The acronym VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. It may be a military coinage, but it seems to sum up so much of what the modern world feels like.
But, never fear: linguistic fluency and creative ingenuity have conjured a number of strategies to counter the prevailing VUCA environment we inhabit. Best known among them is Bob Johanson’s ‘VUCA prime’. It is an alternative acronym with four ripostes to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity.
Where does VUCA Come from?
The acronym VUCA was coined in the 1990s, as a description of modern, 21stcentury conflicts. No longer do the comforting, but old-fashioned war movie simplicities of friend or foe seem to apply.
Modern conflicts are environments where the political rules seem to change rapidly, along with the technology, the tactics, and allegiances. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity extend the 19thcentury phrase: ‘fog of war’, which simply sums up a reality known since the beginnings of human conflict. And it extends it from the battlefield to Cabinet rooms, into Parliaments and beyond. We all live in a VUCA environment.
Those of us who are fortunate to work in the safe environments of modern offices, factories, stores, or warehouses don’t put our lives on the line whenever we arrive at work. But we do still need to deal with the impacts of:
- Constant change
- Shifting priorities
- Immense interdependency
- Flexible allegiances
What is VUCA?
Let’s take a brief look at the four components of VUCA, to understand what we mean by each of them.
On the face of it, Volatility is all about the rapid pace of change. But the terms conjures the feeling that things quickly change state, rather than simply evolve.
We see it around us in society, with the feeling that old political certainties are shifting fast. And, in the commercial arena, consumer demand and technologies are creating new markets and product sets, every few months.
The rapid changes in the world make it hard to see what’s coming around the next corner. Our inability to foresee what’s next is unsettling. As a species, we evolved in a pretty predictable world where climate and geophysical changes happened over many generations, not within a single lifetime. And we also know that, at certain key values of the physical variables, not only is it hard to make predictions: it is impossible. It’s like a pencil balanced on its point. It could go in any direction.
And that is reflected in our political culture. Never before in my lifetime have political trends been so obscured by fast-moving events, leaving huge uncertainty in what the electorate wants, and how their preferences will be reflected in democratic outcomes*. It has even led some commentators to wonder how secure some western democracies really are.
* written in September 2019.
All the changes are compounding the challenge of a world and a set of societies that are far more interconnected than ever before. And our commerce is a product of huge numbers of interdependent players, processes, and technology. No one person can fully understand every piece of science and technology behind a single product like a smartphone. And now we are connecting all of those to our home appliances, while governments connect up a million monitoring devices to vast arrays of computers
So, we have replaced simple causes and effects with intertwining feedback loops that mean the product of one small action can be inherently unpredictable.
What does all of this mean? There are many possible answers and an infinity of potential futures. Not only is the future uncertain, but we can interpret the meaning of any one indicator in a number of ways. Coming generations will need to adapt to this fuzzy reality with a capability to adapt rapidly to new interpretations of their reality.
Antidotes to VUCA: VUCA Prime and more
The challenges of a VUCA world demand responses. If you want to go beyond just coping, and thrive, you must combine a set of overlapping strategies.
The first articulation of how we can do this was made by Bob Johanson in his 2007 book, ‘Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present’ (US|UK). Johanson suggested that a solution lay in ‘VUCA Prime’. This is his reversal of the VUCA elements to form a new acronym:
To see through the turbulence of volatility, towards you real end-goal.
As an antidote to uncertainty. This is about investing time to really come to grips with the patterns.
Cutting through the complexity to see clearly the simple underlying patterns that dominate and drive the whole structure.
The ability to select from many ambiguous alternatives… and then to switch again if you earlier choice is not optimal.
Subsequently, Bill George, at Harvard Business School, has put forward a similar (too similar?) VUCA 2.0 framework of Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability.
VUCA Positive and VUCA Negative
But I must commend British neuro-science educators, Mindsways, for their typically creative coinages that are part of their ‘VUCA Playground‘ training session:
The four negative feelings that we easily adopt in a VUCA environment, which they term ‘VUCA Negative’:
And the four positive energies that can boost your confidence, creativity, and core values, which they term ‘VUCA Positive’:
What is Your experience of a VUCA Work Environment?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions about the VUCA world you live in. Or is your world Stable, Predictable, Simple, and Certain? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.