leadership, tips

Tips for leading in a VUCA world

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VUCA – it’s a term that is popping up in business publications with increased frequency. If you’re late to the party and haven’t heard of “VUCA” yet, my guess is that once I tell you what it stands for, you’ll smack your head and nod, much like I did when I first learned there was a German word for not having a comeback until after the fact. (That word is treppenwitz, in case you’re curious).

You’re already living in a VUCA world and – as a leader – your job has probably become more challenging in the last decade because of it. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and it increasingly represents the conditions leaders face and are expected to thrive in – or at least manage through. VUCA is used as a catch-all for these factors, but they are actually each distinct and may occur separately or together. (Here’s a simple chart from HBR that teases them apart a bit.)

While each factor requires a specific course of action (or exploration), there are a few general ideas that I think can help leaders become more effective at navigating these waters…

Be attached to the goal, but be open on how you get there. It’s great to have an end goal in mind so you know where you’re aiming – just realize that there are many paths that can lead you to it.The word “pivot” has emerged on corporate bingo boards in recent years for a reason: In a VUCA world, plans change and you’ll be asked to adapt and shift in response. This can be painful if you’re heavily invested in a single approach or solution.

Instead, when I was leading corporate training initiatives, I found it helpful to (flatteringly) think of myself as a doctor: while my end goal was to have a healthy patient, there were many treatment paths that could get us that outcome. I wasn’t invested in any one specific course, so if my patient wasn’t responding (or had a reaction), I could shift to a different approach. As a leader, I focused on the result and remained open to how we achieved it. Not only did this help me stay flexible and quick to change when needed, it helped me maintain perspective so the abandoned efforts felt like learnings instead of losses.

Help your team get comfortable with shifting. While it’s great if you can lose your attachment to “how” something’s done as I just discussed, the reality is that your team will still be greatly impacted because they’re the people actively sinking hours on building the solution. If you don’t set the stage for multiple shifts along the way, they’ll become demoralized (or think you’re crazy) each time you kill a solution in favor of another path.

I made this mistake (repeatedly!) when I was leading. I assumed my team was operating off the same assumptions I was and knew that a project would likely morph and shift (or be put on hold) multiple times before it crossed the finish line. Oops! There’s no faster way to kill your team’s morale than by making them feel like their work was a waste of time. In reality, it wasn’t – it was necessary to go through the different iterations before arriving at the final solution – but by not setting the stage to expect that, it felt like a waste.

Here are a few of the things I learned from my mistakes on this one:

  • Help set the expectation upfront that this might not be the “final” solution.
  • Emphasize what you’ll LEARN from each iteration – and that the learning is as important as the solution itself.
  • Praise your team for being able to shift. It’s not an easy skill to pick up and is as (or more) valuable than their ability to execute on a solution.
  • When you DO arrive at the goal, go back and show your team how the different iterations contributed to it, so they can see that those earlier attempts were not a waste of effort.

Increase your personal ability to hold uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This sounds vague, but there are actually ways you can groom your brain to be more comfortable with each of these. I regularly leverage concepts from Adult Development Theory to help clients grow in this area.

A few of the techniques we use: 

  • Replacing “or/but” with “and” to foster more inclusive and generative thinking.
  • Recognizing paradoxes as opportunities for “and” thinking (eg. it’s not growth OR innovation – it can be both).
  • Sitting in the question instead of pushing to resolve it.
  • Asking, “how might I be wrong?”

In Conclusion…

These are a few ways you can start cultivating a mindset that is less stressed by conditions outside your control. It’s far from comprehensive, and even so, sometimes little changes can reap big rewards.

I’d be curious to hear from you: What challenges are you wrestling with that stem from volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity? And what tips would YOU provide to other leaders on navigating these waters? 

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