“VUCA” — How Workplace Leaders Can Make Sense of the COVID Chaos and Take Action

Some practical tips and countermeasures

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This pandemic paroxysm has turned the world upside down both in our personal lives and in our work lives. Here, six months into the on-again-off-again shutdown, there is still plenty of uncertainty about the future of the workplace and the future itself.

As a result, there is an abundance of confusion about about what to do next. It’s a recipe for chaos to emerge in our organizations. And there is no all-purpose playbook which tells us how to make sense of it and what we should do about it.

Enter VUCA. It’s an acronym coined in the late 1990s by the U.S. Army War College and means Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It’s meant to describe, well, what’s going on in the world today as a result of the pandemic. The term has resurfaced every few years to help explain events like 9/11, the Arab Spring, Brexit, etc.

It depicts a world rocked by unpredictable developments, by large scale turbulence and disruption. It depicts a world showing tears in its social and economic fabrics. Like now.

The four factors of VUCA are interrelated and rarely exist by themselves. Think of them as a set of properties or occurrences that almost always impact each other. For instance, the presence of volatility can exacerbate the felt sense of uncertainty which in turn increases the amount of ambiguity that people experience in the situation.

VUCA renders inadequate or obsolete many of the standard ways we have of making sense of the world, including the business world. It’s a useful way of framing events and developments like the COVID crisis and helps explain why so many of us feel confused, vulnerable, anxious.

Okay, so VUCA might be a useful and perhaps mildly interesting framework for helping to understand what we are experiencing right now, but so what? What’s actionable about it?

Try this. One writer/researcher — Bob Johansen from the Palo Alto-based think tank Institute for the Future — several years ago suggested four countermeasures for VUCA conditions, one for each of the four factors. And as a mnemonic device, each begins with the corresponding letter in VUCA: to combat Volatility, employ Vision. For Uncertainty, apply Understanding. For Complexity, seek Clarity. For Ambiguity, counter with Agility.

  • Volatility → Vision
  • Uncertainty → Understanding
  • Complexity → Clarity
  • Ambiguity → Agility

In these tumultuous times it’s important for leaders to remind associates as well as other leaders about the bigger picture: what the organization stands for; what success looks like, at least before the crisis. How the organization provides value to customers and to society and of course, to the associates.

Your company’s three-year strategic plan which sounded so compelling at last year’s executive offsite presentation is probably a little out of date suddenly so when you speak to others about the strategy, think in terms of the next few months, not the next few years. What is the strategy for getting through this difficult time and what are both the possibilities and probabilities that lie ahead?

We will all be part of a still not well defined new normal so help people know that while some things have changed and will continue to change as a result of this situation, other aspects will remain the same and feel familiar. In this period of volatility and flux we all have the need for some element of stability, of predictability. Articulating or re-articulating a vision helps people feel centered and grounded and contributes to the next factor, understanding.

Gaining and sharing understanding is very much related to seeking clarity which is discussed next. Understanding is about sense making and using those resulting insights to guide choices about this health and economic crisis. Perspectives — some valuable and some not (see 80/20 Rule below) — should be prospected from myriad and diverse sources rather than from the usual suspects.

Go beyond your customary network of colleagues and contacts, as their perspectives might be somewhat predictable. As the famous 20th century journalist Walter Lippmann said, “When all are thinking alike, no one is thinking much at all.”

Understanding is also developed through dialogue with the people on the front lines of the work who often have first-hand knowledge about issues relating to processes, customers or company management. The Japanese have an expression for it: Go to Gemba. That is, go to “the real place;” go to where the action is. It’s as much about seeking and inquiring about the current situation as it is about telling and explaining, so let those observations and conversations help shape your understanding.

There’s a lot of noise right now and its coming at us from all directions. In times of crisis — and this is a crisis — effective leaders work purposefully at cutting through the clutter and potential distractions to get to the heart of the matter. They distill the essentials, distinguishing between mountains of data and molehills of information.

They use the Pareto Principle — the 80/20 Rule — as an organizing filter, that is, what’s the 20% of the data points, messages, dashboard metrics, scenario plans, rumors, etc. that are most important to communicate? Quality guru Joe Juran years ago used to say that the 80/20 Rule helps us to distinguish between the “vital few and the trivial many.”

The Pareto Principle also helps us direct our energy, our focus, our effort. What 20% of effort will get us 80% of the results we need? Granted, this pandemic itself is a complicated matter but many of the countermeasures are simple and straightforward: wash your hands; limit social contact; take care of the customer and each other, etc. There is a lot of clarity in those guidelines.

In the old Greek tales, it was the oracle who brought clarity to life’s messy conditions. Leaders, you don’t have to be that oracle — you just have to create appropriate meaning for yourself and for others in this perplexing period. That’s clarity.

Ambiguity is a bit like uncertainty, but in the VUCA framework uncertainty is related more to a diagnostic (“What is happening and why?”) and ambiguity is related more to the resultant choice making (“What should we do about it?”).

Agility has become a popular principle in management thinking in the last few years: manufacturing agility; service and product development agility; learning agility. It’s related to situational leadership. It’s the ability to be able to pivot, to be nimble. Agility is being able to react or adjust quickly and appropriately to change, especially fast paced change. And the pandemic and resulting effects are constantly changing. We don’t know what we don’t know about some of its implications.

“Business continuity planning” focuses on creating systems of prevention and recovery to deal with potential threats to an organization in times of a disaster or crisis. It goes beyond traditional scenario planning because it is focused on THIS immediate crisis, not a set of potential threats. Make sure your senior team is engaged in this activity — it’s about protecting your assets.

In fact, it’s about ensuring your underlying business proposition is still valid in the face of a firestorm when there is suddenly an altered reality.

Still, while planning is important, plans are based on knowledge and assumptions which might become useless overnight with this pandemic. Rules and restrictions from governmental bodies change daily. As boxer and occasional philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

So, as a leader, be prepared to shift gears. Talk up the importance of agility — this will help people get prepared for sharp left turns in strategy or execution. Recognize and reward those who demonstrate agile thinking or doing. If appropriate, use sports metaphors to help others appreciate the value of agility — changing plans when situations require it is a key to success in almost every team sport. This COVID calamity represents an inflection point for many businesses and the ability to be agile could separate winners from losers.

VUCA times calls for VUCA leadership. There are many emerging stories in the business press about how leaders, associates and their organizations are responding in astonishing ways to these VUCA conditions. Learn from those stories. More importantly, create new success stories of your own.

About the author: Mike Hoban is a leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics, sometimes in a whimsical way. In addition to his 40 years experience as a leader and consultant he has also published extensively in Fast Company and also wrote a business column for 10 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.

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