Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Responding to VUCA

The business world loves an acronym and one that’s been doing the rounds in the last few years is VUCA – the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world we now work in. For many of us this probably does seem a pretty good description of our current internal and external environment. If this is the case, what can we do about it?  A number of businesses have embraced the antidote to VUCA of focusing on our Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility, as proposed by Bob Johansen of the Institute of the Future. This broadly makes sense, however when it comes to dealing with ‘Complexity’, in our experience searching for ‘Clarity’ is not the answer.

So what does this antidote look like in practice? In terms of ‘Vision’, leaders at all levels need to communicate clearly where we are headed and how that will benefit our customers and our business – whilst staying open and flexible as to how we might get there.

‘Understanding’ is about making a conscious effort to ‘stop, look and listen’ to a wide variety of sources and perspectives (from customers, competitors, employees at all levels, critics, insights from data, market commentators, and those currently outside your market).  Having a full and detailed picture of what is going on will help you make an informed decision as to when to persevere, iterate or pivot completely.

Even before the current digital revolution speeded things up enormously, our experience over the past 30 years is that the search for clarity in today’s complex and matrix organizations is futile.  Better to get used to and embrace ambiguity – keeping in mind the ultimate goal and vision.  Former CEO and chair of Medtronic suggests the antidote to Complexity should instead be Courage: to learn from the tech giants and lean start-ups to take risks, fail fast and iterate as the complex situation evolves. There will never be full clarity.

We’ve been blogging about the realities of ‘agility’ and Agile working in a matrix and virtual environment over the last few months.  A key part of that is helping individuals become more ‘learning agile’.  Extensive analysis by Dr Burke and colleagues from Colombia University has identified nine behaviours that make up learning agility and will help you as an individual thrive in a VUCA environment:

  1. Flexibility – willingness to try new things
  2. Speed – rapidly grasping new ideas
  3. Experimenting – testing out new ideas
  4. Performance risk taking– taking on challenges
  5. Interpersonal risk taking – asking others for help
  6. Collaborating – leveraging the skills of others from different functions
  7. Information gathering – increasing your knowledge
  8. Feedback seeking – asking for feedback
  9. Reflecting – taking time to reflect on your effectiveness

Applying point 9 straight away – in the past two weeks, reflect on how many of these learning agility behaviours you have shown at work.  Which could you try out in the next two weeks, and how?

Note May 2020 – following the COVID 19 crisis nobody needs more convincing about the volatility of our environment. The challenge is more about how to work in a more remote, integrated and digital way. See our insights on these themes here

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