VUCA – don’t let a crazy world paralyse your leadership

VUCA is an acronym used to describe or reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. The notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world which resulted from the end of the Cold War.

Since then it’s become a shorthand for ‘hey it’s crazy out there’, which it is! But it’s not a level of crazy that prevents you from acting as an effective leader – it just requires you to do it differently.

So what does it mean and how do you respond? Let’s break it down:

Volatility – you don’t know when things are going to happen.

  • Keep your organisation flexible and agile, ensure you get a good balance between efficiency and creativity, between consistency and customer-focus.
  • Build a high trust culture so whoever needs to act, can and will – confident that they will be supported and without the need to ask permission. Asking for permission takes time you may not have.
  • Put in place good risk management practices, so you know which risks are the big ones, what you will do when they happen and what the early warning signs are so you act in time – before things start going wrong.

Uncertainty – you don’t know what’s going to happen.

  • Create more certainty. The first way to do this is to think really deeply about your organisation and its purpose; its ‘why’. If people know your why, then they will be able to make the decisions you would when you aren’t there.
  • Co-create, with the people who really matter, a compelling vision of where you want to get to. Now people know why they do what they do and where you are all trying to get to. This allows for experimentation – a critical technique for leading in uncertainty. By experimenting they will discover the What and How.
  • Create the future you want. Don’t be tempted to create detailed plans when you don’t yet know what you’re planning for. Equally you can’t afford to wait for it to happen. So as well as experimenting, seek to influence your environment so the future you want is the one that happens.

Complexity – you can’t see the linkages or causality in the data.

  • Use ‘systems thinking’ or drawing cause-and-effect diagrams or rich pictures. Using these types of techniques can often reveal what’s happening and helps us to see linkages; even if we don’t yet know how to control them.
  • Focus on controlling the controllables and don’t worry about the other stuff. Just be careful you don’t limit your thinking about what you can and can’t influence. It’s often more than you think if you put your mind to it.
  • Listen hard, and we mean really hard, to a wide range of people. Don’t just listen to the people you normally talk to – seek out different people, especially those who are ‘closer’ to the complexity. Listen to what they are not saying, as well as what the feelings and beliefs behind what they are saying, and look for the stories that are starting to emerge. It’s frequently through these repeated stories that the emerging future reveals itself.

Ambiguity – the data isn’t making sense.

  • Check what assumptions you are making, especially the ones you don’t realise you are making. This latter is tricky – so get some help from someone who doesn’t see things the way you do.
  • Look at your decision-making processes. Obviously you need to make sure they are flexible and agile as we said earlier, but also look at exactly how you make decisions. We often rely on false assumptions or use flawed or biased decision methods. Take the time to understand what your biases are – we all have them – so you can be aware of what their potential impact may be.
  • Try scenario planning. It’s a great way to stretch your imagination and challenge the way you look at the world. And allowing you to see things differently may well be just what you need at the moment.
  • Remember to ask the right people the right questions. It sounds obvious, but really notice who you are talking to. As we’ve said earlier – ask people you don’t usually. And ask different questions that really go to the heart of what you believe is happening. Again, if you find yourself asking everyone the same questions – try a different one.

Leading in a VUCA world – it isn’t easy, but it’s certainly doable.