VUCA used to be a buzzword. Now leading in a VUCA world is an everyday reality. But how many leaders are equipped for leadership in a VUCA world? The good news is that you can upgrade your leadership for a VUCA world by developing a complexity mindset. Read on for tips on how you can do this.
What is VUCA?
But first things first, what is VUCA? VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The VUCA framework was created by the US Army to describe the challenges of active combat. VUCA has been widely adopted across the business world because it resonates so well with the challenges leaders are facing every day.
Volatility means multiple changes, on multiple fronts, all at once. This is now so common in the working world that we barely notice it.
Complexity doesn’t mean extra complicated, it’s a different animal altogether. Complexity means things are entangled. Change one thing and you’ll be changing other things which are tangled up in unexpected ways. That’s why unintended consequences come along for the ride in even the best planned change.
Uncertainty and Ambiguity are unavoidable when you have complexity and volatility.Change means that today will be different to yesterday, and tomorrow will be different again. As we deal with yesterday’s opportunities and challenges, new ones will be emerging now. This makes it impossible to get real clarity and agreement about what is going on.
What is VUCA leadership?
The world really is both complex and changing. What that means is that uncertainty and ambiguity are not going away. We can’t just create certainty and clarity. If only! In fact, one of the few certainties is that we don’t fully know what’s going on. One reason for that is that things are all tangled up. So if we focus on fixing one thing, we may be unfixing other things without realising it. The other main reason that we don’t fully know what’s going on is because everything’s changing.
That’s why we need VUCA leadership. Upgrading your leadership for a VUCA world means actively engaging with uncertainty and ambiguity, not ignoring them! VUCA leadership is learning-informed leadership. While we can’t fully know what’s going on, that doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. We need to learn what’s changing so we can adapt, and make good leadership choices based on today’s insight, rather than yesterday’s habit.
Upgrading your leadership for a VUCA world means thinking differently by developing a complexity mindset. The 5 tips below are practical things that any leader can start to bring into their everyday leadership.
Five practical tips for developing a complexity mindset
- Slow down to speed up. When you’re faced with volatility and continuous change, it’s natural to try and speed up to catch up, but that’s the wrong response. You’ll wear yourself out trying. It could even lead to leadership burnout. And you’ll probably find yourself going round in circles trying to re-solve the same old problems. Instead, pause and pay attention to what’s going on around the problem you’re trying to solve.
- When you feel an answer coming on, ask another question. In a changing world, answers date quickly. Under pressure, it’s natural to think, ‘oh I’ve seen this before, I know what to do’. But the world has changed. So, instead of jumping to conclusions and then leaping into action, pause and ask a question. ‘What’s changing?’ is a good one. ‘What am I/are we missing?’ is a great one.
- Talk to people who see things differently to you. It’s reassuring to talk to people who see things in the same way that we do. But chances are, we’re not seeing the bigger picture. Instead, actively seek out people from different parts of the business, find people who have genuinely different views and experiences. Ask them some questions.
- Don’t try and boil the ocean. Complexity isn’t all or nothing. Trying to get to grips with all the complexity is an impossible task and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and retreat to the familiar world of trying to create certainty. But opening your mind to a bit more of the complexity around the issues you’re trying to address really is better than nothing.
- Look for the smallest thing. It’s common to think that big changes always need a big and large-scale effort that takes a huge amount of time for planning and resourcing. Instead ask yourself, what’s the smallest thing I could do now? Then try it and engage your learning-informed leadership to adapt your next response.
If you’re ready to upgrade your leadership for a VUCA world, we’re happy to help.
If you want to know more, Sharon’s book ‘Leadership in Complexity and Change: For a world in constant motion’ will get you started. It focuses on what managers can do to activate leadership in the midst of complexity and change.