LIving and Leading in a VUCA World


It was clear last November at the Drucker Forum on Complexity in Vienna that the majority of participants agreed that we are living in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous time in history. It was the first time I had heard the term VUCA but it quickly resonated with me in terms of the speed, uncertainty, dynamical, and sometimes ambiguous, nature of life today.

So What is a VUCA world

The notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, multilateral world that reportedly first began to emerge during the Cold War. The notion of VUCA was heightened by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and solidified by the financial crisis of 2008, both of which seemed to come out of nowhere and seriously affect so many people’s lives so significantly and so quickly.

Is VUCA the new normal?

The term was subsequently adopted by strategy experts and business leaders to describe the chaotic, turbulent and rapidly changing business environment that has become the “new normal.” In the late 1980s Peter Vaill talked of “permanent white water” as the way things were evolving. This was very new thinking at the time, it resonated and the term became commonplace. Vaill described permanent whitewater as “conditions that are full of surprises” … or “the continual occurrence of problems that are not supposed to happen.” At the same time, changes were occurring in other areas as well, including massive technological changes in many fields, (note the rise of Apple and its very innovative and compelling products) and the rapid and invasive explosion in the use of the Internet, and especially social media and platforms like Facebook.

In broader spheres other happenings were and are having a big impact: Population continues to rise and surpass the 7B mark (2014), climate change and global warming are becoming more and more of a threat, natural disasters are on the rise, disrupting lives, economies, and wreaking havoc for many years following (New Orleans, Haiti, Japan, Philippines). Added to this VUCA, news is now reported globally in nanoseconds on multiple platforms.

Leading and prospering in a VUCA world

All this volatile change and unpredictability is having a huge impact on leadership and problem solving. Agility, adaptability, flexibility, resilience, rapid decision-making (often without all the information) are now required skills if organizations are to succeed in a VUCA world. Einstein’s belief that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” is the reality. But how do we quickly learn to think differently and test out new problem-solving methods and tools?

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