By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Welcome to the Age of VUCA.

If you haven’t heard of that term before, relax. You will probably hear it again often in the future.

But don’t relax too much. VUCA is about vigilance, not complacence.

Let me explain

VUCA is an acronym that originated with students at the U.S. Army War College to describe four characteristics of the world – and many of its smaller parts – in the wake of the Cold War. They are:

  • volatility,
  • uncertainty,
  • complexity, and,
  • ambiguity.

In earlier, simpler times the notion was that a leader would compile all the facts in a situation, evaluate them and make a decision.

But what people came to realize is that except in the smallest, simplest circumstances, no one was likely to have “all the facts.” There were always unknowns to deal with. And in most situations, what was known was changing or already outdated.

Meanwhile, new forces were always emerging, interacting with other forces to constantly change existing circumstances and dynamics.

This new world – or at the very least this new awareness of the world – required a new way to think and to act.

Going forward, no leader could assume that anything in the external environment was static, certain, simple, solitary or clear.

Indeed, the internal environment was most likely pretty dynamic and fluid too -- although you could hold fast to your mission and values despite all the other volatile dynamics going on around you.

In this new world, the focus has shifted to processes – both thinking processes and doing processes. Simple, one way, linear lines of communications have been replaced by organic, interdependent and interactive, multi-directional lines of communication.

Feedback loops are critical to keep leaders abreast of reality in “real time.” Yesterday’s knowledge might be useful or useless. The only way to know is to test it against what we know, what has been discovered, today.

Assumptions and decisions are tested, then tested again and again. Systems build in constant testing. Knowledge is constantly updated. Decisions are constantly evaluated. Adjustments are constantly made.

The highly interactive and interdependent process never stops.

Great resource

If you’re looking for an excellent, clear and concise presentation of what this new approach to leading and deciding looks like, I recommend Fourth Generation Management by Brian L. Joiner.

His PDCA system following the process of Plan, Do, Check, Act puts organizations on a path to constant learning and constant improvement in the midst of volatility.

New resource

Several suggestions for how to thrive in our VUCA world come from Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in a new resource, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders.

Their advice includes a collection of strategies:

  • gather varied perspectives,
  • listen,
  • experiment,
  • learn,
  • adjust and
  • repeat.

Direction matters

They also urge leaders to ask new questions, strive to see complex systems as a whole, and despite all the uncertainty today, “set a clear and unambiguous direction.”

Through it all, leaders have to fight the natural tendency to act first and think later. “You must adapt to a new world that demands the opposite,” they insist.

A personal note

In the midst of what can seem like – and very well may be – so much chaos, I can’t think of a more reliable anchor than the conviction that God loves us, is always with us, and will see us through any and all challenges no matter what things look like in the current moment.

Pray. Pray often. Pray fast. Pray from your heart. Maybe you haven’t got this. But He does. We know how the story ends.