We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve – to a world of dilemmas which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement with uncertainty,

said transformative technology consultant, Denise Caron.

Try to imagine: due to massive economic shifts, your entire marketplace – all of it – is in a state of upheaval and some key players have already gone under; or, you have been investigating a more digital approach to your markets including some serious pilot projects to develop deep understanding. You now realize that your industry’s future IS digital – a major shift in everything that matters in your business. It doesn’t appear that your competitors have figured this out, yet; or, you have grown a very successful B2B2C business. Your “sell through” strategy has served you and your value chain well. You have been watching the development of a profound weakness in your various intermediaries’ business model – it’s “losing altitude and air speed.” If you want to stay in business, you’ll have to become a B2C business. Quickly.


Welcome to the VUCA world.

The term VUCA is not new. It is an acronym used to describe or reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations and has been in some degree of common usage for more than twenty years. It has become increasingly relevant to the business community. After reading the list below, you’ll not be surprised to learn that VUCA terminology is derived from military terminology.

V = Volatility. The nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
U = Uncertainty. The lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
C = Complexity. The multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues and the chaos and confusion that surround an organization.
A = Ambiguity. The haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.

The strategic significance of foresight and insight and the behavior of people in groups or organizations are expanded, enhanced, and amplified in a VUCA world. We’ve only to look back at the so-called “Arab Spring.” The dynamics of our VUCA world – and more importantly – how to think about and react to those dynamics, was lost on many Arab leaders, from Mubarak to Gaddafi, and thus factored into their downfall.

VUCA creates dilemmas – situations in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, all equally undesirable. Dilemmas span disciplines within organizations and frustrate attempts to craft elegant and final solutions. Today’s strategic dilemmas are often unsolvable, complex and messy, threatening, enigmatic and confusing, and offer two or more puzzling choices of action, just like the Arab Spring.

When you try to deal with VUCA world dilemmas with “fixes” and “problem solving” it becomes daunting, like trying to “boil the ocean” (something so complicated it’s hard to know where to begin). All too frequently, really smart executives have trouble dealing with the VUCA world. Why? Organizational psychologist, Karl Weick notes that, “Our expectations help us simplify our world and steer away from disconfirming evidence.” Therefore, we see:

What we expect to see,
What we have labels to see,
What we have skills to manage.

Simply put, they often can’t see it. The mindset required for dealing with a VUCA world is quite different than what most executives have learned or experienced. The answer lies in a paradox: you can’t predict the future, but you must make sense of it in order to thrive. In Part 2 of this post we’ll talk about how to thrive in a VUCA world (hint: it’s simple, but not easy).

In Other Words…

“If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” ― Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” ― E.F. Schumacher

“Simplicities are enormously complex. Consider the sentence “I love you”.” ― Richard O. Moore, Writing the Silences

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” ― William Gibson, The Economist, December 4, 2003

“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In The Word…

“Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18

In Linked Words…

Your scary future, Part 7: how do you find comfort in an uncomfortable world?
Your scary future, Part 6; flexing and all that jazz

Your scary future, Part 5; the necessity of a prepared mind

Your scary future, Part 4: the lady or the tiger?
Your scary future, Part 3: sense and sensibility
Your scary future, Part 2: what kind of problem do you have?