The acronym VUCA was used frequently in US Army War College documents, though the ideas were described a decade earlier in a book titled “Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge”. VUCA aims to support leaders in their efforts to comprehend and contend with a fickle environment; through awareness, adaptability, and contingency planning.
A VUCA World:
Supply and demand will fluctuate as history unfolds. Looking to the recent plague for an example, note that demand for office space dipped since lockdowns kept people at home. In nations where precautions weren’t taken, labor shortages ensued since people were too afraid of the plague to work. All across the world, anxiety over potential shortages convinced people to empty shelves at stores which in turn caused shortages. Even events far less dramatic than a pandemic may send ripples through society changing what people need and how those needs are met.
Knowing what could possibly happen next in our world is difficult. Knowing exactly what would happen next is impossible. In 1954 the US detonated a high yield thermonuclear device on a coral reef amidst the Marshal Islands. Some of the best nuclear scientists in the world swore the experiment would cause merely “acceptable” levels of fallout. Their predictions were off. An unforeseen interaction in the fusion fuel amplified the weapon’s output by a factor of 3. Consequent fallout seriously irradiated adjacent islanders and fishermen, then prompted an international incident after winds spread nuclear ash far and wide.
The human world was always composed of numerous components interacting with each other in unique ways. Stepping away from the beloved plague, consider how modern supply chains often require collaboration from multiple entities scattered across multiple countries. Each link on the chain has their own group of stakeholders to appease and checkbooks to balance.
Limitations in available information conflated by difficulties in interpretation gives rise to an obscured image; some pieces of the puzzle are missing and some are fading out. This issue is exacerbated by insincere actors who deliberately impede understanding. Worst of all, some people do it to themselves. Kodak’s refusal to embrace digital photography in spite of the signs pointing in that direction is a famous example of such delusion.
Surviving in a VUCA world:
Turbulence will tug at you from all directions. In the absence of guiding principles, any enterprise will eventually succumb to caprice. Remember what you set out to do, and ensure these motivations are shared by your workers.
Familiarise yourself with your team. Understand their strengths and weaknesses to picture what you are capable of as a unified force. When deciding on a course of action, do so with your enterprise’s capabilities and limitations in mind.
Be open to criticism. The only thing worse than being told you’re wrong is continuing to be wrong. Listen to your employees and customers. Your employees are familiar with facets of productions that you don’t see. Your customers know what your product may be lacking. Criticism shines light on blind spots, protecting you from your own hubris.
Be willing to employ novel solutions. Though straying from the beaten path is risky, finding a better way will keep you competitive.
Act early and use the time you saved to make corrections where necessary. Retooling a large organization as a whole to take advantage of some development may take too long. Instead, consider adapting a detachment of your force that can respond immediately. If you later on decide to adapt the enterprise as a whole, experience gained through the detachment will prove invaluable.
Don’t be afraid of failure, if you can afford that luxury. Inaction can often be the worst response to a situation. Take measured risks and be attentive to feedback if a project blows over.
Rainy day funds are a must. Not only could reserves keep your business breathing through a catastrophic failure, knowing such a failure can be stomached will make you more venturesome.
When things can go either way, have fallback plans for multiple outcomes. Forethought with the right information can save you from getting blindsided. Having a course of action prepared for when disaster strikes could be the difference between sinking and swimming.
It’s tempting to focus on a vinier of stability instead of the difficult reality underneath. If you can accept the instability that is inherent to our world, you can learn to overcome it. Ignore it, and you won’t see until it hits you. Prepare for upsets, be willing to experiment and always pay attention to cues.