It’s February! The new year is up and running, so we had better be, as well! After listening to more than a few executives during 2015 and the beginning of this year, I’m convinced that one of the major challenges for 2016 – and beyond – will continue to be how executives deal with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).

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The VUCA acronym originated in the U.S. military after the collapse of the Soviet Union to describe a multipolar world. It has become fashionable in management circles and consultant-speak. Fashion sense aside, it is nonetheless a very real challenge. I’m not alone in having watched various companies, individual executives, and employee populations cope with, understand, and respond to the turbulence and dynamism that define the VUCA world with varying degrees of preparation, competence and success.

“The mistake is thinking that there can be an antidote to the uncertainty.” ― David Levithan, The Lover’s Dictionary

VUCA is not a problem to be solved; it just is. Save yourself headache and heartache by remembering that there are simply too many elements beyond the control of power and authority as we have known it. Industrial age practices, structures, and processes are not so useful anymore. Does anyone believe that the world is going to get less VUCA? More tranquil? More serene?

“If you believe you can accomplish everything by ‘cramming’ at the eleventh hour, by all means, don’t lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining” ― Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead

At a high level, it’s helpful to get curious and to get comfortable being outside your comfort zone. Secondly, be willing to look beyond “old” thinking and approaches (more of the same harder and faster is unlikely to be useful); not for a “quick fix” rather for thinking that is appropriate to the times in general and your context in specific.

May I suggest seven constructs to help as you consider the VUCA realities of business life today? And, more importantly, how to respond.

“Unfortunately, there seems to be far more opportunity out there than ability…. We should remember that good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation.” ― Thomas A. Edison

  1. Your scary future -”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…” Are you ready? [read more..]
  2. What kind of problem do you have? – You have had problems. You currently have problems and you will have problems. Our world has always been characterized by some degree of uncertainty and complexity, highlighted by encounters with volatility and ambiguity (VUCA). Today it’s just more so. As these characteristics ebb, flow and intermingle in the circumstances of our lives they create problems; problems of different types. What kind do you have? The answer matters because different types of problems require different approaches.  [read more..]
  3. Sense and sensibility – Listen for a word: absolutely (and its kin: exactly, precisely, of course, no doubt, without question, totally, undoubtedly, clearly, utterly). How often do you hear it used in daily speech? Probably more than in the past. Why? People are longing for a sense of control in – a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – a world where absolutes are in scarce supply. Using ‘absolute’ language gives us a temporary sense of control, and, perhaps comfort. We’re unlikely to achieve comfort or control in ‘conventional’ ways or by mere language manipulation.  [read more..]
  4. The lady or the tiger? – How would you decide?“The Lady, or the Tiger?” begins with a description of a “semi-barbaric” king who rules his kingdom with a heavy hand. For punishing criminals, he has built an arena featuring two doors. The criminal must choose his own fate by selecting one of the two closed doors. Behind one door is a hungry tiger that will eat the prisoner alive. Behind the other door is a beautiful lady, hand-picked by the king, who will be married to the accused on the spot. The people of the kingdom like this system of justice, because the uncertainty of the situation is very entertaining.  [read more..]
  5. The necessity of a prepared mind – The future is about change; both “dangerous discontinuity and positive permutation.” The future is very complicated. The whole of it is greater than the sum of the parts – you can’t really understand it by simply looking at it’s individual parts. And, as American writer George Will said, “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”  [read more..]
  6. Flexing and all that jazz – VUCA world or not, we still have to make a difference. We still have to contribute. We still have to deliver value. And that means taking action and getting results. Yet, action unfolds and results often come about in stages. Clarity is often lacking, especially to the degree that allows us comfort and confidence. VUCA is more “both/and” and less “either/or.” Tomorrow is dotted with dilemmas and therefore requires the discipline of sensing and sense-making. This foresight is valuable to the extent that it stimulates insight about what to do. [read more..]
  7. How do you find comfort in an uncomfortable world? – We observe, and believe, that our connected and digital world moves and changes at internet speed, is more transparent and secretive (at the same time), and is increasingly complex and more dilemma-prone than any time observed to date. It’s probably true. Of this I am sure: our world today is more than sufficiently able to be described as, well, uncomfortable (VUCA?).  [read more..]

“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