Don’t tweak, think different

Its a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) world. Leadership styles and management models need to reflect that. Here’s five pieces of advice for VUCA leadership that seem to fly in the face of traditional management wisdom plus one that’s always good to remember. That’s six tips for leadership in a VUCA world.

1. Ditch best practice

VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. It was coined by the military to describe the ‘new normal’ of modern conflicts. It gave them permission to ditch their total reliance on planning as a means for leadership in a VUCA world.

As management thinker Mike Tyson put it:

Best practice is essentially a recipe or plan for what to do when things are stable, predictable, simple and clear  – the opposite of VUCA. If you want to bake a cake, best practice is just great. If you want to unleash the initiative and creativity of people to analyse a situation and apply their experience and expertise to formulate an elegant response together quickly – best practice is just great for stopping that happening.

2. Don’t trust the data

What I mean is: don’t trust yourself with the data. But you didn’t want to hear that. There are many, many peer reviewed, oft-repeated experiments to show that we are really bad at interpreting data as a means to challenge our existing world view. What we are really good at is waterboarding the data until they tell us what we want to hear. Now that we have so much data we don’t even need to try very hard at that. We just pick the source that is least challenging and easiest to twist to our pre-existing beliefs.

3. Seek conflict

This is how to protect yourself from your existing mental models and help you to analyse all this data properly for insight. I don’t mean go out and start a fight. I do mean seek out diversity – conflicting life experiences, conflicting personality types, conflicting aptitudes. Sit these people down together and ask them what the data means. Shut up and listen to their conversations. This can be an extremely quick way to create genuine insight. Leadership in a VUCA world is as simple as this. Just go out into your organisation, grab six or eight people from different departments that don’t look like one another, buy them lunch and ask what they think about the market research, the social sentiment metrics, the Net Promoter Score or whatever it is that’s causing you grief.

4. Get really emotional

To get real, get emotions. Fear, stress, trust – these things aren’t side issues, they are the issues. For you, for your colleagues. Learn how to deal with them better. No matter how low or high our emotional intelligence is we can all work on it, we can all improve. But don’t try and do it all by yourself. Get help, get training, get on it.

5. Waste time

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,”

said John Wanamaker.

Coming to that conclusion I bet he didn’t spend less on advertising as a result. You’ve got to make time for leadership in a VUCA world – time for you and time for your colleagues to discuss things, explore, work around the issues, extemporise, theorise, cogitate, muse. Time to not come up with the answer.

It’s more time than you think will be needed and it might feel risky when everyone is running around with their hair on fire. But its not as risky as choosing to do the wrong thing nice and quickly and bucking down to do it ever more efficiently.

6. Stop being so tediously boring

In his diary, Adrian Mole quoted his mother:

“There’s only one thing more boring than listening to other people’s dreams, and that’s listening to their problems.”

You can’t deal with VUCA all by yourself. You needs lot of people to get to grips with it and they aren’t going to do it if you try to logic or bully or guilt them into it or tell them it’s their job to care or change. It wouldn’t work on you, so why should it work on them?

Attention is everything and people will only give it to you if they feel like it.

What are they interested in? What is important to them,? What do they like doing? What do they feel strongly about? Figure that out, frame your VUCA challenge in those terms and make it fun and exciting and safe for people to really get into it. Don’t try and control them to your needs and agenda – let them waste some time being expansive, creative, interesting, surprising and challenging. Fight VUCA with VUCA.

More thinking on leadership in a VUCA world

VUCA environments pose many challenges. Often these mean that traditional approaches to management call for you to bet big on guessing hard about things it’s impossible to predict. As we’ve seen in this short list, there are ways to thrive. Read about our VUCA Management Algorithm and the VUCA variables to learn more.