Nov 17, 2012

- VUCA: Leading in Turbulent Times



“We are in a new world, using old tools” – Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat
Fish don’t know they’re in water. If you asked the fish or tried to explain that fact that they’re in water, you’re likely to get a response along the lines of “What water?”. Fish are surrounded by water, they are so close to the water that it’s impossible for them to see it! To get fish to see the water they need to look in from the outside.
This is what happens to us, when often we fail to see the context in which we are leading. When that happens we become ineffective resulting in us being ineffective or worse leadership failure. When we fail to understand the leadership context we apply leadership practices and behaviours that are outdated, ineffective or inappropriate. Just because it worked in the past, we think that it will work today, in the new context.

VUCA: The Leadership Context

The term VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and originates from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. VUCA describes the new environment, the new context in which leaders must work.

Volatile – Rapid Large Scale Change

Volatility refers to the rate of change we experience from the environment, typically the pace change is rapid, demanding an urgent response from leaders. The pace of change shows no signs of slowing down. It seems that the pace of change will continue to accelerate.
Leadership Challenges
  • The pace of change is faster and more rapid than our ability to respond
  • The increased pace of change requires accelerated decision making
  • Change are large scale and occur suddenly and usually require an urgent response.
  • Leaders are left feel overwhelmed, stress, anxious and unprepared to lead effectively
  • The challenge for leaders is to learn to respond and manage change more effectively. To shift from reacting to change and move towards a more proactive response to change
  • Command and control structures fail in fast changing and disruptive environments.

Uncertain – Unclear about present and future outcomes

Uncertainty refers to the difficultly that leaders face with getting clarity as to what is actually going on. There is an overload of information and noise, complicated by opposing views and opinions as to what’s happening, making is difficult to be certain about the current situation and the future direction. The flood of information makes it challenging to separate the signal, this is exacerbated by the rapidly changing context.
Leadership Challenges
  • It’s difficult to get a handle on what’s actually happening
  • To o much noise, not enough signal
  • Leaders are required to act on incomplete or insufficient information
  • Leaders are are more likely to rely on what seemed to have worked in the past
  • Difficulty in “connecting the dots” to understand the outcomes of an event

Complex – Many factors to consider no single causes or solutions

Complexity describes the situation where there a multitude of factors that account for the situation being faced, that there is a web of interlinking cause and effects. This makes it difficult to diagnose a situation and to formulate effective response and actions. The interdependence of industry supply chains and the globalization of business has contributed significantly to the complexity of the environment in which leaders have to operate. This high level of interconnectedness makes it difficult to understand the cause and effect relationships affecting the situations faced by leaders.
Leadership Challenges
  • Difficulty in acting and drive the change required to address the web of interrelated issues and concerns
  • Increased complexity makes it difficult to know where to start to drive change
  • Temptation to act on and implement short-term solutions and over rely on quick wins
  • Leaders lack the time to reflect and think through the complexities and end up acting too quickly
  • Mitigating actions do not address the root cause only the symptoms
  • The danger of getting stuck in analysis paralysis and end up acting too late

Ambiguous – Lack of clarity on what events mean and the impact they may have

Ambiguity makes if difficult to understand the impact and meaning of events. The continuous unfolding of events makes if difficult to understand and interpret the impact that events will have on society, economics and business.
Leadership Challenges
  • Failure to understand the significance of an event
  • High risk of miss-interpreting events and responding inappropriately of in ineffective ways
  • Leaders are too far removed from the source and context of the events
  • Leaders act based on a limited understanding of events and their meaning

The Implications for Leadership

It’s clear that we are leading in challenging times. The problem is that our leadership approaches and practices have not kept pace with this new context. We are stuck using old leadership tools, practices and skills in addressing new challenge and problems. The result too often is failed leadership, disillusionment and frustration.
“The rapidity of change in social conventions and moral attitudes, associated with technological transformations in the mode of living, renders a person’s experience of the world a generation ago largely irrelevant to the problems of the day.” – E.J. Mishan, Costs of Economic Growth
Successful leadership requires an understanding of the leadership context in which we find ourselves. Over the next few decades a new set of leadership practices and skills will need to be adopted. We will need to rethink out leadership approach.
Considering the VUCA times we are lining in and the challenge this has for leaders.
  • How should we start leading differently?
  • What leadership practices have you found to be successful for leading in turbulent times?
  • What new leadership skills will be required?

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