VUCA Prime: An Antidote for Exponential Change?

The following is a modified excerpt from my new book “Recruiting in the Age of Googlization.” You can preorder a copy on Amazon and download an excerpt here.

There’s an old story that has made its rounds: To succeed, you don’t need to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun your nearest competitor. The problem in a VUCA world is that your biggest competitor today may be invisible—not a known competitor from within your industry. It’s just as likely to be a start-up company that threatens to disrupt an industry, challenge conventional business models, or democratize a service. It pops up out of nowhere, and seems to change everything almost overnight.

Failure to adapt or respond is often not due to a lack of opportunity. In a world that demands immediate gratification, organizations feel compelled to deliver fast results to shareholders. Many disruptive innovations like Kodak’s digital camera never get to see the light of day even though the convergence of technology, fast changing consumer trends, and globalization creates unexpected and boundless new pathways and possibilities. (For more on how fast our world is changing, click here!)

Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” What drives some of us to see doors of opportunity when so many others see walls? They all share one thing in common —a mindset that says “our journey is only 1% complete.”

Those words —“our journey is only 1% complete”—lie behind the success of Facebook. They are not just motivational words plastered on walls, but embody the internal motto at Facebook.

Facebook takes its motto seriously. You should too. It’s a constant reminder that everyone is on a journey and in spite of the phenomenal success Facebook enjoys, it doesn’t believe it has arrived yet. It doesn’t even believe it’s a quarter or half-way there.

Facebook is not alone on this journey. Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s OnPoint, in  a recent interview exclaimed “Oh My God” when his guest Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s Head of Global Policy and Communications, stated

“What we see now in terms of disruption [referring to Airbnb, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, Uber and a few others] are just the lemonade stands in front of what’s to come.”

Learning to deal with “change” in a VUCA world takes on a whole new meaning. It requires us to become comfortable with volatility and uncertainty, to navigate through complexity, to deal with ambiguity. Consequently, the skills that got many of us to our current level of success will be wholly inadequate to keep the momentum going. This is not a future vision of some distant threat or opportunity. It is reality today.

VUCA readiness requires shedding old assumptions and acquiring new mindsets. It mandates organizations to take leadership development, succession planning, and talent management seriously. Behavioral change, rather than just acquiring more degrees, competencies, and skills, must be emphasized. Emotional intelligence has become more important than general intelligence. To succeed going forward, business leaders must be transformative.

Of course, transformative change is, by its very nature, overwhelming. When overwhelmed by stressful circumstances, the higher order “executive” functions of our brains literally shut down. Our ability to function becomes impaired. That makes it easy to use VUCA as the rationale for poor performance and an excuse for failure. After all, you can’t prepare for a VUCA world, right?

Actually, you can. Fortunately, the power of exponential change can work for you too, not just against you. VUCA-savvy leaders embrace VUCA and seem to navigate through the disruption and complexity and come out ahead. How do they do this?

VUCA and VUCA Prime They “flip” the VUCA model. Bob Johansen calls this, VUCA Prime. Think of VUCA Prime as the silver lining lying within the darkness of VUCA. He proposes that the best VUCA leaders are characterized by Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. HR and talent management professionals (as well as all leaders and individuals) can use VUCA Prime as a blueprint for success in a VUCA world.

What is VUCA Prime?

Vision mitigates volatility.  Vision instills a powerful motivation to create a better future. The speed and turbulence of change won’t go away but fear and anxiety do fade when your strategy is guided by a clear vision. With vision, you see past the small distractions so that you’re able to stay focused on the bigger picture. Vision doesn’t only benefit you but it helps you serve others better. It helps align your decisions with your values. But beware—a vision isn’t just a statement or poster you hang on the wall. It’s something you feel. Don’t B.S. yourself or others. It won’t work. For a vision to become possible, it must be realistic and you must be authentic.

Understanding defuses uncertainty. It sure seems like the only thing in life that is certain is that uncertainty will continue. But that doesn’t mean moving forward requires that you take a blind leap into the unknown. There is a huge difference between change leading you and you dancing with it step by step. To be effective in a VUCA environment, leaders must learn to dance with change. Ask challenging questions. Teach and coach others. Accept and welcome feedback. Develop, build, and manage networks of teams.44 Make sure you’re open to and getting fresh perspective, no matter how outrageous the source or idea. (You’ll read more about a tool called “info-sponging” later.) Understanding also requires that decisions are based less on tradition and anecdote and made with more data-driven evidence. (Evidence-based decisions are discussed in more detail in the chapter on People Analytics.) Recognize your limitations but don’t let them cripple you.

Clarity helps simplify complexity. Articulate and communicate clearly. To reach clarity and make better decisions faster, make it a practice to seek different perspectives. Ask the question: What is the most effective way to meet the needs of the market, not the business? Be deliberate in your attempt to make sense of the chaos. Don’t forget that communication is a two-way street and collaboration is a key. Actively observe and make sense of what you see. But don’t dismiss perplexing and unusual answers. Set realistic expectations for yourself and communicate them to others. Strive for perfection and think of mistakes and failures as a resource you’ve already paid for. Accept that “permanent” fixes and solutions in a VUCA world have a short shelf-life.

Agility tames Ambiguity. A quick search for a description of agility on Google brings up 10,500,000 results in half a second. Here’s my capsule version: the ability to see around corners, connect the dots, and respond quickly and effectively whenever the situation changes. Most organizations do pretty well at what they do today. It’s what they need to be doing tomorrow that is missing. The same can be said about individuals too. Agility shifts the mindset from “I don’t see how change will affect me or the organization” or “I don’t see how I/we can do anything about it?” to “I know change is coming and this is what I’m/we’re going to do to respond.” Disruptions will happen but the element of surprise is lost when you anticipate the subtle changes and respond with agility.


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