Leading in a Time of VUCA
What to do as a leader when the world around you is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
By now many people have heard of the acronym VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. If you think about the times we are living in, you recognize that the world is getting more VUCA, not less. And the pace of change and uncertainty today is the slowest you’ll experience going forward—it only accelerates from here.
So how can you as a leader hone your skills to make sure you are prepared to lead in the VUCA world? You need three skills: reflection, agility and focus.
It may sound counterintuitive, but with the pace of change and uncertainty accelerating every day, a key skill that leaders need is the ability to pause. Leaders need the ability to step into the middle of the day, an unfolding situation or an all-hands-on-deck emergency and reflect.
This pause allows a leader to connect the dots. In a time of crisis or sudden change, there are a lot of moving parts. You have to step back to see the entire system and then make sense out of it and encourage your team to do the same. A moment of reflection also allows you to collect yourself and choose a response rather than have a reaction.
That sounds good, but in real life it can be hard to do. One of my clients, Sandy, is the president of one of the largest divisions of a massive technology company. He woke up one day to find his company had been sold to an even more massive technology company. Overnight everything had changed. Having been through this kind of acquisition before, he knew his team was about to launch into at least 12 months of VUCA. He also knew that he was going to have to keep morale and performance high during this period—the sales environment for his division was already rough, and a major product release had fallen behind.
It was a lot of pressure. Sandy’s first reaction was to start making things happen: to call an emergency meeting, to get more insistent with the team to fix the release problems, to throw together a retention plan so that he wouldn’t lose his star players. But we had worked for months to turn his inclination for immediate action into an instinct to pause. So Sandy remembered to feel himself go into overdrive and then allow himself to reflect. As he did so he calmed way down. Yes he would have to handle plenty of issues during this period, but first of all he had to have a calm meeting with his staff, check their temperature and decide together what their immediate course of action would be.
Investing in his ability to pause and reflect allowed him to slow down enough to take wise action and to model this behavior for his team. Many groups of the company were thrown into turmoil during the first 12 months, but Sandy’s division achieved remarkable results even amidst the real chaos of the integration.
Stepping back to see the whole playing field also helps leaders see new ways of structuring and guiding teams to get the work done. The traditional hierarchy may not be the right model for the most important initiative your team is trying to run. It may not work when you’ve recruited some freelance workers onto the team to add their unique skills for a defined period of time.
To effectively lead within these new structures a leader needs to build agility. Agility is about speed and flexibility, and having agility allows leaders to adapt quickly when the situation requires it.
Some examples of agility: creating more “communities of practice” to bring together cross-functional teams rather than use a traditional hierarchy, making sure decisions are made at the level where the work gets done rather than having multi levels of approval, having quick daily stand-up meetings rather than a traditional 60- or 90-minute bi-weekly staff meeting or using freelancers to complete specific, defined pieces of work.
All of these add to the leader’s toolkit to build agility within the organization.
In light of an ever-changing landscape filled with noise and distraction, a distinguishing characteristic of leaders is that they get their teams to focus. VUCA tends to overwhelm people. Technology and our “always-on” culture make distraction a natural state. Leaders have to accept this dynamic and find various ways for their teams—and themselves—to master the art of focus.
There are many tools to help with this, within yourself and for the team. One personal tool is to practice mindfulness moments. Sure, plenty of people want to have a regular meditation practice of 20 to 60 minutes per day. If you are doing that, great, keep doing that. Then there are the rest of us.
You can get the focus benefits of meditation simply by taking a mindful moment at the beginning of each meeting, at the beginning and end of your day or at other times during your day. During this time, just breathe in and breathe out, concentrating on your breathing. Or count backwards from 100, noticing when you get distracted. These are not magic wands, but they are concentration exercises that help you reset. When you’re done with your mindful moment, ask yourself one simple question: What is the most important way to focus my attention right now? You will be amazed at the results you will get if you do this simple and quick exercise.
To help your team focus, choose a major theme or initiative that everyone can rally around. When you are leading, especially in a crisis, teams feel more grounded when they have a top priority. Return to the top priority regularly as a beacon to help your team structure their work and refocus when they (and you) inevitably get distracted.
When you invest in building your skills in reflection, agility and focus, you are ensuring your ability to keep your leadership strong in the face of an uncertain future.