Way back when while I was in business school, I was introduced to the concept of VUCA, an acronym first used in 1987 and based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It was originally the response of the US Army War College to the collapse of the USSR and was popularized in Bennis and Nanus’ book Leaders—The Strategies for Taking Charge.
I have been struck by how well VUCA describes the challenges that the leaders we work with in local, regional, and state governments and other public-facing agencies face today—what with the coronavirus, demands for social justice, shrinking budgets, and clear demands for a more responsive and transparent government. Let’s start by taking a look at each VUCA element and then look at what you can do to better manage the VUCA world.
- Volatility—We live in a constantly changing world with an ever-accelerating rate of change and more often than not, more dramatic changes. Disruptive events are increasingly unexpected, unstable, and may have an unknown duration. Volatility is not necessarily hard to understand; information about the source(s) and nature of volatility is often available or can be obtained.
- Uncertainty—It is becoming more difficult to anticipate change or events and predict how they’ll unfold or their potential impact. Even when the basic cause and effect of an event are known, historical data and past experiences are becoming less useful in anticipating the future, making it extremely difficult for decision-makers to forecast and allocate resources effectively.
- Complexity—Our world is more complex than ever. Problems and their repercussions are multi-layered and harder to understand. Decisions are often reduced to a mix of reaction and counter-reaction—or in some cases governed by social media or the loudest protestors.
Ambiguity— In today’s world, few things are black and white. Causal relationships are unclear. Precedents often do not exist. Facing ambiguous unknowns makes it difficult to understand the meaning of fast-moving, unclear, and complex events.
Thinking about VUCA made me remember another great book by Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. One of the key overarching messages in this book is that the VUCA world will need more than traditional approaches to leadership and Johansen presented a simple antidote for VUCA—Vision, Understanding, Clarity, Agility. This got me thinking about how potentially useless traditional approaches to research (ad hoc or tracking studies) might be and how ComEngage could be the appropriate platform to provide an antidote to VUCA.
- Vision – Vision is vital in turbulent times. Communities with a clear vision of where they want to be in three to five years can better weather a volatile environment such as an economic downturn or even a pandemic. Decisions can be made to counter volatility while keeping the organizations vision in mind.
ComEngage’s baseline community research and benchmarking program is designed to focus on “always keeping the main thing the main thing”—i.e., where do you stand today and what do you need to do to get to where you want to be tomorrow. (“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” is a quote from Stephen Covey, an educator, businessman, and authority of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)
- Understanding—Uncertainty can be countered with understanding. To be effective in a VUCA environment, leaders must be able to stop, engage, and listen at any given point in time to make sense of the volatility and lead with vision.
The very premise behind ComEngage is the ability to continually scan and learn—the antidote to uncertainty.
- Clarity—Complexity can be countered with clarity. To be effective in a VUCA world, change comes quickly and can be immediately impactful. Leaders who can quickly and clearly tune out the noise and tune into all the factors driving the volatility and seeming chaos can make better, more informed decision.
ComEngage provides the ability to “get up on the balcony” to gain a clearer and broader perspective on the nature of the issues or challenges your organization is facing before acting. (“Getting off the dance floor and up on the balcony” is a concept drawn from the book Leadership on the Line by Martin Linsky and Ronald Heifetz.)
- Agility—If there is one common thread in the growing literature on managing VUCA, it is the need to be agile and to create an environment that embraces agility and flexibility.
ComEngage is a strategy and insights technology platform that allows you to continuously engage with a representative sample of your community members providing an environment to get reliable and valid information to respond to current issues in your quickly changing world.