Organizations used to develop five and ten year strategic plans. Some actually followed them.
It took over thirty years for the idea of using radio waves to detect metallic objects (first theorized in 1904) to become a usable form of radar.
In 1937, Bulgarian physicist Georgi Nadjakov discovered the photoelectric effect. Within one year, Chester Carlson applied to patent the process later known as “photocopying;” but it took another 11 years for Xerox to introduce its first copier.
Can you even imagine a world that forgiving? Can you imagine a work environment that offered you the luxury of time?
- Time to think things through
- Time to follow the research wherever it may lead, regardless of its commercial potential
- Time to perfect the product before launch
- Time to really get to know your team before being thrown in at the deep end with them
Unless your organization is a geographically remote monastery, chances are you can’t.
That’s because we’re living in an increasingly VUCA world, and it’s not likely to slow down anytime soon.
VUCA stands for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. As an acronym, it reflects the reality we live in today— that everything is a moving target.
As an approach to leadership and strategy development, it appeared in the 1990s. The concept of VUCA emerged via the military (as did the practical applications of radar). A more detailed description of each of these four parameters that currently drive our lives and workplaces illustrates why the traditional approach to leading an organization (or simply doing one’s job) no longer applies.
V = Volatility. The nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
U = Uncertainty. The lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
C = Complexity. The multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues and the chaos and confusion that surround an organization.
A = Ambiguity. The haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.
In less changeable times, you may have identified a key strategic target; lined up your sights to take careful aim; and then released a planned volley of tactics over a reasonable period of engagement in order to attain that objective. Those days are over.
In a VUCA world, those who survive are adept at:
- Agile and strategic decision-making
- Readiness planning
- Risk management
- Fostering required/desired change
- Situational problem solving
Individuals and organizations that understand and embrace the idea of VUCA are more likely to succeed, in spite of unpredictability, because they are better able to anticipate, prepare for, interpret and respond to issues, challenges and opportunities.
Succeeding in a VUCA World
In their article, What VUCA Really Means for You (HBR), Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine provide a visual “guide to identifying, getting ready for, and responding to events in each of the four VUCA categories.”
The grid describes situational characteristics, offers an example and suggests an approach, in each of four quadrants based on the axes: “How much do you know about the situation” and “How well can you predict the results of your actions.”
For another perspective on operating successfully in a VUCA world, we can draw lessons from a series of blogs written in 2010 and 2011 by the late former US Army Colonel Eric Kail. Colonel Kail offered the following takeaways:
For volatile situations
- Communicate clearly
- Ensure your intent is understood
For uncertain situations
- Get a fresh perspective
- Be flexible
For complex situations
- Develop collaborative leaders
- Stop seeking permanent solutions
For ambiguous situations
- Listen well
- Think divergently
- Set up incremental dividends
We have always faced volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstance has always been a human strength. It is not change and unpredictability that has most of us reeling; it’s the pace of change and sheer scope of the unpredictability. The only way to respond is by mastering the ability to hit a moving target—and to hit it from a moving platform! Using VUCA as a framework to guide leadership and team development can help.
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Harvard Business Review. A Framework for Understanding VUCA https://hbr.org/2014/09/a-framework-for-understanding-vuca
David Slocum. Six Creative Leadership Lessons From The Military In An Era of VUCA And COIN http://www.forbes.com/sites/berlinschoolofcreativeleadership/2013/10/08/six-creative-leadership-lessons-from-the-military-in-an-era-of-vuca-and-coin/
Paul Kinsinger. Adaptive Leadership for the VUCA World: A Tale of Two Managers. http://www.thunderbird.edu/article/adaptive-leadership-vuca-world-tale-two-managers
 Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volatility,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity