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Removing the ERR from VUCA

July 3, 2024

As I left the swimming pool the other day, I thought:

“You know, if you put ‘err’ in ‘vuca’, it gives you a verruca?”

And with a segue that the BBC One Show would be proud of, both a verruca and erring-with-VUCA have caused their share of discomfort.[1]

Enough of that, Stephen. But there is something to discuss about VUCA as an idea, and how it seems to be interpreted.

You are likely already familiar with the acronym, describing a collection of terms: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. VUCA has been around since the late 1980s, initially used by the US Army War College before our current mainstream adoption.[2] Each of its terms, by intention, invites critical thinking and sense-making about a thing or environment, where:

  • Volatile = the propensity of things to change.
  • Uncertain = the levels of unpredictability.
  • Complex = the presence of multiple, interdependent, but independent parts. Cause-effect relationships are unknowable in advance.
  • Ambiguous = the lack of specific definition, blurred meanings, and risk of misunderstanding.

 

That infers that in our teams and organisations, and alongside all those things that are simple and predictable, there will be Vs, Us, Cs, and As.  Knowing – or at least reckoning – that something is volatile gives us the opportunity to choose a more targeted response.

Consider these statements:

  1. A key engineer has resigned, leaving one person with system knowledge.
  2. A client has called an urgent meeting to discuss our relationship.
  3. We want to launch a new and very different product to our market.
  4. The coffee machine needs to be restocked.

 

As we run through, we might say that 1) is uncertain, 2) is uncertain or ambiguous, 3) is complex, and 4) is none of the above. From this position, we can see that the urgency and type of response needed in each case is likely to be different.  We’re probably not going to get into contingency planning or adopt iterative development practices to guarantee our supply of coffee. It doesn’t matter if someone else would evaluate them differently, and indeed – a conversation where differing opinions are shared and understood is a core of sense-making discussion. What matters is that we reach a better shared understanding of what is happening than we had before, giving us insight and a steer to next steps.

That is worth restating. With framings like VUCA (and there are many others), the power and insight come from identifying and discussing the differences in our situation. If we are facing significantly more complexity than volatility, we can organise ourselves with practices to meet that challenge. Similarly, for the things that are already effective and efficient, we won’t waste money being radical, and so on.

Unfortunately, however, VUCA seems to get used more often as a noun, and, nefariously as a threat. It is a convenient soundbite invoked in sales and consultant patter:[3]

“You need to implement Agile HR because we’re in a VOOO-CA world!”

“Scrum/SAFe/OKRs/Insert-framework-here are your answer to VOOO-CA!”

One agile-HR proponent I heard on stage professed that to deal with VUCA you “Must learn lessons to apply in future situations.” I cannot help feeling that the irony was lost on him, and I fear for his clients.

Critically, in doing this kind of thing, saying that the world is “complex!” or “VUCA!” we throw away all the fidelity that could have helped us respond. Like saying that something must be a fish simply because it lives in water, lumping ontologically separate ideas together as some universal category destroys their value.

At the same time, there is an increasingly – or at least persistently – common call to simplify things that these pitches play to. Perhaps it’s a natural response to the noise, but rather than consider our environments as a tapestry of everything, a convenient label gets applied. Leaders stand on stages and claim they want to ‘eradicate complexity’ or ‘simplify!’ by telling everyone to use the same agile practices, or deal with VUCA by overnight flattening of structures. Such actions might solve some of our product development pain, but they’re also going to cause a whole lot of waste discussing the coffee.

Our organisations are not complex, volatile, unpredictable, ambiguous, predictable, uncertain, reliable, temperamental, or any other label we apply or create. They are all of them, to a lesser or greater degree, all of the time. As such, energy spent making sense of what is happening around us is never time wasted.