Leading Through Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA)

Leading Through VUCA

Leading Through Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA)

Over the past few months, a number of companies have asked me to help their leaders lead in the midst of VUCA.  These organizations include a US-based company that is preparing for a possible, but not certain, merger and needs to continue to serve its customers, grow and innovate as it awaits approval. A European pharmaceutical company that is reorganizing to be even more responsive to the marketplace. A global financial services company that is adopting new technologies and leveraging AI to meet its increasingly tech-savvy customers’ expectations.

Most likely you are familiar with the acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and was first used by the US Army War College to describe the contemporary battlefield. Today VUCA is widely used in the changing landscape of business.

 

For each of these above scenarios and many more, business success depends on the ability to compete in a rapidly changing climate.

The Agility Shift starts with expanding our understanding of what it means to be a leader.

 

Everybody is a Leader in a VUCA Environment

When things are changing rapidly, there is no time to run every challenge or opportunity up through the chain of command.

As I define in The Agility Shift, “an agile leader is anyone who spots a challenge or opportunity and effectively responds”. This definition expands the understanding of leadership from the command and control model of yesterday to one focused on communication, collaboration and coordination. No longer is leadership designated by your job title, compensation package or place in the org chart. In VUCA environments, everyone is a leader. Everyone must be empowered to act to serve the customer and the needs of the business.

 

Which Aspect of VUCA Do You Prioritize?

To understand the leadership implications of VUCA, you need to identify which of the four characteristics are most relevant to your current situation. The matrix below, first proposed by Bennet and Lemoine (2014) may help begin to identify your leadership priorities:

Leading through VUCA

VUCA Examples

Ambiguity

  • Moving into a new market
  • Launching a new product, creating a new strategic alliance
  • Expanding beyond your core competencies
  • Big leadership or organizational changes

Complexity

  • Doing business in global markets
  • Multiple stakeholders with competing or shifting  priorities
  • Multiple brands, products, supply chains, distribution channels

Uncertainty

  • Competition is launching a new product/service and the impact on the market not known
  • Merger/Acquisition MAY be on the horizon
  • Proposed legislation/regulations MAY be adopted.

Volatility

  • Natural disaster
  • Supply chain disruption
  • Labor dispute
  • Technology breach
  • Geopolitical instability
  • PR/Ethics Scandal

Of course, each of the four characteristics of VUCA rarely happens in isolation. For example, you might be experiencing volatility and complexity at the same time (A sudden change in leadership at the same time as your competitor launches a new product).

Think about which of these examples and characteristics, or VUCA combinations, best describes the eco-system in which you do business.

Which VUCA characteristics are most relevant to the challenges and opportunities you are confronting in your organization? Department? Your role as a leader?

Make Shift Happen

Now that you have identified the characteristics of VUCA that are most relevant to your current situation and before you start thinking about specific strategies and tactics to be effective, it is time to make the mindset shift to ensure you are setting yourself up for success.

 

Mindset Shift: From Planning to Preparing

In stable contexts, we can rely on the tried and true practices of planning and analysis. When the future, not to mention the present, is uncertain and unpredictable, we must make a mindset shift toward preparing and enter a state of readiness.

Just as improv performers, athletes, and SWAT teams train and prepare for various high-stakes, high-stress scenarios, you can expand your capability and capacity to be effective when things don’t go as planned.

The best practices below fall into two key and interdependent categories: 1) People and talent development strategies and 2) Systems and processes. They are interdependent because you can have the best systems and processes in the world and if you have not developed your people to make the necessary mindset and skillset shift, you will be disappointed in their performance when it counts most.

Leading Through VUCA Best Practices

As you read the following best practices for leading through VUCA, pay particular attention to those that are within your span of control or influence.

Volatility

Characterized by an unpredictable, unstable situation, though not necessarily complicated. Information is available as events unfold.

  • Train for role elasticity and develop “generalizing specialists.”
  • Improve decision-speed
  • Build redundancy into your system and build slack into the supply chain
  • Leverage technology and alternative strategies to ensure continuous communication
  • Regularly train for various disruptions, and ID needed skills, knowledge, and talent
  • Tap your hi-potentials for temporary assignments

Uncertainty

Characterized by a lack of key actionable information, such as timing, duration, cause and effect.

  • Tap your Relational Web to:
    • Reduce uncertainty
    • Gather additional information and insight, including customer data, market analytics
    • Improve access to market insights via resources like slack and yammer
    • Reflect on and share experiences of successfully working through uncertainty
  • Identify the givens of the current situation and focus on what is within your span of control
  • Provide or seek career-pathing and “stay interviews” so you can identify people’s interests and strengths to keep them engaged
  • Implement agile performance appraisals and regularly provide feedback and acknowledge agile success

Complexity

Characterized by an overwhelming amount of information, interconnected or moving parts and relationships.

  • Improve communication, collaboration and coordination
  • Clarify decision-rights
  • Adapt organizational structure and expertise to match the complexity of the context
  • Identify people who have strengths and experience in dealing with complexity
  • Recruit and develop people who can thrive in complexity (See The Agility Shift, chapters 8-9).

Ambiguity

Characterized by a lack of information and precedent, making the ability to predict the impact of actions a challenge.

  • Create (some) clarity
  • Make space for interactions
  • Re-engage and recommit to your purpose
  • Understand and prioritize user needs
  • Focus on your MVP (Minimal Viable Product)
  • Practice rapid prototyping to fail faster and learn quicker
  • Experiment and pilot to discover what you don’t know
  • Make time to learn the lessons from experience and carry them forward

These ideas are not intended as a prescription for the issues and opportunities that are most pressing for you and your fellow agile leaders. They will help get the conversation started and lead to thoughtful strategic and tactical approaches that build your competence, capacity, and confidence to effectively lead through VUCA.


Contact Me to Learn More About Leading Through VUCA


Pamela Meyer, Ph.D. is the author of The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. She is a sought-after keynote speaker and works with leaders and teams across industries who need innovative learning and talent development strategies to make the mindset and business shift to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.


Bennett, J. and Lemoine, G., (2014) What VUCA Really Means for You, Harvard Business Review, January-February Issue.

 

Developing Agile Employees Who Can Thrive in the Age of VUCA

Developing Agile Employees in the Age of VUCAWritten by Pamela Meyer, PhD

By now VUCA is common language for the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity of business. The term originated at the US Army War College to describe the changing conditions on the battlefield, and its wider usage now serves as a call to action for all those who wish to be more agile and effective in an increasingly complex global world.

How should we prepare the workforce?

It would be a mistake to lump all aspects of VUCA together, as volatility calls for a different response than ambiguity. Yet, when it comes to developing employees who perform effectively in the midst of the unplanned and unexpected, there is a universal need to shift the way we prepare the workforce.

Most employee development strategies assume a stable future and that the skills and knowledge learned today can be readily applied to tomorrow’s conditions. VUCA challenges those assumptions and urgently calls for new approaches and strategies to develop employees at all levels of the organization who can learn and adapt in changing contexts—in other words, employees who are not only agile but are learning agile. Recent research on learning agility, as well as lessons from those preparing for such diverse roles as those on SWAT teams; and improv troupes, can guide us in developing a more agile workforce.

Rather than develop competence and confidence to execute a set plan or follow a script, agile individuals train to be effective in the midst of the unexpected and unplanned developments and are prepared to adjust in rapidly changing conditions. For most businesses and their employees, this represents a significant shift, one I have come to call the Agility Shift. It begins with a shift in mindset and follows through to a shift in how employees make decisions and the actions they take.

 

The Agility Shift

For film crews, SWAT, and improv teams very little of their ability to think on their feet comes from classroom training or their formal Agile Employeescredentials. They develop their agility competence and confidence in hands-on and often high-stakes situations. Similarly, helping employees develop their agility competence and confidence requires a shift away from traditional approaches that rely primarily on pre-planned curricula, delivered via a range of onsite or online channels toward more informal learning strategies, where 70-90% of workplace learning takes place (Kim, Hagedorn, and Collins et al., 2001).

Below I highlight six of the most impactful shifts you and your learning and talent development team can make below:

1. Shift From Planning to Preparing

Most business schools and training programs are effective in helping people analyze data, develop and execute a plan. They are less successful in helping them quickly turn unexpected challenges into opportunities, or improvise with available resources. VUCA conditions require a shift away from an over-reliance on the plan, to one that focuses on preparing employees to think on their feet and be confident in their ability to respond to the unexpected.

Improvisers don’t rehearse, because of course, there is nothing to re-hear, but they do regularly get together to workout by playing games and improvising new scenes. SWAT teams similarly prepare for hundreds of scenarios, which not only expands their repertoire of responses but also their individual and team confidence when they encounter the completely unexpected.

2. Shift From Information to Interactions

In my work with organizations, I discovered that the agility shift also requires employees who can quickly tap their web of relationships and resources, or their “Relational Web,” to respond to new challenges and opportunities. Information is, of course, still valuable; its value, however, is realized through the interactions between and among employees as they make sense of what is happening, and then decide, and take action based on their sense-making. Researchers Beckey and Okhuysen’s study of film crews shows the value of the Relational Web, which includes awareness of available resources, a social-professional network, as well as past experience. On a film shoot, time is money. With hundreds of variables on any given day, from the weather to equipment failure to illness, everyone on the crew must be prepared to adapt, switch roles, and make optimal use of available resources. The time to discover and build this Relational Web is not in the midst of a crisis but through their day-to-day interactions.

3. Shift From Command and Control to Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration

This third component of the agility shift has significant implications for employee development, and even organizational structure. Agile teams and organizations do not miss opportunities or slow their response time because they are waiting for approval, or waiting for someone with the correct job description to become available. Like their improvising counterparts in the theater, they communicate, coordinate and collaborate in the present moment. This means shifting the focus of employee development from narrowly defined skills and knowledge to creating what IT consultant Scott Ambler calls “generalizing specialists” (2014) who can communicate, collaborate, and coordinate whenever and with whomever to respond to unpredictable challenges and opportunities as they arise.

4. Share Responsibility for Learning and Agile Employee Development

In addition to the mindset and strategy shift described above, the agility shift also requires that the responsibility for learning and Agile Employeesemployee development be shared across organizational roles, especially by the employees themselves. This means helping employees become more learning agile. Just as healthy people don’t abdicate responsibility for their wellness because they have access to doctors, we don’t want our employees to give up responsibility for their learning and growth because the company offers training resources.

Learning agile employees take responsibility for their own learning. They are not only effective at thinking on their feet, but they are also able to quickly tap their prior experience to be successful in new and unfamiliar situations. This ability first gained the attention of Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Ann Morrison in the late 80s when they studied the significant learning experiences of more than 190 executives. They found that the key to success within a complex organization was the ability to manage something new without having to master it first (McCall, Morgan, and Lombardo, 1988). Learning agility is now widely cited as a critical success factor for long-term leadership success (De Meuse, Dai, and Hallenbeck, 2010).

5. Shift From Formal to Informal Development Strategies

Coach employees to seek out stretch opportunities. Studies of successful executives highlight the value of taking on new roles that stretch employees outside of their comfort zone. These can include expanded responsibilities, a broader scope of current responsibilities (e.g., from managing a team to a full department, or a distributed global team) and/or working in a new culture.

6. Shift From Planning and Analysis to Rapid Prototyping

You don’t need to be a software developer to experiment with some of the concepts of agile methodology. Many organizations, such as Ericsson, are using lessons from agile methodologies throughout their organization to shorten product development time and increase profits.

Rather than develop a detailed plan up front, agile developers collaborate with their customers (who may be internal) to agree on the objectives and prioritize product features. They then move into action in short work cycles to get working versions of the product (idea, project) into the hands of the customer or end-user as soon as possible to test, setting in motion an action-feedback cycle that greatly reduces the implementation time.

Shifting your employee development strategies must include a shift in how and what you recognize and reward. The best success indicator for the agile employee is not only whether or not they meet their sales goals or implemented the strategic plan effectively, but it is also how effective they are when things didn’t go as planned, or when they are thrown into a new situation with little or no preparation. By including indicators of agile performance in your evaluation and recognition programs, you will reinforce the mindset and behavior shift needed for success in a VUCA world.

The ideas in this article are adapted from my latest book The Agility Shift: Creating Agile Leaders, Teams and Organizations.

 

Ambler, Scott W. (2014). Generalizing specialists: Improving your IT career skills. Agile Modeling. Retrieved November 19, 2014, 2014, from http://agilemodeling.com/essays/generalizingSpecialists.htm

Bennett, Nathan, & Lemoine, G. James. (2014). What VUCA really means for you. Harvard Business Review, 92(1/2), 27.

De Meuse, Kenneth P., Dai, Guangrong, & Hallenbeck, George S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 119-130. doi: 10.1037/a0019988

Kim, K., Hagedorn, Collins, Williamson, J., & Chapman, C. (2004). Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: 2000–01. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

McCall, Morgan W., Lombardo, Michael M., & Morrison, Ann M. (1988). Lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Mitchinson, Adam, & Morris, Robert (2012). Learning about learning agility. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership, Teachers College Columbia University.

Tap the Agile Power of Your Relational Web

Tap the Agile Power of Your Relational Web

By Pamela Meyer, PhD with contributions from Nick Freiling, Director of PeopleFish

Over the past two years, we have collected and analyzed almost 1,000 Agility Shift Inventories (ASI) from people working in organizations large and small, across industries and nations. Each individual who takes the ASI receives a snapshot of their current agility capacity and opportunities, based on their answers. They also receive our complimentary Agility Shift Catalyst and Conversation Guide, that provides a series of reflective questions and action steps to help them begin to make their own individual agility shift.

While individuals are using their results to expand their own agility competence, capacity and confidence, we have been aggregating and analyzing the anonymized results looking for additional trends and actionable insights to help our clients reach their business goals.

Our Surprising/Not so Surprising Finding

One of the first things that caught our attention was how significant a role an individual’s Relational Web plays as a predictor of their overall agility. If you are new to the six dynamics of The Agility Shift, the Relational Web is your web of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources that you need to be able to tap at a moment’s notice when things don’t go as planned or when a new opportunity emerges.

Understanding the Dynamics of Your Relational Web

The Relational Web is woven into each of the other five dynamics of agility and is at the center of the Agility Shift model, for a reason. All of my prior research and experience helping organizations become more agile and innovative showed a link between the size and diversity of the Relational Web to individuals, teams and the entire organization’s ability to be agile.

We were surprised and excited by additional correlations we found between an individual’s Relational Web and other agility-enhancing behaviors. For example, those who report intentionally making and building connections that expand their Relational Web are also significantly more likely to practice other key behaviors linked to overall agility. These include evaluating the diversity of relationships to ensure access to multiple perspectives, effectively making sense and meaning of what is happening when things don’t go as planned, and intentionally becoming aware of new resources in the environment.

The graphic below highlights some of the most interesting and actionable correlations.

These findings align with other recent research, such as the Google study of 180 of their teams, in which they found that the most successful teams had leaders with the largest and most diverse social networks (one aspect of the Relational Web). These leaders were also intentional about making and building their connections by doing things like regularly rotating who they ate lunch with.

We have long known of the importance of networking for career success. Our latest findings highlight the value of consistently and intentionally weaving a dynamic Relational Web for sustained agility.

So What? Turning Insight into Action

Whether you are a sole practitioner, individual contributor, or a leader with hundreds of reports there are things you can do to turn these latest insights into positive action:

Expand your awareness and access to available resources. Attend (or organize) meet and greets for new colleagues. Learn about emerging technologies or other relevant developments in your environment.

Build meaningful connections with other people. This goes beyond sending and accepting LinkedIn invites. It means understanding the value of building connections that are founded on more than their transactional or operational value.

Participate in informal networks and affinity groups. Whether in a focused Community of Practice or simply a community, you can connect and build relationships and share resources with others who share your passion for continuous growth and learning.

Review your on-boarding experience with the RW in mind—does it help people discover who does what, become familiar with available resources, build relationships?

Seek and provide opportunities to expand your/your employees Relational Web and organize/participate in:

  • Volunteer projects
  • Job shadowing/mentoring programs
  • Recreational activities
  • Off-sites
  • Industry, vendor or practice-area conferences
  • Lunch & Learns

In coming weeks, I will share more actionable insights from our research. In the meantime, I invite you to inventory your own agility capacity by setting aside a few minutes to take the complimentary Agility Shift Inventory.

We have also developed a Team version of the ASI designed to give your entire team or department actionable insights for building on their strengths to improve agility and overall business results. Our clients find this resource particularly valuable to jumpstart agility, or to help their team lay the foundation for success whether they are adopting agile project management methodology, or simply wanting to improve overall success. Click here to learn more about the Team ASI, or contact us here.

Why You Should Say Yes to Those Holiday Party Invitations

Why You Should Say Yes to Those Holiday Party Invitations

This time of year many of us experience some mix of angst and overwhelm when we receive invitations to attend yet another holiday party. If you are an introvert, like me (I know this comes as a surprise to anyone who has heard me speak or lead workshops), and find such large group social interactions a bit stressful, here is my advice: Say, yes!

Many of you know that the first lesson of improvisation is to say, “yes, and . . .” This means accepting every offer and agreeing to build on it because every invitation likely holds an unexpected opportunity.

Whether the decision to go feels exciting or laborious, remember that a holiday party is a new opportunity to strengthen and engage your Relational Web and you should take it!

A study of 180 teams at google found that the most productive employees intentionally build the largest networks. How? By regularly rotating their dining partners!

Holiday parties are a unique opportunity to maintain and create relationships because they are a natural time to connect, share resources and learn about others. At a recent HR association holiday party, I met a Boston University alum, my undergrad alma mater, and rediscovered a whole new opportunity for expanding my Relational Web via the alumni network.

In the spirit of saying, “Yes and…”

Here are six steps to building your Relational Web this season:

    1. Be Intentional – Setting down the hot cocoa and warm blanket to go to a holiday party shows you are being intentional about  building your relationships. Do you have some gaps in your Relational Web that need filling in? Maybe you are looking for an executive coach to recommend to a client or additional marketing resources. Remember, those that are successful don’t leave their agility to chance
    2. Reconnect – Holiday parties provide a casual atmosphere to reconnect with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Start by seeking out familiar faces and find out what they are most proud of or excited about in their work or other areas of their life this past year. This will set the stage for you to expand out of your comfort zone and meet new people.
    3. Extend Your Reach –  If you started with a familiar face, ask them who they think you should meet to expand and diversify your Relational Web, or even better, who else might benefit from connecting to others in your network. Be bold and warmly, introduce yourself to those you don’t know. My experience is that most people are relieved that someone new is joining their conversation, or rescuing them from standing solo by the miniature quiche table.
    4. Share Your Passion, then Listen   Be enthusiastic. Talking about what you enjoy is often contagious and will open up the conversation. Some of my favorite non-work topics are skiing (though be careful of showing too much interest!), recent travel adventures and the latest developments in arts and culture. Be sure your enthusiasm doesn’t hi-jack the conversation. Share just enough to give others a chance to share theirs.
    5. Exchange Ideas  Not all resources are tangible. Festive settings offer a unique opportunity for free-flowing dialogue.  Find out what others are excited about or working on and offer to connect them to skills, knowledge, talent and other resources in your Relational Web.
    6. Remember to Follow Up –  Did you thank the host or organizer, or follow up with your new connections with the promised link to an article you mentioned or that tour guide from your recent trip to Athens? Establishing yourself as a reliable resource is the first step to expanding your own resources.

Remember, the time to weave your web of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources is NOT when the unexpected challenge or opportunity hits, but day in and day out. Those upcoming holiday parties are ready-made for this. Say, “Yes!” and start weaving!

Are you looking for more ways to improve your Agility? Take the complimentary Agility Shift Inventory Today!

The Agility Shift Inventory (ASI) offers individual leaders, teams and entire organizations an opportunity to become more aware of the state of agility in their current context. This awareness is the first step in beginning a generative conversation and receiving guidance about where your energy and resources will be most effectively spent to improve business performance.