An acronym, VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) is used to describe the dimensions of an environment where much is unknown. An environment where so much is undefined that exactly how MUCH is unknown is also UNKNOWN. The acronym was first coined in 1987 by the late leadership scholar Warren Bennis.
The different dimensions of VUCA are all factors that one might use to describe how we are operating today in the post-COVID environment.
Volatility – We live in a world of constant change. Very little is predictable. What was very important yesterday may not be important tomorrow. Have you tried to travel internationally lately? And if you are able, new processes and requirements must be met that didn’t exist even six months ago.
Uncertainty – Looking forward, it is impossible to be absolutely assured of virtually any conditions. For example, many organizations are asking themselves “what will be the cost and availability of raw materials be next year?” Who knows for sure? For many, it will depend on the impact of labor shortages, higher fuel costs, increasing environmental standards, ability to access foreign suppliers, etc. All of which are not known with certainty.
Complexity – “There are a lot of moving parts” is a quip that I use to describe a situation with lots of interconnected dependencies – some known and some unknown. An example, the sudden necessity of remote working accelerated the demand and adoption of video conferencing as a standard communication platform. One of my clients operating outside of North America indicated that their building could not support the level of video conferencing that would be expected if everyone returned to the office. Internet bandwidth is a new barrier to bringing people back to the office!
Ambiguity – In most situations that people face today, there do not exist clear-cut, absolute correct approaches or answers. The “gray zone” is where most of us are operating. Every decision made these days seems to have unintended, or at best, known but less-than-desirable consequences. Think about being in the hospitality industry for the past 18 months? Open or don’t open, require masks or not, ask or not.
The reality is though, that we are living in a VUCA world. In spite of everything outlined above, businesses must operate, leaders must manage those businesses and continue to lead their employees in pursuit of success.
How is a leader to accomplish this? May I suggest combating the VUCA environment described above with a Leadership VUCA (credit to Robert Johansen, 2007).
Dimensions of Leadership VUCA:
Vision – Leaders need to determine and then communicate a targeted end result that everyone can work towards. A beacon, a lighthouse, a compass that can help employees prioritize actions, make decisions and marshal resources.
Understanding – While much will remain unknown, as information becomes known, document it, share it and determine its interconnectedness with other unknowns. Leverage that limited understanding within teams to plan next moves or prepare contingencies.
Clarity – Keep objectives simple, don’t try to accomplish everything at once. Focus on the big picture. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Adaptability – Be prepared to change course in your methods as conditions change or new information is gathered. As you are building a plan, think about contingency plans and alternate courses of action that can be invoked if needed. Experiment. Design-thinking principles talk about “failing fast”, but also fail small. Be flexible and try not to commit yourself or your resources to plans that cannot be altered.
It looks like environmental VUCA will be sticking around for a while. To allow us to succeed and offer professional fulfillment, the best way to address it is to develop Leadership VUCA within our respective organizations.
Jon Naphin is a Vice President with TalentQuest. As a client advocate, he takes a lead role in directing TalentQuest’s activities within select client relationships. Prior to joining TalentQuest, Jon held management positions at General Motors, ADP and Peachtree Software. He is the founding Chairman of LaAmistad, an Atlanta-based non-profit providing tutoring and life-skills training to Latino students and their families. Jon is a native of Niagara Falls, Ontario, earned his Bachelor’s degree from Kettering University in Flint Michigan and his MBA from the Harvard Business School.