IN 1991, the US Army coined the acronym VUCA in response to the extreme condition in Afghanistan and in Iraq that resulted to the total change in the nature of warfare. The art of their war adapted to the VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.
Finding similarities in the way modern business and economics have radically changed, business tried to make sense of it all to refer to the ever-changing environment with the term VUCA world, now a buzzword in strategic planning and discussions in the business world, which threatens to render those what work today as, possibly, obsolete by tomorrow. VUCA is an old term. And the Covid-19 gave it a re-awakening and newer applications.
Volatility describes the world through the speed of change that occurs in it. As things change continuously, the dynamic situation today transforms, in the turbulent speed of light, to the unthinkable tomorrow. What is true today may not be any more true tomorrow, and what happens next is relatively unexpected and unknown. The more volatile the world is, the more and faster things change.
Uncertainty results from the degree by which we cannot predict the future. If what is happening is not understood and when the basic cause-and-effect is unknown, it lacks the predictability. While the event may be explained after the fact, making a hypothesis or forecast of them is difficult. The more uncertain the world is, the harder it is to predict.
Complexity is brought about by the situation that has many interconnected parts, variables and relationships between them. High complexity makes it impossible to fully analyze to lead to a clear conclusion. The more complex the world is, the harder it is to analyze.
Ambiguity is a situation when information is incomplete, contradictory or inaccurate to draw any rational interpretation. It results to the lack of clarity and confusion on how to make conclusion. The more ambiguous the world is, the harder it is to interpret.
The VUCA world has been here before Covid-19, but the pandemic has made change faster and more volatile, harder to predict and more uncertain, more difficult to analyze and more complex, and, more challenging to interpret and more ambiguous. The whole of humanity’s adaptation brings about more and faster changes, hence, volatile. No one is expert enough to help predict the future in this unprecedented crisis of the modern times painting the gloomy face of uncertainty. The multifaceted nature of the crisis and the more complex human and institutional responses come into play to make it extremely complex. And the novel coronavirus leads to an expected ambiguity. We are in the VUCA world, indeed.
VUCA and leadership
Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School, defines a type of leadership. He calls it VUCA 2.0 giving a complete new meaning to the acronym: Vision—Understanding – Courage—Adaptability.
Vision is the ability to see through chaos and define the organizational ideal state of the future. With core values as its guiding compass, the leader defines the direction of the organization and lead its people by communicating and sharing the vision. Understanding of the leader results from the openness to gain in-depth grasp of rapidly changing circumstances. The leader who has the humility to reflect upon experience, observe the environments, listen and learn will gain greater understanding to navigate the storm. Courage is the risk-taking capability of the leader to make bold decisions and purposeful actions. Leader’s courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it. Adaptability is flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances while maintaining the course towards a vision. As the so-called new normal sets in, the leader leads the adaptation to it by taking the chance to make a choice for change.
This VUCA leadership is essential in the pandemic times as pivot happens when the leader keeps the vision, and by understanding the situation, the leader takes the courage to adapt.
This author proposes a VUCA 4.0 anchored on optimism amid the pandemic experience. VUCA can be given a more positive meaning. Volatility is shifted to Virtuous Values. Uncertainty is converted to Utilitarian Unity. Complexity is translated to Circumspective Clarity. Ambiguity is converted to Agile Action.
Virtuous values anchor the persons and the organizations to the morally good that matters most to them and shared among them. The volatility of change may be mitigated by the virtuous values that define the core and essence of the individual and the organization just like the lighthouse in its rough sail. The pandemic gave us much time to introspect on our core values.
Utilitarian unity promotes collective collaboration and synergy to give the greater good to the greater number. The pandemic should tap the kindness in humanity as a united human species needing to be stronger in fighting the uncertainty brought about by world war against the unseen virus. Humanity never had the shared experience like this and the most opportune moment to re-define the common good.
Circumspective clarity achieves understanding that is crystallized by taking everything into account. The response to Covid-19 is not a tug-of-war between health and economics for indeed there are more variables that come into play. But the complexity can be analyzed by the holographic circumspect to achieve crystal clear clarity—redundancy intended. Agile action executes the strategy in a relentless pursuit to survive in the VUCA world. While hope is essential, it is not a strategy — action is. Ambiguity brought about by the pandemic experience may challenge the readiness for action but agility pivots such action to achieve results, or at least lessons in case they fail. Pivot shifts strategies while sticking to the vision in a situation where inaction is unacceptable.
The VUCA world paints a gloomy picture of the world that was and continues to validate itself in the Covid-19 world. But as humanity makes choices, the VUCA world may spell out something to make individuals, families, organizations and humanity survive, and thrive. After all, what does not kill us makes us strong to head on creating footprints, onwards.