Leadership In The Time Of VUCA
In the physical space, we occupy, change is the only constant. It is everlasting, ever-present, and it is a critical component of the equation of both life and business.
Indeed, the ability to reconcile and adapt to change is often the differentiator between merely surviving and thriving. Perhaps now more so than ever, with the world crippling in the throes of a pandemic.
Concerning leadership, dealing with change has always been a pillar upon which any sound leadership strategy is built.
But of late, change might be happening at a rate hitherto unheard of – the expeditious escalation of technology is bringing about rapid disruption and often crippling uncertainty.
Whereas forecasting and managing the uncontrollable has been a bedrock of sound leadership, it is becoming increasingly harder to do so – the change is too rapid, the volatility too untenable.
Our world is now a sea of uncontrollable. We live in a VUCA world.
What is VUCA?
VUCA is an acronym that touches upon the concepts brought up in previous paragraphs. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.
The term was coined by the United States Army War College to represent the more volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous multilateral world that has emerged since the conclusion of the Cold War.
On a more macro-level, the term represents the tumultuous and inconstant forces of change that can influence businesses. Essentially, the four terms of VUCA are a four-pronged threat, and managing in the face of VUCA requires new abilities, attitudes, and responses.
Before we delve into deeper waters, let us first get acquainted with the four arms of VUCA:
Volatile – Change’s nature and dynamics, as well as the nature and speed of change forces and catalysts.
The shifting dynamic of social categorization in a set of environmental conditions is known as volatility. Any change in a scenario, whether social, technological, biological or otherwise, can affect the dynamic.
In essence, volatility means nothing can be taken for granted. The change will come hard and fast, and leaders and organizations must be braced for impact at all times.
The more volatile the business environment, the faster the rate of change.
Uncertain – The unpredictability of events, the potential for surprise, and the sensation of knowledge and comprehension of situations and occurrences.
Uncertainty is standard in volatile ecosystems with complex structures and unforeseen interactions that add to the level of uncertainty. For example, it might arise when the goal is to infer causality or connection.
Uncertainty breeds ambiguity, and ambiguity can lead to a cascade of issues. Moreover, it is a trait that takes away from our rational ability to predict – it increases the number of uncontrollables.
The more unpredictable the business climate, the more difficult it is to forecast. And ergo, more challenging to manage.
Complex – The multiplicity of factors, the conflation of concerns, the lack of a cause-and-effect connection, and the general complexity surrounding organizations.
The interconnectedness and interaction of many components in a system is referred to as complexity.
The more elements there are, the more diverse they are, and the more linked they are, the more complicated an ecosystem becomes. It is impossible to thoroughly evaluate the environment and reach sensible conclusions when it is incredibly complicated.
The complexity of a business environment is intrinsically connected to one’s ability to assess said environment – as complexity increases, the difficulty to make accurate assessment follows suit.
Ambiguous – The murkiness of reality, the plausibility for error, and the equivocal implications of circumstances.
Ambiguity is defined as a lack of clarity in interpreting something.
When information is inadequate, contradictory, or too incorrect to draw definite conclusions, the situation is ambiguous. It refers to fuzziness and ambiguity in thoughts and language in general.
The world becomes more challenging to comprehend as it becomes more ambiguous.
Understanding VUCA – Is It a Friend or Foe?
The four arms of VUCA are, in essence, connected to the same body – they are linked to each other. So, naturally, the more complicated and dynamic a business is, the more difficult it is to anticipate and hence, the more unpredictable it will be.
However, VUCA need not be interpreted as a harbinger of doom and gloom. Instead, it is merely a framework meant to bring order to the chaos that shrouds any business environment, particularly in this third decade of the 21st century.
When you contrast VUCA with its polar opposites, the message becomes much more apparent. Volatile vs. Stable. Uncertainty vs. Predictability. Complexity vs. Simplicity. Ambiguous vs. Clarity.
If the business world were a sea, then VUCA represents permanently turbulent and uncharted waters. There be dragons here. But as stated earlier, VUCA need not be viewed in a negative light.
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing that there is one. VUCA is merely a framework in which issues arising because of a rapidly evolving business environment are laid out. It is knowledge, and knowledge is power.
Living and Leading in a VUCA World
Since the term was coined, perhaps there hasn’t been a more potent demonstration of what VUCA truly stood for until now, as the coronavirus pandemic has essentially upended the world order.
The status quo has seemingly been dismantled for the foreseeable future. As a result, the business world is more volatile than ever. The level of uncertainty is at an all-time high. Changes in the mode of working have increased the complexity of systems, and ambiguity reigns supreme.
We live in a COVID-19 world. And it is a VUCA world. In such a turbulent environment, what are leaders meant to do? How can they wrestle against the seemingly endless onslaught of uncontrollables? The focus must be on countering VUCA with its opposites.
Attempts should be made to replace volatility with stability. Adequate investment in information will increase one’s ability to predict in the face of uncertainty. Complexity must be countered with simplicity, and clarity must replace ambiguity.
The VUCA world brings with it challenges, but every challenge is an opportunity that hasn’t been grasped yet. The waters will not always be choppy, and sound leadership will chart the uncharted territories.
After all, leaders don’t merely follow the path; they go where there is no path and leave a trail for others to follow.
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