Talking VUCA

Context is everything. Recently I delivered a workshop on strategic decision making for our senior leaders. I started the session by talking about VUCA. For the uninitiated, it’s an acronym used to describe the nature of change:
– volatility
– uncertainty
– complexity
– ambiguity

It’s origins come from the military where it’s used to describe the different environments they encounter and the types of strategies needed for them. It’s easy enough to see that this same acronym has resonance for the organisational world we live in.

It helps give people another way to consider the range of challenges they face, understand them in a different way and potentially work through solutions. Indeed the people I was with came up with many examples of how they experience VUCA. We’re all subject to factors outside our control, and there is a propensity to want to control those factors as much as is possible.

The things we’re learning in this space are around collaboration, creativity and simplicity. VUCA helps provide a language that people can make the target of their challenges. It might even act as the beginnings of a framework in better analysing these challenges and the nature of them. By it’s very definition it demands intelligence and sophistication in dealing with those challenges.

In this piece from Simon Heath, he argues for the need for simplicity and I wonder, is the answer not ever such? Answers arise and are often the obvious way forward. Sometimes they feel too easy, especially in the work context and it doesn’t feel like it should be that easy. So we write papers, prepare presentations, create fandangled communication campaigns all with the aim in mind of showing how intelligent an answer something is. And yet if something can happen easily, without need for sophistication and it being simple, does it have less worth as a solution?

My call is this. I find using VUCA a useful way to help people understand and potentially navigate the challenges they face. I’ve used it in a number of contexts where it is supportive of the content. The solutions we develop and the answers we seek don’t need to be in the same vain. They might be, and that may be the way forward, but let’s not do that because it’s a default. Let’s do that because it’s the right solution.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Talking VUCA”

  1. Hi Sukh, I have been percolating on this for a while as I agree and disgaree with some of what you say. Context is everything, spot on, it really is. Consideration of what is happening around us at micro (in this discussion, interaction), macro (within the organisation, social (within the wider context outside of the organisation and in the sector) and possibly even wider say national or global (what is happening in the wider world) levels is really important.

    I am also less sure that the current context (national or global) is any more or less VUCA than before. Has the past been less volatile…. uncertain…. complex…. ambiguous? I’d argue no. I do get that you are not saying ‘now is VUCA, past was not’ so that means VUCA is a term that is being used to give people (outside of the military) a term or langauge that they can use to help them navigate the world. My challenge… if we have survived all these years without it, can we not do so now? I am also aware that my argument may be flawed by the nature that new words are invented all the time. Some of the words in this post will not have existed in the past and/or meant different things. Hmmmm, makes me think more.

    It is also true to say that I am a little bit fed up with hearing about VUCA. It seems to be a term that is being trotted out there by anyone and everyone as the big new issue the world is facing. It isn’t (at least not in my view anyway).

    Thank you for getting me thinking.

    1. Phil, this is an epic response. I’m glad it sparked something in you and that it’s been playing on your mind.

      If you take away you aversion to referring to VUCA as the big new issue facing the world, what does that leave you with?

      I’ve been cautious on the VUCA thing. I find it has value as a way of thinking. I also find that used fleetingly it is simply a buzzword.

      1. Hey Sukh, I am with you on being cautious on the whole VUCA thing. Partly because (as I think it was @kevwyke said to me) it is too close to verruca. What do you mean by ‘what does that leave you with’? As in if I don’t use the term VUCA to describe the current context, what do I use instead?

        For me the world and our lives have always been VUCA. What is different now then? I’ve been thinking about that today in between stuff I’ve been doing. Where I have landed (for now at least) is that social has made the presence stronger.

        I remember at L&D Show 2014 we talked about emotional contagion and was part of the reason day 1 seemed to ‘tank’ so much because of the chatter online? Did we feed off each others emotions and create a view that day one was pants and so (confirmation bias & refractory period at play) we saw stuff that reinforced what we thought or felt.

        Some interesting studies on emotional contagion
        (sometimes pnas, the publisher of the 2nd link have some really poorly researched stuff, this one looks Ok at first glance tho)

        So, with that is mind, my hypothesis is that the world has always been VUCA, it is the increased (hyper)connectedness of the world that amplifies these feelings.

        I don’t know the answer, overuse of the term pisses me off, more to think about.


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