A Framework for Leadership Action in the VUCA of the Pandemic

Posted 04.21.2020

If you’re an organizational leader it’s likely that you’ve heard of VUCA somewhere along the way. First developed by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus and popularized by the U.S. Army War College at the end of the Cold War, VUCA is a framework that leaders can use to think about how to respond in environments that are:

  • Volatile,
  • Uncertain,
  • Complex, and
  • Ambiguous

Up until now, the period following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 – 2009 financial crisis have been among the most often cited examples of VUCA environments. I’ve been a little surprised that, thus far, I haven’t seen a lot of VUCA references to describe the emerging environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. If there has ever been a VUCA situation, it’s this one. Perhaps it’s easier to make the VUCA call with a little bit of hindsight. We are definitely in the early days of this one.

Scott Eblin, The Eblin Group, EBlin Group, VUCA, leadership, effectiveness, action, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity

One of my challenges with the VUCA acronym over the years has been that I think it’s easy to be a little glib in saying, “You’re living in a VUCA world,” without offering some practical ideas for how to lead when the world is that way. Honestly, a lot of the advice and recommendations I’ve seen on how to lead in a VUCA environment loop back on themselves so much that pretty soon the leaders who try to use them find themselves a little lost in their thought process.

I like to keep things simple because I think it’s easy to get started on a productive path when thinking and action frameworks err more towards simplicity than complexity. As a starting point, simpler frameworks make it easy to focus a conversation and align people around a goal. Sure, there’s a risk of over simplifying things but, as a starting point, I’d rather err on that end of the spectrum than over complexify things to the point where people are frozen into inaction from a lack of clarity or option overload.

With that in mind, here’s a simple framework for getting started with VUCA leadership that I came up with last year when I was working with a group of global general managers. Now that we’re all definitely in the early days of the most VUCA situation we’ve ever had since the term was invented, I want to share it with you in the hope that it can help you identify some next steps. Let’s break it down letter by letter, V-U-C-A, starting with Volatility:

Volatility – Volatile environments are disrupted ones in which things change rapidly and usually for the worse. Those are the perfect conditions to trigger a fight-or-flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. That’s why the first step in my simple VUCA action framework is for leaders to focus first on creating space for themselves and their teams to think. This could be as simple as reminding yourself and others to literally take a couple of steps back, take three deep breaths and then ask, “What do we think we’re dealing with and what are the most important things we need to focus on in the short-run?” Creating space gives you the opportunity to calm yourself and focus your efforts.

Uncertainty – Uncertain environments are typically ones where there aren’t a lot of historical precedents to draw on for comparison and guidance. The second step in the action framework, therefore, is to do what you can to reduce uncertainty by gathering data and insights. The data gathering is a focused effort on learning what you can from reliable sources. Insights can come from conversations with internal and external partners who feel comfortable sharing the truth of what they’re seeing from their perspective. In uncertain situations, insights can also come from examining past experiences that, while they weren’t the same as what you’re experiencing now, at least offer some analogs that you can draw on to help determine what’s needed next in this situation.

Complexity – Complex environments have lots and lots of variables that interact with and impact each other in potentially unpredictable ways. Combined with uncertainty, complexity can lead to option overload and analysis paralysis. To counteract that dynamic, the third step in the framework is to identify discrete, manageable chunks of action that could make a positive difference. You’re not trying to solve for 100 percent on any given day, you’re trying to solve for the five percent or so that will move you closer to bigger solutions. A series of successful five percent solutions usually work a lot better than delaying action in favor of fully baking a 100 percent solution. You usually don’t get to 100 percent anyway, and, even when you do, the situation will have changed so much by the time you implement that the solution isn’t as effective as you originally hoped it would be.

Ambiguity – Ambiguous environments are ones in which outcomes and endpoints aren’t clear. The world in pandemic certainly meets that definition. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop of thinking, “This will be over by (fill in your favorite date or arbitrary milestone here).” That can lead to a lack of meaningful action. The fourth step in the framework, then, is to counteract that dynamic by running small tests and sharing what’s learned from them. This test and learn approach builds on the previous step of identifying manageable chunks of action and keeps people engaged in a meaningful action loop in which short-term goals and dates are clear even as the longer-term endpoints aren’t. In addition to improving the current state of reality, engaging people in a test and learn approach gives them reason to hope and keep going.

Which leads to one final step in this framework for VUCA leadership – rinse and repeat. The first four steps aren’t just sequential; they’re also iterative. To get everyone else through this crisis, leaders will have to keep creating space, gathering data and insights, identifying manageable chunks of action, running small tests and then leading the whole process over again and again.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.