Do you know what ‘VUCA’ means? It’s a military term used to describe environments that are highly volatile, uncertainty, complex and ambiguous. Commentators now use the VUCA moniker to recognise the increasingly globally-connected, fast-paced business world we live in. The challenges of the VUCA world, they say, require organisations to adapt. And that means individuals must adapt too. What personal qualities are necessary to adapt and thrive in this new age?
Traditional competitive advantages of economic dominance, scale and asset ownership have been diluted by cheaper technology and fewer barriers to entry. Very few companies are immune to disruption, meaning they must innovate to maintain market share.
Innovation is a naturally risky process and so risk-tolerance is an important mindset for individuals operating in a VUCA world. Risk-tolerance can deliver competitive advantage and superior results, but must be tempered with a degree of risk-averseness to limit exposure.
How can you find a balance between the two? Understanding your natural risk appetite is the first step, so you can better spot when it influences your decision-making. Collaborative decision-making also helps, to temper your natural aversion or affinity for specific risks.
The title of consultant Marshall Goldsmith’s book, ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,’ is a useful analogy for success in today’s global environment. Solutions are by their nature context-dependent, and in the modern world context changes quickly, meaning that previous solutions may not be suitable for the future.
This is linked to the point above. In order to drive new competitive advantage, it’s necessary to tread new paths and try new ideas. This requires individuals to be comfortable with uncertainty (and also requires leaders to operate a no-blame, risk-tolerant culture) and comfortable with focused, goal-driven ‘tinkering.’
Certain practical skills help put this mindset into practice, including the ability to re-frame problems and challenges once new information is received, imagining the ideal outcome and reverse engineering a solution and analysing other industries and extrapolating broad lessons that are applicable to your own industry
Being psychologically and physically self-aware means two things. The first is understanding your physiology: what makes you energetic? What makes you anxious? How do you best recuperate? The second is actively managing your physiology for maximum wellbeing and performance.
This is important for multiple reasons: firstly, if you understand yourself and optimise your physiology, you are more capable of making good decisions. If the world is more complex, you must consider more variables when making decisions, which means the quality of your decision-making becomes key to success.
Secondly, if you understand why you do the things you do, you understand the same about others, which typically helps drive healthy, collaborative relationships. These are critical to success in the VUCA world. Finally, this trait is important for managers because it gives them the knowledge and energy to create psychologically-informed working environments that prioritise employee wellbeing to drive satisfaction and productivity.
Change is a constant in life, but in the modern VUCA world, it seems to happen with greater speed and be less predictable. This happens in multiple spheres, from the global political landscape to cultural development and technological progress.
People do not generally react well to change – we fear the unknown and change, by definition, represents an unknown. But, as Darwin said, success comes to those who are not the strongest, but the most responsive to change.
This trait is two-fold: firstly, it is about accepting change as a constant and avoiding rejecting and fighting change out of bias or fear. Secondly, it is about avoiding bias towards existing solutions just because they are more tangible than new ideas.
If we assume that change is constant and that our skills and knowledge are finite, it follows that being able to learn new skills and knowledge quickly is also a prerequisite for thriving in the VUCA world of today.
The ability to learn fast is most effective when married with a growth mindset, or a belief that your abilities are dynamic. These two traits give people the confidence to approach new situations with curiosity to learn and evolve and to reach proficiency fast.
This trait has merit in many situations, from learning new truths about your industry or market and moulding these into your worldview to enhance strategic thinking to the more tactical side of learning how to use a new software package that provides operational advantage.
One trend from the VUCA world is ‘doing more with less.’ This makes ruthless prioritisation important: there are only so many hours in the day. Ruthless prioritisation is not just about what order to do tasks in, but also what counts as ‘good enough’ in each of these tasks.
Knowing what’s ‘good enough’ helps you accept sub-optimal outcomes in some areas for the sake of mission-critical progress in others. Some areas are just naturally more important than others. In a time-poor VUCA world, knowing which are which is key.
The final part of this quality is being solution-oriented: this means a laser focus on making progress rather than getting mired in the detail, of finding solutions quickly that can be deployed, tested and improved in the real world in order to respond to change as it happens.