While COVID dramatically altered almost every aspect of life in 2020 continuing into 2021, it did so in a global environment that was already labeled as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). VUCA refers to the world as it is now and as it develops. Thus, it is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous now, and will continue to be so.
Another way to think about VUCA is that is refers to the modern way to speak about change and the need to adapt to change. As Wanda Tiefenbacher noted “VUCA is a reality that is not new - rather, the VUCA world as we know it is merely one snippet of an ever-changing, ever-growing and ever-evolving environment.”[i]
The U.S. Army War College coined the term VUCA in the late 1980s to describe the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity of the post-Cold War world. Here is a brief definition of each word:
Volatility: refers to the rate of change related to an unexpected event, or series of events. The more volatile in the world the greater things change. For example, in January 2021 Tyler Cowen reflected upon what the new year might look like and wrote “2021 will be better than 2020, but the year’s defining feature will be volatility.”[ii]
Uncertainty: refers to the extent to which individuals can confidently predict the future. The greater the volatility, the more difficult it is to suggest specific outcomes. Commenting on the role uncertainty plays in planning, researchers Alain Govaert and Ming Cao noted “many of today’s most pressing societal concerns require decisions which take into account a distant and uncertain future.”[iii]
Complexity: refers to the number, variety, and relationships of factors involved. The ability to understand a situation is directly proportional to the number of factors involved; that is, the larger the number of factors the greater the difficulty in understanding the situation. Joanna Boehnert, Lecturer in Design and the Creative Industries of Loughborough University designed “The Visual Representations of Complexity” to illustrate 16 key features of complex systems. Doing so helps leaders understand the depths of uncertainty, the multitude of variables involved, and the overwhelming complexity organizations must address in a VUCA world.[iv]
Ambiguity: refers to a lack of clarity about how to interpret something. A situation is ambiguous, for example, when information is incomplete, contradicting or too inaccurate to draw definite conclusions. More generally it refers to fuzziness and vagueness in ideas and terminology. Commenting on the relationship between ambiguity and leadership, Adam Bryant noted “Ambiguous times are no time for ambiguous leadership and with so many employees working remotely, leaders must take extra care to ensure their communications leave no room for misinterpretation.”[v]
The literature on VUCA continues to grow with each passing year. Examples of books include Don Gilman, Outsmarting VUCA: Achieving Success in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, & Ambiguous World, Ann V. Deaton, VUCA Tools for a VUCA World: Developing Leaders and Teams for Sustainable Results, and Michael Fuchs, Jochen Messner, and Rob Sok, Leadership in a VUCA World.[vi] Moreover, the reports, data, and articles focused on VUCA are numerous, readily available, and published on a regular basis.
Commenting on the complexities involved with leading in a VUCA world, General George W. Casey, Jr., U.S. Army (Retired) observed “We live in a connected but unstable world where stability is the passing phase, instability is the norm, and complexity is accumulating. Things change quickly, and for reasons beyond our control.”[i] This lack of control creates an environment of uncertainty increasing in complexity with each passing day.
Therefore, leaders in the post-pandemic and VUCA global marketplace must accept the realization they will most likely never know the interaction of the multiple variables to consider, the proper methods to integrate them effectively, or how to consider the spectrum of competing interpretations of available data. It is imperative then, that leaders make defining reality for their people a top priority.
Navigating the chaos of global marketplace at the intersection of VUCA and COVID demands leaders define reality. “Denying reality makes people assume their leader is either lying or out of touch.”[ii] For organizations to successfully navigate challenges, their leaders must focus on solutions and “be honest with their people to a level that will and should feel uncomfortable.”[iii]
[i] General George W. Casey, Jr., U.S. Army (Retired), "Leading in a VUCA World," Cornell College of Business white paper, no date. https://tinyurl.com/3v9jtuzy [ii] Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell, "What 9/11 Taught Us About Leadership in a Crisis," The New York Times, March 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/coronavirus-mcchrystal-leadership.html [iii] Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell, "What 9/11 Taught Us About Leadership in a Crisis," The New York Times, March 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/coronavirus-mcchrystal-leadership.html
[i] Wanda Tiefenbacher, "Strategic management: how and why to redefine organizational strategy in today's VUCA world, CQ Net, December 31, 2019. https://www.ckju.net/en/blog/strategic-management-how-and-why-redefine-organizational-strategy-todays-vuca-world/58699 [ii] Tyler Cowen, "Brace Yourself for the Next 11 1/2 Months," Bloomberg, January 13, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-01-13/2021-will-be-better-than-2020-but-far-more-volatile [iii] Alain Govaert and Ming Cao, "Strategically influencing an uncertain future," Nature, July 22, 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-69006-x [iv] Joanna Boehnert, "The Visual Representation of Complexity: Definitions, Examples, and Learning Points, November 2018. https://tinyurl.com/2xee9fbr [v] Adam Bryant, "Ambiguous times are no time for ambiguous leadership," Strategy + Business, August 5, 2020. https://www.strategy-business.com/blog/Ambiguous-times-are-no-time-for-ambiguous-leadership?gko=e025c [vi] Ann V. Deaton, VUCA Tools for a VUCA World: Developing Leaders and Teams for Sustainable Results , 2018, https://www.amazon.com/VUCA-Tools-World-Developing-; Don Gilman, Outsmarting VUCA: Achieving Success in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, & Ambiguous World, 2017, https://www.amazon.com/Outsmarting-VUCA-Achieving-Uncertain-Ambiguous/dp/1599326205/ref=sr_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=VUCA&qid=1616423731&sr=8-5 and Michael Fuchs, Jochen Messner, and Rob Sok, Leadership in a Vuca World , 2020, https://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Vuca-World-Michael-Fuchs/dp/1950576116/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=VUCA&qid=1616423806&sr=8-3 Sustainable/dp/0692074945/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=VUCA&qid=1616423602&sr=8-2