Leading and Managing Well in the VUCA World

18 Mar 2021 8:58 AM | Sarah Elkington (Administrator)

It is true that since the acronym VUCA appeared in the mid 1990’s a framework exists for us to make sense of the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity that characterise the daily life of a leader. VUCA prime enables us to countermand some of the negative impacts of VUCA by enacting Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. I allude to ways in which you might embed VUCA prime in your leadership culture to help you thrive in the VUCA world of 2019.

Small and Incremental Changes Make a Huge Difference Over Time

The simple tips presented in this article for leading and managing well in 2019 are specifically curated from a number of sources as well as from concepts learned in consultation with leaders across various sectors.

Tip #1: Cultivate and Embed Vision both Personally and Organizationally 

Vision might be defined as a clear picture of a desired future state. In this age of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) we need a clear vision of what we want our organization to be in ten or twenty years. This is one of the clearest aspects of effective leadership for the 21st century. Margaret Wheatley (1996) highlighted that organizational Vision is much more than a statement on a plaque on the wall. It is the living pulse of the organization that orients every decision and function within the organization.
We also need to cultivate a personal vision of who we want to be in five, ten, or twenty years. This has the power to keep us focused and enables us to act with clarity when deciding the important from the urgent, which brings us to our next tip.

Tip #2: Beware of the Tyranny of the Urgent

Possessing a clear personal and organizational Vision enables us to avoid the distractions of the urgent. The urgent is seldom important, and the important is seldom urgent. We need to alert ourselves to those things that demand immediate attention but divert us from our personal and organizational vision. One of the greatest challenges for leaders is the capacity to differentiate between that which is urgent and that which is important (Maciariello, 2014). A clear and well-developed Vision statement enables us to bring this type of clarity to our moment by moment interactions and decisions.
A suggestion for seeing the important is the primacy of investing in people as people.

Tip #3: Invest in People as People

It was the greatest management thinker and scholar of the 20th century, Peter Drucker, who highlighted that innovation, intrapreneurship, and problem-solving all arise from the effective development of people (Maciariello, 2014). I have written elsewhere about the primary obligation that leaders have to view people as the end, rather than as a means to an end. It seems counterintuitive that in an age of emerging AI and technological saturation we should invest in people, but organizations are still complex adaptive systems – living organisms – made up of people who either undermine or support organizational effectiveness!

Tip #4: Invest in Lifelong Learning for Yourself and for Others

One need only revisit the story of 3M (Collins & Porras, 1994) in its earliest years and the process of innovation the company embarked on in the face of near collapse to be reminded of the central importance of people within an organization. For 3M this life-saving period of innovation occurred because 3M turned to its people to discover and define the needed solutions. 3M has remained a beacon of innovation and has developed over 630 products which are distributed globally. What many people do not know about 3M is that it was originally a mining company!
The same is true of other great organizations that navigate the complexity of a globalized arena by leveraging their greatest asset, their people. It is vital that you, as the leadership of your organization, embed and model lifelong learning as a core value of your organization. By capacitating lifelong learning across the organization, you will invigorate innovation, creativity, and experimentation at the margins.

Tip #5: Take Account of Weak Signals

The arrival of Big Data and the capacity to use Big Data (Tunguz & Bien, 2016) helps us to build Rapid Reflection Forces (RRF) within our organizations. These RRF’s, if effectively designed and deployed, enable organizational leadership to pay attention to weak signals or emerging trends off in the distance that currently seem insignificant, but might emerge as powerful forces that either threaten your organization or serve as opportunities to move it into new domains. A great example of this is Kodak who, had they picked up early on the weak signals of movement away from film and towards digital, might have leveraged this trend by redefining themselves as an organization for “making memories” rather than “photography with 35mm film.” What weak signals emerging from the reading of Big Data alert you to small changes you might need to make now to be ready when the weak signals become a strong current?

Tip #6: Read Widely

Leaders are readers. Leaders read widely to support generative thinking. Develop a list of at least six books that you plan to read in 2019. What do you notice about that list? How diverse is your selection? How widely are you reading? What interests you currently that you might like to probe further? When you read be prepared to highlight the key sentences that jump out at you. Think about journaling your learnings from your reading. Where do themes from diverse sources intersect? What are you learning? What do you see now that you did not see before? What questions do these new ideas raise for you?

Tip #7: Seek to be Effective more than Successful 

In 2019, seek to be effective and let success take care of itself. Successful managers and leaders often know how to navigate the political minefields of an organization to ensure an upward trajectory. Effective managers, on the other hand, care deeply about the people they lead and seek continually to balance the tension of task and relationship in a way that ensures the health and vitality of the people within the organization as well as accomplishing the short and long-term goals of the organization.

Tip #8: Ensure the Attainment and Celebration of Small or Quick Wins

While it is vital to have strong conceptual skill expressed in the ability to articulate and empower a meaningful vision, a tip for managing and leading well is to ensure the attainment and celebration of small or quick wins (Perkins, 2000). People develop confidence in the leadership of an organization when they see forward movement that is intentional and meaningful. This calls for the capacity to balance the dual tension of the long-term vision with the need for short term outcomes to keep the organization sustainable and to keep morale strong. Set SMART goals that tie into the organizational Vision statement in a meaningful way and ensure that the timeframe for the accomplishment of some of those goals is short-term. When those milestones are reached be sure to celebrate that outcome, as well as the people who made it possible!
Conclusion: Questions to Help You Take the First Step

As you seek to lead and manage well amidst the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, that 2019 is sure to bring, think through how you might make small changes to align with some or all of the eight tips mentioned in this article. Here are ten brief questions to serve as a primer to assist you in that process:

  1. How important are people in our organization?
  2. How well do we support lifelong learning across the organization?
  3. What is our organization’s Vision statement?
  4. How aware of this Vision statement is everyone in the organization?
  5. If people are aware of the Vision statement is it something that aligns every action and every function?
  6. How driven am I / are we by the Tyranny of the Urgent?
  7. What mechanisms do we have in place to read weak signals and to respond accordingly with Rapid Reflection Forces?
  8. Do we have some quick wins that we can celebrate early in 2019?
  9. Do we reward “successful” or “effective” management and leadership in our organization?
  10. What do I plan to read in 2019?

 Rob Elkington Ph.D. 

Collins, J. C. & Porras, J. I.  Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.  New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers.

Lagadec, P. (2009). A New Cosmology of Risks and Crises: Time for a Radical Shift in Paradigm and Practice. Review of Policy Research 26 (4), 473–487. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1541-1338.2009.00396.x/full

Macariello, J. A. (2014). A Year With Peter Drucker: 52 Weeks of Coaching for Leadership Effectiveness. New York, NY. Harper Collins.

Wheatley, M. J. (1996). Leadership and The New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe. San Francisco, CA. Berrett Kohler Publishers.




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