The future is here, although it is not evenly distributed.  During these uncertain times, rapid change, and disruption, it is good to have a supportive approach to challenging situations. 

One support is VUCA, which stands for – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous

I can feel you all going ah ha – now I get it, those words all explain what I am seeing.  But what do they actually mean?

Volatile – according to the dictionary means “liable to change rapidly and unpredictably”.  In a business sense this occurs through external events that affect us, e.g. CHCH earthquake, or most recently COVID, where borders are closed halting any international students coming in.   To have more control - counteract volatility with Vision:

1. Accept and embrace change  as a constant, unpredictable feature of your working environment. Don't resist it.

2. Create a strong, compelling statement of team objectives and values , and develop a clear, shared vision  of the future. Make sure that you set your team members flexible goals that you can amend when necessary. This allows them to navigate unsettled, unfamiliar situations, and react quickly to changes.

Uncertainty – from the dictionary means “not to be relied on; not known or definite”, the extent of which we can confidently foresee the future.  Rather than a volatile event, this is more known as we understand the basic causes but are unsure of the timing or scale of changes e.g. the affect of not having international students, the exchange rates, etc.  A solution is to look at our KPI’s and be prepared to respond as things become clearer so we can act, stay informed and monitor, review, and challenge to meet uncertainty with understanding:

1. Pause to listen and look around. This can help you understand and develop new ways of thinking and acting in response to VUCA's elements.

2. Review and evaluate your performance. Consider what you did well, what came as a surprise, and what you could do differently next time.

3. Simulate and experiment with situations, so that you can explore how they might play out, and how you might react to them in the future. Aim to anticipate possible future threats and devise likely responses.  Scenario planning , crisis planning , and role playing  are useful tools for generating foresight and preparing your responses. 

Complex – we are all complex as humans, just as much as business and politics. The risks are often in the unpredicted or unplanned consequences. We need to consider the variety and relationships between these factors. Diversity in leadership and governance can help with differing viewpoints, and experiences, which are more likely to recognise possible pitfalls. The more complex things are the harder they are to analyse. So, react to complexity with clarity:

1. Communicate clearly  with your people. In complex situations, clearly expressed communications  help them to understand your team's or organisation's direction.

2. Develop teams  and promote collaboration. VUCA situations are often too complicated for one person to handle. So, build teams that can work effectively in a fast-paced, unpredictable environment. 

Ambiguous – according to the dictionary means “open to more than one interpretation: not having obvious meaning”.  Ambiguity is when we do not have clear information, that information is contradictory, or too imprecise to gain clarity to make decisions.  For us in business it there are no precedents and to off set this we need to gather as much data as we can, improve or change our approach.  Look at fighting ambiguity with agility:

1. Promote flexibility, adaptability and agility. Plan ahead, but build in contingency time and be prepared to alter your plans as events unfold.

2. Hire, develop and promote people who thrive in VUCA environments. These people are likely collaborative, comfortable with ambiguity and change, and have complex thinking skills .

3. Encourage your people to think and work outside of their usual functional areas, to increase their knowledge and experience. Job rotation and cross training  can be excellent ways to improve team agility.

4. Lead your team members but don't dictate to or control them. Develop a collaborative  environment, and work hard to build consensus . Encourage debate, dissent, and participation from everyone.

5. Embrace an "ideas culture."  Kevin Roberts, of advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, coined this alternative VUCA definition: "Vibrant, unreal, crazy, and astounding." This describes the kind of energetic culture that can give teams and organizations a creative, agile edge in uncertain times.

6. Reward  team members who demonstrate vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. Let your people see what kind of behaviour you value by highlighting innovations and calculated risk-taking  moves.

Benefits and barriers to managing in a VUCA World

In an organisation that's affected by VUCA, you have a choice. Either you allow VUCA to "manage," overload and overwhelm you, or you accept and manage it, so that you and your team can mitigate its effects. When you decide to accept VUCA, you choose to make yourself and your people less vulnerable, and you empower everyone to deal with uncontrollable, unpredictable forces.

One of the biggest challenges of managing in a VUCA world is having team members who resist change. They may refuse to accept that the world has evolved, want to stick with "tried and tested" methods, or simply fail to see the full picture. They might even be paralyzed by fear and fail to take action.

Avoid using an inflexible, autocratic leadership style . In a VUCA world, collaboration, participation, debate, and even dissent are more important than obedience, command and groupthink  – they allow you to remain flexible and to take action quickly. 

Cynefin Framework for decision making

To help in your thinking and problem solving methods around VUCA, consider the Cynefin Framework (a leaders framework for decision making) which assists us to appreciate that all situations are not created equally and that various situations require different reactions to successfully navigate them.  This framework not only tells us how to approach a set of different issues, but the characteristics also explain enough to help us recognise the situation.  This simple approach can be applied to all levels of the organisation and can gain great insights when applied.  The net takeaway is that you need to pair the right approach with the corresponding situation to achieve optimal outcomes.

Cynefin Framework 4


The five domains of Cynefin Framework are:

Cynefin Framework 2

Pause and reflect

The challenge for you is - you can view VUCA as a challenge to improve your leadership and management skills, you choose to make yourself and your people less vulnerable, and you empower everyone to deal with uncontrollable, unpredictable forces and turn it into an opportunity to make your team more effective by focusing on the following areas:

  • Implementation: work with your people to address VUCA threats at a team level.
  • Decision making: see complexity and uncertainty as drivers for delving deeper before making decisions , rather than as overwhelming forces.
  • Innovation  and creativity: consider process and workflow innovation as a way to tackle VUCA, rather than as something that might suffer because of it.
  • Searching for opportunities: look for better deals and opportunities, instead of relying on your usual vendors and suppliers. In a VUCA world, these opportunities can be fleeting, so you have to stay alert and seize them when they arise.
  • Team building  and organisational culture: adversity and challenge can unsettle people, but they can also focus their attention and encourage them to work towards a common goal.
  • Recruitment: improve agility by promoting and recruiting people who are comfortable in less structured and ever-changing environments.

Deal with one situation and collaboratively brainstorm possible resolutions in say a post-it note activity.  Discuss the alternatives and identify 1 or 2 courses of action the team can take.

This post is based on material from:
Kraaijenbrink, (2018). What does VUCA really mean?
Mindtools. Managing in a VUCA World - Thriving in Turbulent Times
Wester, (2013). Understanding the Cynefin Framework – a basic intro.


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Leadership Support Toolbox | Leadership Matters | Leading in an uncertain world (11 November 2020)

Published on 11 Nov 2020

Orderdate: 11 Nov 2020
Expiry: 11 Nov 2022