In both business and the military, preparing leaders and their teams/units to manage in unpredictable environments – from strategy to tactical execution – is crucial.
U.S. military planners have come up with a term to describe dynamic and unstable environments: VUCA. This acronym, which is also now often applied to business, stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.
A series of important questions come along with this framework, such as:
- What is our strategic aim?
- Do I have the right teams in terms of requisite capabilities and level of motivation?
- Do I have a coordinated way of getting clear priorities accomplished in a timely manner?
- Do we have a flat network that expedites information sharing and decision-making?
- Does our organizational culture imbue trust and transparency?
Reflecting on these questions is essential because, in my view, there is no precise, step-by-step recipe for managing VUCA. Although I was trained in engineering at West Point, I found that even though you do your best to reduce risk, there is always a level of uncertainty that you can neither predict nor control in a VUCA environment.
This is why having a shared purpose is so critical. An overarching mission keeps the organization steady in turbulent waters. With the desired outcomes clearly in mind, teams then need flexibility in how to go about getting the job done. Leaders also need to empower their people to execute operations in a flexible manner , anticipate threats and opportunities, adapt to what’s happening around them and take decisive action.
Finally, an agile organization needs agile people. Teams have to be ready and open to step into uncertainty and not wait to be told what to do at each turn . Self-responsibility is a key to success in VUCA. People who are genuinely open-minded and curious about what’s happening around them are able to detect trends and patterns and respond appropriately.
Complexity means unpredictability and flux. In these situations, there is no single right answer or way forward. This is why people who are comfortable with paradox tend to do better in VUCA situations. These are people who are not “either-or” thinkers, but rather “both-and” thinkers and doers. They know how to look at a variety of desired outcomes, develop several feasible courses of action and then prototype different scenarios to produce an optimal potential outcome. In this way, uncertainty can be managed and the overall mission accomplished.