourselves and our teams for the inevitability of change in the modern world — here are four steps we can take to be more unshakable:
Democratize decision-making and flatten hierarchies. Your team needs to be in a position to rely on themselves when scenarios change on the ground and have the training and preparedness to know how to make those decisions. That means getting rid of bottlenecks and friction where possible, in all workflows.
Aim for total transparency whenever possible. Transparency here is all about our workflows and processes — but it’s also about strategic decision-making. Behaving as openly as possible about the most crucial decisions empowers the whole team to be ready as shifts arise, and pivots inevitably happen. That means key information should be available, and folks need to be able to know where to find it. Training and communication tools like Confluence and Slack — at least the way we use it, with a dedicated #strategy channel and regular check-ins and check-outs from the founders with updates about our thought processes — keep everyone up to date, and ready to shift their actions when priorities do.
Communicate. Then communicate again. Feel free to overdo it, but just don’t underdo it. In fact, there (almost) can’t be too much communication. Don’t assume that if you say something once in a meeting, everyone heard and understood it. There's a "rule of seven" in marketing circles that says a company or brand must communicate an idea at least seven times to a customer before the message sticks. The same is true for internal communications. When in doubt, say it again.
Keep an eye towards rapid evaluation as the circumstances unfold. The quicker you can try an approach and realize whether or not it’s effective for your goals, the sooner you can know whether to keep going or discard it. That helps your efforts but also the company as a whole to remain relevant, and not get caught in sinkholes. In remote/ hybrid work environments it’s only more true that the plan we set out needs rapid evaluation. You need to gather your data and evaluate honestly where plans are at. If a plan went off the rails, the five whys technique can be useful for identifying the cause.
When we think and talk about VUCA, we might perceive these dynamics of the modern world as only negative or threatening. But change is a constant, and some change can be good.
I often repeat to clients that we ought to leave room for our plans to change unexpectedly, but not for the worse. At times things can change in a meteorically better direction than we originally predicted. A piece of content, or a product that goes viral is another example of positive volatility.
No matter your profession or business, you will have to confront realities outside your control — that exist in the external financial, political, social, and cultural landscape. That’s how countries and markets work, and how they affect our currencies, expenses, opportunities, and investments. We are rarely operating in a bubble.
Instead, you have to learn to lead your business with one eye on the outer world, and the other focused inward, preparing your organization to manage whatever seismic shake-ups might occur.
We are accountable to the folks who make up our business, and to our customers out in the world. That means that we have to maintain and nurture these principles of flattened hierarchies, transparency, and ample communication. These are just a few of the workways that will allow our teams and organizations to respond to and thrive in a VUCA world.
Team Habits, my forthcoming book, deals directly with how better team habits like diversity, inclusion, communication, and collaboration improve team cohesion, effectiveness, and outcomes (even in the midst of VUCA-level changes). It’s set to be published in 2023, with Hachette Go.