Succeeding in a VUCA World

by Brian Brittain on December 9, 2014


(you won’t get there by train, you are going to need a sailboat)

VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

VUCA has become reality for most of us. To lead successful and happy lives within that unpredictable, shifting ground, we need to adapt our strategies to this VUCA reality. Ten years ago, during simpler times, when I was asked what is the most important thing a manager could do, I would have said something like ….”Set clear goals and specific actions and accountabilities for achieving those goals.”. That strategy worked in a relatively predictable system and environment. Based on our history and our assessment of current and future conditions, we would make an educated guess about our future, create detailed actions plans and march lock-step toward a planned future state, as if it is the only thing that could happen. There is still some relevancy in goal setting strategies, but we need to radically adapt our stance in the VUCA world. Roger Martin, in his recent HBR blog, “Don’t Let Strategy Become Planning”, touches on this subject. I have heard him say, “I love strategy, but hate strategic planning.”

Today, I would say the most critical competency for organizational success is for management to realize and create the conditions for themselves and their teams to sense, understand and respond to what is going on right now – what is happening right now in their immediate environment, as well as noticing what is going on in each other and themselves personally. We need to be sensitive to the immediate internal and external signals and develop the courage to act nimbly – to respond and adapt to things we might prefer to deny or ignore in our current reality.

A new signal might be represented as a relatively small and seemingly insignificant competitor in your market. Or it could be getting some direct, but honest negative feedback from coworkers. The signal could be your awareness of personal anxiety or anger over the quality of the conversation happening among your team mates or between you and your boss. Perhaps the team is not being honest with each other, or there are too many hidden agendas in those group discussions. This signal might show up as you noticing your inability to listen to one of your team mates because of a lack of trust. In a VUCA environment it is increasingly important to be open to and notice these signals, and then respectfully and courageously acknowledge them with each other, in order to be able to discuss how best to respond and adapt, as a group. The behaviours just described are critical for leaders and management teams to be able to constantly adjust to the opportunities and threats in their ever changing environment. Let me reiterate two important points here. 1) REALLY be present for each other and your surrounding conditions, and 2) converse and collaborate candidly about the items in #1.

Twenty-five years ago, in the field of Organization Development, “visioning” was in vogue. We all talked about the importance of a compelling vision to mobilize an organization. Lots of two day retreats to create “the company vision”. Then along came Robert Fritz’s model of Structural Tension (The Path of Least Resistance) which pointed out the importance of holding the tension between your desired future and your experience of current reality. This seemed more complete than just visioning. Fritz instructed us to have a vision while remaining honest to what you have, and who you are, individually and organizationally, in the here and now. This allows you to hold the tension between the two and close the gap by having the current reality move toward the vision. I remember feeling clever and dramatic, as a facilitator, walking around the conference room with a stretched elastic band between my hands, talking about how to close the gap….”don’t pull back on your vision, but rather resolve the tension (close the gap) by advancing your current situation toward the vision”. Again, set clear goals for the future, and plans for moving people toward that vision. However in the end, I think we all preferred to talk about the future we were heading toward, and gave lip service to current reality. Organizations discourage people from dwelling on the negative, which is exacerbated by the difficulty or inhibition we all have; for telling the truth about what is happening now, especially if it isn’t pretty.

Ironically, we are just as reluctant to talk about the positive elements, for fear of being seen as “soft, or even worse “warm and fuzzy”. Together, we had very little to talk about in terms of the current reality. We thought it best to design a future and lead our way toward it, without much thought to the present reality. VUCA thinking helps us to understand that we are creating all future possibilities in our present actions – we are not acting “from” a future place, but “into” it – what we do and think now, is what affects where we will be later.

The structural/creative elastic band metaphor still applies today, but needs to be radically reframed. What I would say today, as I hold the elastic band in my hands, would be more like,

  • We can’t be crystal clear about our longer term goals and vision….this has to remain a bit vague and fuzzy, as there are just too many unpredictable events coming into our world that we can’t anticipate today. Because of the complexity of today’s VUCA world, our goals will morph or at least recalibrate as we become better informed while working on them. Also we will personally be impacted and changed as we work on our goals and plans together, which may alter what we want to achieve. There are too many moving parts to feel confident about creating and holding onto crisp goals, and linear pathways to get there. These goals and plans will need to be constantly renegotiated and recalibrated, through dialogue, negotiation and realigning with the moving reality of each present moment – not some future moment.
  • I believe that, paying attention to the current reality is now far more important than having a vision for the future (yes, I really said that). The present is immediately observable, and we can interact with it and therefore continuously understand it better, while the future is more and more a fantasy that we have very little ground to talk about, until we actually begin working toward it. It is important to have a general sense of direction for where you want to go, but don’t hammer that stake too deeply or tightly into the ground.
  • We don’t work toward “closing the gap” between current reality and our future, but rather we learn to get better at “understanding the gap”. It never really closes as our future goals are constantly evolving and changing as we adapt along the way.
  • The “work” today, in a VUCA reality, is less about individuals working on their individual plans to approach their individual future goals, and more about informal and formal peer groups talking candidly and attentively to each other, within and across organizational boundaries, about what is going on now, internally and externally, and constantly responding tactically and strategically to these signals, in order to innovate, adapt and make progress.

What I have described here, fundamentally changes the role of leadership. The requirement to be heroic and smarter than anybody else while being front and center communicating vision and direction is no longer as important or effective as it may have been in a more ordered predictable environment. Rather, the role today is more of a leader, who creates the conditions for organizational agility and innovation to occur, through knowing when to step forward and when to step back. By that I mean making it easy for people to talk spontaneously, honestly and thoughtfully to each other with deep respect and active listening, open to changing their views and deciding how to best respond, together, to the signals they see inside and outside. We used to talk about leaders creating alignment. Since organizational members were to be aligned with the leaders’ vision and strategy, the principle of alignment became just another way to control the future and deny the present. Now it is important to create the conditions for sense-making, for recognizing what is emerging in the environments and adjusting to what is emerging, rather than denying what is emerging in service to a goal that might or might not continue to be desirable or possible.

Making business or organizational progress in a VUCA world requires travel by sail, rather than rail. By that I mean it is no longer workable in today’s complex environment, to pick your ultimate destination, lay down the linear track and get on the train and travel from A to B. However, you still need to establish and communicate a general horizon you are heading for over the shifting seas, raise your sails, tack and beat as you meet unpredictable winds and currents that you need to adjust to on an ongoing basis. You must know exactly where you are and be prepared to go off course in order to eventually get to your fuzzy destination, which becomes clearer, if somewhat different, as you approach it. Be prepared for altering course along the way, as you learn new information. Communicate these shifts in conditions, and renegotiate your plans with each other constantly. You will get somewhere from here! If you are constantly alert to present conditions, it is more likely that you can get close to the destination you were heading toward. The route will be oblique, not direct. It will require you all adapting together, to each other, being flexible, and changing course along the way. Progress requires

  • Working collaboratively to
  • Sense, communicate, and innovate to
  • Adapt to VUCA conditions in order to
  • Make ultimate progress toward success (which may well be redefined along the way, if you are open to it!)

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