One way to think about creating culture on purpose in the face of the threats posed by the coronavirus is to focus on how we lead change. A starting point is to understand the impact of VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
You’ve probably seen the acronym VUCA before. You may even know that the term originated in the Army War College to describe the political and military situation after the Cold War. (UNC Executive Development)
But have you used your knowledge of the term to help you understand what makes change so difficult for you and your team? Have you applied “proactive VUCA” to guide your responses?
VUCA was first diagnosed in the workplace context in the 1990s, but it’s been around a lot longer than that. Our social and business environments have been changing rapidly at least since World War I and arguably longer than that. Still, our current situation is characterized by extraordinarily high rates of:
- Volatility, or the rate of change. Volatility not only leads to unpredictability but also hinders our ability to determine cause and effect. After a month or so of extraordinarily high volatility, some factors – COVID infection rates, people’s ability and willingness to stay at home – seem to have leveled off. But I wouldn’t bet on any specific description of how life will look in another four weeks, would you?
- Uncertainty, or lack of clarity about the present situation and future outcomes. Today’s health crisis makes past experiences seem irrelevant (unless you were around for the Spanish flu of 1918). Planning therefore can feel pointless.
- Complexity, or the sheer number of key decision factors. A problem like this pandemic has multiple interwoven layers: scientific, epidemiologic, social, political, economic, personal, and more. Complexity makes it hard to decide on short-term steps toward long-term plans. The sheer number of variables keeps us from being able to make reasonable predictions.
- Ambiguity, or lack of clarity about the meaning of past, current, and future events. Our brains have a strong preference for certainty. Contradictions and paradoxes throw us off. And yet, right now, contradiction and paradox are all we have to work with.
I can only begin to hint at how to handle VUCA for yourself and for your team in this brief post. Here are four things you can do right now:
- Let go of the expectation that you should have it all figured out. That expectation is always unrealistic, but especially so in this volatile situation.
- Let go of the belief that everyone else has it all figured out. Trust me. We don’t.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Your capabilities are not a fixed quantity. If you and your team are willing to experiment and fail, your ability to deal with this crisis can grow.
- Adopt proactive VUCA. The counterpart to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity is vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.
I’ll share more about proactive VUCA and about using your emotional intelligence to lead change in subsequent posts. For quick takeaways you can use immediately, join our webinar, Navigating Change in Turbulent Times, on April 30.
What you can do today
- Divide a piece of paper into four segments: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. In each quadrant, write specific facets of your team’s challenges today. Overlap is not only allowed but encouraged.
Questions for discussion
- Have you used the concept of VUCA in the past to help your team navigate change? If so, how?
- How does your past experience help you apply VUCA in the face of this pandemic?
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