VUCA: The Future is Now

Since COVID-19 hit, our world has changed drastically in so many ways.  Most of us never saw this coming. 

But there were some people out there who have been predicting some sort of fast, intense shift in the near future.  These people are Futurists.  Never heard of them? I hadn’t either.  

A few years ago, I attended a talk by futurist Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future.  At the time, I didn’t know what a “futurist” was nor how it was different from a fortune teller or sham artist.  But he was the keynote speaker, so I went.  

He had a Bill Gates kind of look to him.  Black turtleneck, jeans, hip round glasses, slender and balding.  I thought to myself, “what does this guy have to do with me?”  I discounted him from the start.  And yet, I listened.  The more I listened, the more I started to understand what he was saying. It made a whole lot of sense.  I bought the book and read more, and this new way of understanding the world has been a great help to me in the past couple of years–and now more so than ever since the pandemic hit.

What is a Futurist?

It turns out that futurists are their own sort of scientists.  They study history and trends, then make and revise hypotheses about what will happen.  Their goal is to look at what is, and how things have been moving, and then extrapolate what that means for the future.   They are hired by groups as diverse as our national military, big business and philanthropic endeavors.   

Bob Johansen is well-know in futurist circles. He has been a futurist for over 40 years.  For decades, he has focused on studying what is happening in the world, examining the facts as they are now, and working with them to produce 10-year forecasts.  Companies and agencies pay well to have him look at their particular sector and produced a forecast specifically for their niche. He also shares his general forecasts with the larger world.  

The Army War College engaged Johansen to work on a forecast for them.  During his work there, he was introduced to one of what has become his core concepts.  The Army War College created the term “VUCA World” which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. 

At our talk several years ago, this futurist told our group that the world was becoming VUCA at an increasing rate and would soon have an exponential jump into the intensity of this change.  None of us had any idea how true that was.  The pandemic has propelled us into the VUCA world without a doubt.  

What is a VUCA World?

Volatile:  The VUCA world is becoming more unstable all the time.  More dramatic.  And it’s continuing to happen faster and faster.  In the past, reactions were in proportion to actions.  In the VUCA world, reactions are oversized and cause their own reactions.

Uncertain:  It is becoming harder to anticipate what will happen.  Past experience is less and less likely to be relevant to future situations.  Our current future is more unknown than it has been in the past.  We’re moving into more, “Wow. I didn’t see that coming.”

Complex:  In the VUCA world, every decision has many implications.  Things are interconnected more deeply than in the past.   The volume of variables affected by any event or situation has increased greatly.

Ambiguous: In the VUCA world, binary doesn’t exist.  No more right/wrong, good/bad, etc.  There are no more “simple problems” or “obvious answers.”  There is much less certainty about anything in a VUCA world.  

VUCA and the Pandemic

So let’s take a look at the pandemic and think through how it propelled us more deeply into the VUCA world. 

Volatile:  The world sure feels more dramatic and unstable to me than it had pre-pandemic.  What had been everyday actions have now become possible vectors of sickness and death.  A handshake, a hug, singing Happy Birthday — they have all become volatile in 2020.  

Uncertain:  2020 has become uncertain beyond the pandemic itself.  Murder hornets? yup.  Australia on fire? yup. Prince steps down from Royal Duties? yup.  The stock market is uncertain. Employment is uncertain.  Every human interaction could be a virus vector.

Complex:   Remember the days when you texted a friend and met for dinner a couple hours later at a crowded restaurant?  Now think about how much goes into planning and executing even the most minor events.  Complex!

Ambiguous:  We just don’t know.  We don’t know the long-term effects of COVID-19 on our bodies.  We don’t know when a vaccine will be developed or how well it will work.  We don’t know if there is a safe way for kids to go to school.  There are so few simple, “right” answers these days. 

Being VUCA in VUCA

Johansen posits that to meet the challenges of a VUCA world, we will need to be VUCA leaders.  VUCA leaders are ones that have Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility.

Vision:  We can meet volatility with vision.  We can do the leadership equivalent of softening our gaze so that we can increase the breadth of our visioning, so that we can hold many possible futures in our thoughts.  

Understanding:  As effective leaders in a VUCA world, we will need to invest more time and thought into understanding what has happened, what is happening and what might happen.  We also are called to be more understanding of others and of ourselves.

Clarity:  As leaders, providing clarity to our team is more crucial than ever.  Clarity is not having the answers so much as it is being clear about the values and goals that go into making decisions.  When we ground ourselves, our families, and our teams in clear values and goals, we provide stability in thinking which allows for creativity, possibility and growth–even in uncertain times.

Agility:  In a VUCA world, we need to be light on our feet.  Brainstorming?  Yes. And planning?  Divergent thinking.  Look at how agile the pandemic has forced us to become!  Almost everything moved online in a matter of days.  As plans for fall school begin to be put into place, we can see clearly the need for agility and flexibility in our planning.  In everything, all of us have learned to pivot faster than we ever imagined we could. 

Facing the Future

To thrive in a VUCA world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity hone your VUCA skills of Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility. 

Open up your imagination to envision a future different from our past and present.  The goal is not to be “right” about the future, but rather to grow skills and ways of understanding that will be useful in the future.  Practice clarity not about specific outcomes, but about ways to be and behave.  Get clear on your values, and live and work out of them.  Increase in flexibility.  Make plans, but do not hold tightly to them.  Don’t focus on a single plan, but practice creating planning trees that include many options, many pivot points.  

In what ways have you noticed the VUCA world? What VUCA skills have you been using in 2020?  Comment below or contact me to share your thoughts.

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