We’re living in a VUCA world and so what?

By Puk Falkenberg, 9. September 2019

Maybe you’ve heard the expression before; ‘we’re living in a VUCA world’. But what does VUCA actually mean, and why are we using acronyms to describe the world we live in? A question you might ask yourself is how living in a VUCA world will affect your role as a leader or how you should use VUCA to help you navigate?

VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

Each of the four describes a way of looking at the world, and to many it gives them a language and a way to talk about what’s happening around them. To some VUCA is a useless word, and to others it’s a concept and a language to speak about current challenges.

Let’s dive into the history before breaking down the individual meaning of the words in VUCA and try to answer how VUCA affects your leadership.

A brief lesson on history – and some criticism

According to Wikipedia, VUCA is “drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus – to describe or to reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. […] It has subsequently taken root in emerging ideas in strategic leadership that apply in a wide range of organizations, from for-profit corporations”.

The term VUCA was first used in 1987, and it was coined by the U.S Army War College in the immediate post-Cold War time. It was an attempt to understand what was happening in the world, and how to navigate the times post-war.

VUCA has, according to a podcast by the Army War College, been used and overused to describe anything not simple on strategic level. In the podcast, the hosts also argue that the term doesn’t accurately describe the U.S. in the 1990s, and ask if it even was useful then?

One of the guests in the podcast says: “…to treat our period of time like it’s something special seems off, compared to what we have been through before”. He continues his argument by saying that he thinks, when you invoke the term VUCA, you indirectly say that you’re the star of the universe, being unique, and going through the hardest times of all times.

Maybe this sounds a bit too much in your ears, or maybe you agree. Nevertheless, to be able to figure out whether or not VUCA is useful now – and in the context of Future of Work – we should look at the impact of the word.

When we label something, we divide the waters

Putting a label on something and creating a term or concept often divides the waters which many doesn’t see the need of or understand the use of. Maybe you’re in a different context, situation or even experiencing the opposite? The guests in the above-mentioned podcast heavily agree on VUCA being overused and not totally applicable. Also, they discuss whether or not we’re actually in a VUCA world.

If we look at VUCA in a more positive light, it replaces a term and concept about something we’ve a hard time understanding. It helps us create a feeling of certainty, and a feeling of “everything will be alright, even though it’s hard right now”. VUCA is not just a new spade with which you shovel your uncertainties back under the carpet. You use VUCA as a conceptual framework that’s designed to let you think about challenges, frame them intelligently, and establish a reasoned and appropriate response.

To truly understand the meaning of ‘a VUCA world’ we need to look at each element individually. Each word in VUCA offers different perspectives on a highly complex – VUCA – world.

Understanding: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity

Volatility

The world isn’t fixed; we can’t predict the future, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and there’s definitely not a crystal-clear path for any of us. We’re in an evolving situation with change happening faster and often. We are dealing with a massive rate of change. This is what volatility refers to; change happening often and fast.

Uncertainty

Again, this refers to the unpredictable nature of what could happen in the future. We can’t get perfect information; we have to navigate not knowing the whole truth of how our newest strategy is actually going to perform. We can collect a lot of data to show how things went, and what went well, and by then we’ll be able to try and analyze our behavior and predict trends. But basically, we don’t know.

Complexity

It’s not all uncertain and volatile. Sometimes, you’ll have known elements, but it’s complex to navigate or to turn into a simple strategy or approach. The thing is that change often have a multipored effect. If you change one thing, you may affect a whole lot of other things. If you reorganize your organization, you’ll affect your culture, leadership and how you might drive innovation. If you change how you drive innovation, you may affect your direction, purpose and culture. It’s all interconnected – making it all complex.

Ambiguity

Often, something has more than one possible meaning, thereby it can cause confusion. This is what ambiguity is about. We may be able to see things happening in the environment, but not know what it means. We may see effects, but not understand them. This, emphasis the ability to be open to more than one interpretation, mastering  white space as well as having a constant rhythm with 14 days sprint and many iterationsespecially when we speak about modern people leadership.

How does VUCA affect your leadership – and how can you use VUCA?

Firstly, it’s important for you to understand your role as manager in a VUCA world. Four areas come to mind: 1) coach and mentor, 2) entrepreneur, 3) master of white space, and 4) gardener of the ecosystem. All four are vital keys to navigate in a VUCA world, and as a leader you must learn your strengths in each of these four roles.

The four areas each contributes to cover elements of VUCA, and help you navigate in a constantly changing world.

  1. Coach and mentor: If your organization experience a lot of fast change often, and it’s complex and hard to understand, people will get nervous. It’s your role as leader to create psychological safety for your team, and coach and mentor them through.
  2. Entrepreneur: This can be complex and hard to simplify. There can be a high uncertainty about predicting future strategic wins as well as trying to understand the ambiguity and how to evolve. Answering the question of why your organization exist or making impact stories would help you make a direction in your strategic work in a VUCA world.
  3. Master of white space: Some people have the ability to actually spot and observe things happening around them that no one els spot. And, they are able to do something about them, driving changes. White Space Mastery is a great example of the opposite of ambiguity. As a master of white space, you don’t necessarily know what to do in the beginning, but you’ll experiment, ask around and try out new ways of working until it’s resolved.
  4. Gardener of the ecosystem: If you want to succeed leading through volatile times with lots of uncertainty, you can’t do it alone. It’s necessary for your leadership team to work together, creating engagement, dialogue and open up expertise horizontally in the organization. To master that, you must be a gardener of your own ecosystem leading horizontal, such that the dynamics of strengths-based leadership team is nurtured.

Do your team have all four roles present? We’ve never seen one leader having 100% in all four, but we’ve seen management groups having 100% collectively. Therefore, it’s important to do this together

I recommend you start by taking the four roles and collectively in your leadership team map which roles you are able to fill and facilitate. Are you covering all four roles and are all four roles equally important in each area of your organization?

In short: VUCA will affect your role as a leader, and you must learn how to navigate. Use the four roles of a manager to map you own strengths as well as in your management group. Use the mapping to be aware of how you cover all four roles and help each other navigate in a VUCA world with all four roles present.

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