Leading and Managing in a VUCA World

Leading and Managing in a VUCA WorldYou might have come across the term “VUCA”, which has been borrowed from the U.S. military and is now often used in a business context to describe our world today. It’s an acronym that stands for “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous” – and that’s a pretty good description of our world now:

  • Volatile: Things are changing fast, often and in big ways
  • Uncertain: It’s difficult to predict the future – even in the short term
  • Complex: There are many factors that affect anything
  • Ambiguous: Things are hazy, fuzzy, and not clearly defined

In a nutshell, it says: Our world is messy.

Many leaders struggle to lead in this VUCA world.

If you’re a leader who has been used to leading by example, leading from the front, leading by showing the way to your people, or leading because you have greater knowledge and experience, you might struggle in this VUCA world. After all, if the world keeps changing, how can you possibly give your people the guidance and direction they have come to expect from you?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t! That might have worked in the past, but it doesn’t anymore.

If you really want to lead effectively now, you need to harness the skills and talents of your entire team. You certainly can’t shield them from all the uncertainty, and you might be pleasantly surprised at how well they can cope with it. After all, they smart, talented, savvy citizens who raise families, buy property, operate heavy machinery to get to your office, organise events, and manage dozens of other complex situations every day. Is it possible that they might be able to do the same at work – if you just gave them the chance?

Here are some specific things you can do to help your entire team thrive in this VUCA world.

1. Expose Volatility: Do Rock the Boat

Instead of trying to shield them from the volatility, expose them to it so they have a better understanding of what happens outside their role. Don’t throw them in the deep end without any support, but do give them some opportunities “above their pay grade”. Look for opportunities where they can stretch and grow, but also environments where they can fail safely. For example:

  • Making an internal presentation to the team before making an important presentation to a client
  • Managing a small non-critical sub-project before managing a large task on the critical path
  • Taking on a new role, but with you (or somebody else) mentoring them in that role

2. Use Uncertainty: Start Before You’re Ready

The future is uncertain, so there’s no point trying to know everything before you get started. Gather enough information to make an informed decision, and then take action fast (and encourage your team to do the same), so you get the chance to try things and get feedback. For example …

  • Not sure how the market will react to a new product? Offer it to a small test group and get their response.
  • Not sure how a team member will cope with additional leadership responsibility? Push her in the deep end, but stay close to provide guidance and support.
  • Not sure how to use webinars to deliver your courses? Start with a small webinar on a familiar topic to a small trusted group.

3. Challenge Complexity: Cut Through The Clutter

Yes, we live in a complex world, but we don’t need to know everything in order to do something. Teach your team members to use better judgement, so they can cut through the clutter and focus on the things that really matter. A key part of decision making is not about making the “right” decision, but knowing which factors matter and which can be safely ignored.

The easiest way to help your team build this good judgement is to give them more opportunities to make decisions! Again, you would start with small, non-critical decisions, of course.

4. Act On Ambiguity: Seek Clarity

If uncertainty is about the future, ambiguity is about the present. Not only is the future fuzzy, but we don’t even have a clear picture right here and now!

The good news is that you can leverage this ambiguity by using it to guide your decision making. If you’ve already determined which factors matter the most (see the previous point about challenging complexity), focus on those areas first. If they are too ambiguous, then figure out what you need to do to get clarity.

For example, if you put your project plan in a Gantt chart, it looks like a beautiful piece of planning. But, as any project manager knows, there’s a huge gulf between the project plan and reality! It’s just a snapshot of where you are now, not a map for where you’re going tomorrow. If you want it to be useful at all, you have to know which items matter the most (those on the critical path), how confident you are about doing them, and – if that confidence is low – how you can become more confident.

The same applies to your people. If you’re thinking of promoting somebody to a management role but aren’t sure how they will cope with it, you wouldn’t send them off to do a two-year MBA first! You would give them small opportunities, mentor them in the role, get their feedback, monitor their progress, and so on. That will give you the clarity and confidence to decide what to do next.

Does all this advice sound obvious?

So what does this boil down to? Give them more opportunities, take small action fast, know what matters most, and get more confidence in fuzzy things.

If that all sounds obvious to you – and you’re already doing these things with your team – great! I’m not surprised to hear that leaders are doing some of these things. And you might be one of the leaders that’s doing them all.

But if you’re one of the many leaders who aren’t doing these things, and are struggling to cope in this VUCA world, try some of these things now in your team. They are all low-risk, low-cost, high-potential ideas that could transform the way you lead your team.

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