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Are You Prepared to Handle VUCA?

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As Covid-19 confirmed for us, we live in a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). As a leader, you and your team will face and probably have already faced changes in your work environment, processes, procedures, goals, and expectations related to everything from diversity to safety and from robotics to training.

VUCA refers to the nature, speed, and unpredictability of change; the multitude of forces surrounding change; and the potential for mistakes in judging cause, effect, and risks.

A businessman and Harvard professor, Bill George, argues that VUCA should stand instead of vision, understanding, courage, and adaptability—those qualities needed to deal with an ever-changing, complex world.

Volatility and Vision

A volatile situation is one that changes drastically and frequently, as when several CEOs replace each other in the course of a year. The same strategies that work in dealing with volatile economies, organizational change, or governments, also work with any decision or solution:

  • Fight the fear of failure by envisioning success. Fear is much the stronger emotion. Use SMaRT strategies to confront your fear and harness your optimism.
  • Remember your goals. Once again, vision is critical. When Louis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland asks the Cheshire Cat, “Where should I go?” He answers, “That depends on where you want to end up.” Your goals and your core values help to lead you through volatility.
  • Diversify. Backup plans help you wait until the results are in on your first plan. If you fail, you have something else to try. If you succeed, you have a group of potential actions that might be applicable elsewhere or make that success even better.
  • Choose carefully. Before you up-end an entire team or replace an entire process, make sure that the volatility that results will help rather than harm. Change is stressful. As a leader, you should assess your own contribution to the stress of your team and employ SMaRT techniques to reduce the effects of stress.

TIP: Distinguish between risks that are acceptable and those that are not.

Uncertainty and Understanding

As Edward R. Morrow once said, “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.” For example, if you hear that your team is going to be reporting to a new manager, will resentment and turnover increase and how will you deal with that? The following techniques confront uncertainty and confusion with clarity and understanding:

  • Look for similarities. Your current situation may feel unique, but what about it is similar to situations you have faced before? What did you learn from those previous situations? If the uncertainty involves new or unfamiliar people, look for experiences and ideas you have in common—not for the things that separate and alienate you. Understanding goes a long way to creating bonds.
  • Focus first on facts. The nature of uncertain situations is that they have a lot of “what ifs” attached. Gather your facts and try to stay focused on them and not on complexities that might never happen.
  • Admit that you are uncertain. Ask questions, research further, and rely on more experienced members of your team and experts in the field to increase your understanding. The better you define the situation, the less uncertainty you will experience.

Complexity and Courage

Knowing your own, your teams, and your company’s core values help you to make sense of complexity by highlighting what is important. Research into the effect of complexity on stress in a critical care unit, found that expert nurses reduced their stress by (a) focusing on the patient; developing their own techniques for staying organized; and (c) using team work and delegation. The same strategies will help you as a business leader to deal with complexity:

  • Set boundaries: how do you determine which opportunities or solutions to pursue, what are your priorities, what is your timing, when will you abandon an opportunity or solution, and what effects are you willing to live with? Boundaries take time and thought to set up and ongoing courage to maintain. Harness SMaRT strategies for decision making as well as grit and gumption.
  • Stress order and consistency. Remind your team that you have procedures, strategies, and processes that can be applied to simplify the situation. The time you have spent in getting organized and figuring out your priorities will pay dividends now.
  • Share leadership and delegate. By breaking down a complex situation into parts, you may find that the parts are much easier to deal with than the whole. You might assign different parts to different team members to keep them focused on a controllable part of an overwhelming and stressful situation. Delegation also frees you to concentrate and focus on the areas where you are most expert and your expertise will have the greatest impact.

TIP: If possible, reframe volatility and complexity as opportunities rather than problems. What gaps have appeared that you can now rectify? Covid-19 gave many companies a push toward economically sound remote work and ecommerce.

Ambiguity and Adaptability

Ambiguity relates to any statement or situation which could have multiple meanings. For example, certain words that were acceptable in the workplace in the past (such as “girl”) are now considered demeaning or worse. The word “leadership” itself has different meanings depending on the company, industry, business climate, and geographic location. The following strategies are key in adapting to ambiguity:

  • Communicate. While clear and frequent communication is important in facing volatility, uncertainty, and complexity as well, it is particularly important in ambiguous situations, where everyone is struggling to understand what is happening as rumors and guesses proliferate.
  • Foster a team that can improvise. By encouraging creative problem solving, diversity, and a growth mindset at all times, you and your team will have the skills to adapt more quickly to ambiguity when it occurs.
  • Shift your perspective. Sometimes ambiguity arises because you are being pulled in two equally defensible directions. For example, you want to succeed in your career but you also want time for family and friends. Prioritization allows you figure out how to balance those polarities, and adaptability enables you to move from achieving one goal to another.

TIP: Continually evaluate the skills you and your team will need to improve adaptability and creative thinking.

Is VUCA Real?

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are difficult to live with for any length of time. The solutions that people depend on depend on where they are in the trajectory—is an end to VUCA in sight?—and their tolerance for stress.

When IBM predicts that Artificial Intelligence will transform 100% of jobs in the next 5 to 10 years, when Netflix decides managers should proactively fire anyone whose resignation they would willingly accept, and when a virus can strangle a supply chain in just weeks, VUCA is a reality we must all live with.

You might find yourself becoming more rigid as VUCA continues, suffering more physical ills, and becoming angry by those around you who interpret the situation differently. These are all signs of stress. Keep a close eye on your own stress and that of your team, and seek help if you need it.

Key Takeaways

The way to deal with volatility is with vision; uncertainty with understanding; complexity with courage; and ambiguity with adaptability. SMaRT strategies for decision making, along with a growth mindset and close attention to core values and stress levels, are important ingredients in keeping yourself and your team functioning in the face of VUCA.  

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