Posted on October 12, 2012

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – Get Used To It

The U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—the U.S. Army’s graduate school for generals-to-be—is now informally calling itself “VUCA University.” Sometimes perceived as the most conservative, the most hierarchical, and the slowest moving of the military branches, the army is transforming itself.

VUCA is resonating for businesses, households and governments as we try to make sense of constantly changing challenges and disruptions brought on by technology, politics, society, nature and economics. No longer is it possible to make decisions with certainty and clarity and no decision is final because nothing ever stays the same. Everything that matters is moving faster and the rate of acceleration shows no sign of slowing. The rapid proliferation of interrelated networks and co-dependencies suggests we are impacted by events that are many levels beyond our furthest scope of familiarity. Organizations and individuals must be fluid, adaptable, flexible, agile and intuitive.

Priorities will be constantly shifting, yet leadership requires clear communication using the new modes of information dissemination. We must anticipate risks, but not spend too much effort or time in long-term strategic planning. Forget relying on past solutions, and instead look for temporary, new solutions in response to an unpredictable world. It is more important to think about the big picture where intuition is every bit as important as quantitative analysis. We have painfully seen that the quants were wrong repeatedly over the past five years. You cannot reliably use history to predict the future. Complexity can be exciting. Get used to being uncomfortable.

Uncertain times bring opportunities for bold moves. Thinking outside of the box is essential. Collaboration and networking is essential. Hierarchies no longer serve because they are rigid and brittle. The VUCA world rewards networks and fluid teams because they are more agile. Diversity is important to generate new ways of thinking and to throw out the stale modes of thought and behavior of the past. If all the decision makers in an institution or organization look the same, went to the same schools, were born in the same country and moved up within the same organization, their thinking will be stultified. Employees, customers and stakeholder are hugely diverse in the world of the future.

Creativity is essential and we don’t breed it sufficiently in many of our schools or organizations. Letting students and employees work on cool new ideas, seemingly unrelated to the issue at hand, is the only way to generate products, services and behaviors that leapfrog what we already know. Synthesis and summary of the complexity is essential to cut through all of the noise. Don’t get stuck in the details—the minutia of the moment. We are all experiencing information overload. Those that can digest and disseminate relevant information and discard the rest will turn complexity into clarity. Focus and intention are crucial. Most people are stunned by VUCA and become trapped, unable to take risks in an uncomfortable setting. Bottom Line: Key to succeeding in a VUCA world is vision, understanding, clarity and agility.

An intent that seeks to create our future and make sense of the chaos is powerful and energizing. Vision is having a clear intent, a clear goal, and a clear direction for your actions. It is more important than foresight because vision seeks to create a future—not just to study the future. It opens the way for innovation that is not trapped in the assumptions of the past. It is best not to jump to conclusions; listen before judging.

Precipitous action is often wrong. Whether we apply these principles to our careers, our businesses, our finances or our personal lives, we benefit—helping us to thrive in a VUCA world.