I dropped the VUCA acronym a week or two ago while sharing my ideas on the Change Management Review Podcast, and it seemed to strike a nerve with quite a few people. Additionally, I spent a fair chunk of time on the topic while giving a presentation on change trends in the Twin Cities recently, and given the response by that crowd, I wanted to do a follow up here to share my two cents.

VUCA is an acronym used to describe or reflect the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations (or, as The Harvard Business Review paraphrases, “It’s crazy out there!”). In other words, Volatility points to the speed and turbulence of change, Uncertainty means that outcomes - even from familiar actions - are less predictable, Complexity indicates the vastness of interdependencies in globally connected economies and societies, and Ambiguity refers to the multitude of options and potential outcomes resulting from them. Ultimately, it means that there are no simple binary choices, consequences are unpredictable, and you can’t predict the future based on past results (sounds like the 2016 election, no?).

First used by the military in strategic planning, the term went mainstream when businesses caught on to the idea in the ‘90’s. Now it has been appropriated by neuroscience crowd, and that’s really good news from a change management point of view, especially to help leaders and individuals understand:

  • How behavior originates in the brain (and how to hack those behaviors)
  • That change (and prolonged stress) drives a significant impact on individuals. Ultimately, this impact compounds when scaled to teams, business units, and enterprises.
  • The immediate need to increase our resiliency in order to live in a VUCA world

It may be cliched to say, but the pace of change continues to accelerate, and I see many people simply stop trying to keep up. Resistance to change within organizations has changed as well. I now look back fondly on the days when change resistance was marked by people keeping their heads down with the “this too shall pass” mindset. Now people are overtly hostile to initiatives and sabotaging projects by hoarding information or sowing seeds of discontent. In the podcast, I called this the ‘Game of Thrones’ effect - the fact that you now need to play politics against hostile factions and make risky alliances to overcome them.

I’ve been able to leverage the VUCA concept to teach people that a new mindset is needed to work in today’s business environment and offset some of these resistance behaviors. Here are a few pragmatic tips I’ve observed that help build resilience in leaders and minimizes VUCA chaos:

  1. Learn to live outside your comfort zone. Some experts state that the VUCA world is not a solvable puzzle and that it is an environment we will always be forced to work within. If that is true, try to build new habits and patterns that will allow you to bounce back from setbacks quickly. Seek out different points of view, ask more questions, challenge and debate, and look for new inspiration throughout. 
  2. Be agile. Perhaps this is how you operationalize living outside your comfort zone: find ways to test and fail fast. Because there is no clear path forward in a VUCA world, you must adapt your strategies quickly and with real-time information. Whether you leverage agile with a capital A (as in the official Agile methodology), or lowercase a (as in agile meaning you can move quickly and easily), find ways to divide your work into smaller units, assess success or failure rapidly, and adapt accordingly.
  3. Lead with transparency. People worry about their influence, status, and jobs now more than ever. As a leader, create a stable refuge for your team by detailing clear expectations and governance. If you leverage an agile process internally, define what good looks like, what failure is tolerated, and how to cycle through it. Over-communicate and ensure that feedback loops are in place so that there is good engagement, and you can tell when stress starts to build.

In my opinion, how individuals, teams, or companies respond to a VUCA world is perhaps the most critical skill set to cultivate and may be the most important value proposition in the marketplace. CHANGEGUILD seeks to help individuals and organizations increase their resiliency to combat the chaos VUCA creates and has more strategies and tactics to share. Look for more ideas and content in this blog and upcoming podcasts, or through our consulting services.