What does VUCA world mean…and what does it really mean?

In this article we answer the question: “What does VUCA world mean?”; what does it literally mean, the definitions of what the acronym’s letters stand for, and what does it means for you as an individual and leader –  what does it imply –  how do you need to think and act in order to thrive in a VUCA world?

What does VUCA world mean?

The acronym VUCA was first used in 1987 as a means to describe or to reflect on the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity of general conditions and situations. The concept was first introduced by the US military to describe the fundamental change to the world following the end of the Cold War and found expression in the totally new conditions they faced during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

VUCA has subsequently been adopted by thinkers and theories reflecting on strategic leadership and management in all sorts of organisations and fields including multinationals, NGOs, education and health. This use has bled across into more general consciousness. Sure we face VUCA situations and environments at work but geopolitics, demographics, climate change and technology interact over and over in ways that don’t seem to be stopping any time soon and which mean we can begin to talk about a new era, implied in that initial 1987 thinking – the era of a VUCA world.

Let’s look at the definitions and implications of each element of VUCA and at how we might change our thinking to deal with them so we end up with some chance of doing the right thing in this VUCA world.

Volatile

Something is characterised as volatile if it exhibits rapid or unexpected change.

In the business environment the evolution and impact of digital technologies is perhaps the most fertile ground to look for examples of volatility. Just ask an ex-Kodak executive. Digital technology is bleeding across into more and more areas of life. Blue collar or white collar, no one is immune to its ability to bring ‘rapid or unexpected change’. In medicine, for example, AI is quicker and more accurate at analysing some types of body scan than even the best humans with years of  medical training and experience.

Uncertain

Something is characterised as uncertain if it is not able to be relied upon, is wholly or in part unknown, inconstant or unpredictable.

We’ve never had more access to more data. And yet accurate predictions of elections, stock market activity or whether a video game will be a global mega hit continue to elude us. Much of this uncertainty has to do with global nature and interconnectedness or markets and individuals. A lot of it too has to do with our inability to understand the biases we bring to bear when assessing data for meaning and the unconscious influences at work on our decision making.

Complex

Something is characterised as complex where it is impossible to understand the relationship between cause and effect until after the fact. (You can read more about complexity theory here. There’s a great video about it here. )

The rise in complexity is also a function of the world’s increasing interconnectedness. We are making it more complex. But also, as we become more knowledgeable, we realise that more things are interconnected – complex – than had previously been imagined. The human body’s biomass – the bacteria in our gut – is now thought to have such a profound effect on our physical and mental wellbeing – strongly influencing our moods even – that there is a call for it to be categorised as an organ, like blood.

Ambiguous

Something is categorised as ambiguous if there is no clear cut right and wrong answer.

As humans we hate ambiguity. We are programmed to create mental models of the world that have a familiar reinforcing congruity and will bend over backwards intellectually to make the world fit that narrative. Changing our minds is not common currency and it would seem that the less clear cut a situation might be, the more we look to eradicate that ambiguity by taking a strong stance and surrounding ourselves with people that reinforce it. Think Brexit, think US politics, think about what people advocate as the the appropriate response to climate change, identity politics and freedom of speech.

What does VUCA world mean for you?

These are the characteristics of a VUCA world. How might we deal with them? That’s a big question but here are some ideas for a start.

To deal with volatility be clear in your Intent

The US military and Buddhists might not have a lot in common but they are both very clear on the importance of Intent or Intention. In their thinking about dealing with VUCA the US military moved away from a total reliance on detailed planning as :

“Plans survived right up until contact with the enemy.”

They developed a tool called Commanders Intent to help express the one clear goal for a mission or action that all soldiers might be able to understand and work towards achieving  – even if stranded alone with no communication – using their own initiative, experience and observations on the ground. Buddhist thinking dwells often on Intention and Attention. Intention embodies the ultimate expression of ones being. One pays close and focused attention – ideally to the exclusion of all else – on those things that help support that intent

Modern leadership and management models include much talk of purpose, mission, vision and values. The on-the-ground implementation of this thinking remains patchy at best. That’s been OK until now. In a VUCA world it is an existential threat. This is where thinking about Intent lives. It is independent of and adaptable to ones environment. Attention is the scarce resource in the modern world. Intent guides what we must pay attention to – spend our most precious resource on –  in our volatile environment.

To deal with uncertainty cultivate Negative Capability

The poet Keats coined the term Negative Capability identifying it as:

“when [a person] is capable of being in uncertainty, mysteries, doubts, without irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

You can read more about Negative Capability here . You can get a copy of our book on Negative Capability here.

Our education, professional experience and, perhaps above all, the internet have conditioned us always to expect the quick, accurate definitive answer. The more uncertain we are the more we crave a confident answer. The rise of ‘strong’ populist leaders in our uncertain times is testament to this. But in a definitively uncertain world perhaps the most dangerous person in the room is the one who is most confident that they are absolutely right. No matter what. To avoid being that person we must practice being comfortable with not having ‘the answer’ and how to use the space that this creates in our perceptions and thinking with discipline and creativity.

To deal with complexity cultivate emergent insight

If you can’t infer the link between cause and effect in advance, then you need to acknowledge this and plan accordingly. Don’t guess harder, react faster. Set up small experiments to see what will happen and act on the results, amplifying them if positive, shutting them down if not. This is at the core of Agile methodologies and Design-led thinking.

Computer games designers have acknowledged that great gameplay is a complex issue. They have given up trying to design it perfectly in advance but launch early and prepare to adapt based on the live play experience of thousands of users. They call this Economic Design. They even publish tools so that avid and experienced users can enhance the game for themselves. Fortnite was not initially designed for the 100 vs 1 Battle Royale format that swept it to world domination. This was actually a user modification of the initial design. The developers just leapt on it as a great idea. Over 78 million people played Fortnite in August 2018.

78 million.

Build.

Test.

Learn.

Repeat.

Fast.

To deal with ambiguity become more nuanced

That could sound tautological, to deal with ambiguity, deal with ambiguity. But…it’s more nuanced than that.

There are some practical things you can do to be more disciplined about being nuanced. For instance, counterculture author Robert Anton Wilson said:

“Is, is, is – the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t’ know what anything is; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.”

So to be more nuanced, say what seems to be. Try and eradicate ‘is’ from your vocabulary and replace it with ‘seems to be’. Observe how that affects the tone of your writing and the reaction of the people you talk with and work with. Does it change how you feel about your ideas and opinions?

Once you’ve got the hang of this try other ways to loosen your attachment to ‘being right’ or fixation on a definitive ‘answer’. Perhaps work on breaking out of your echo chamber. Online, follow some people you know disagree with you or are from different cultures of world-viewpoints. At work, go and talk to some people in a different department or at different pay grades about your ideas before they are perfectly formed. What meaning can you find in their responses that you didn’t expect? Don’t reject this, as your instincts will urge. Delight in it. Give it your full attention. Ask yourself how it relates to your intent.

Read more about breaking our of your echo chamber at work here and here .

It’s a VUCA world. Enjoy it.

In answering the question: What does VUCA world mean? this article is not proposing a checklist.  These ideas just begin to scratch the surface of how our mindset and skillset need to evolve to thrive in a VUCA world.

Once you accept it’s a VUCA world it is liberating. It frees you from needing to be right, to have an answer.  It’s also challenging. It calls on you to have a strong attachment to a central Intent – a clear purpose for being who you are, doing what you do – and to be prepared to sacrifice mental models and long held opinions in pursuit of this. The good news is that this is also the necessary first step towards the sort of work that is truly satisfying and that makes its mark on the world in a good way. Towards doing the right thing.