Get Comfortable with Uncertainty: It's Here to Stay

by Jay Cone

Jay Cone Vucasity.jpg

You don’t need to be a golfer to understand that the club you would typically use to reach the green from your position on the golf course would be a poor choice if you were playing into a strong headwind.

Now imagine that you are trying to select a club to use, but you are playing golf in a world where the winds change directions instantaneously. Also, let’s say that gravity is no longer a constant. And before you finish playing, you learn that another player in the tournament has invented a golf ball with embedded sensors that uploads real-time data to a smartphone application providing insights about club choice and how to adjust your swing mechanics.

There’s an acronym for such perplexing and fickle conditions: VUCA

VUCA has been used by the US Army War College since the early 1990’s to describe dynamic battlefield conditions characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

In a VUCA environment we experience: the volatility of constant change, the uncertainty of finding ourselves in unfamiliar situations, the complexity associated with having to consider a large number of variables, and a state of ambiguity when conditions can be interpreted in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways. For leaders of today’s organizations, that may sound like an average Tuesday or Wednesday.

I want to join with others who have started using the abstract noun, VUCAsity to describe degrees of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity because it helps me articulate the dilemma facing leaders charged with setting direction.

As VUCAsity increases, our existing knowledge becomes less useful. By that I mean: As conditions become more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, the assumptions that shape our understanding of the world may no longer pertain.

What’s more: In a VUCA environment, our habitual approach to interpreting situations could mislead us. We crave the comfort of our expertise. Unfortunately, in times of change, expertise rooted mostly in past experience, could leave us – as the social philosopher Eric Hoffer once described, “beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Making Sense of VUCA

Do you sometimes sense that you may be investing resources and exerting effort to solve the wrong problem? Perhaps you notice that even though you are applying tried and true methods, you are getting unexpected or counterproductive results. Just like a golfer who fails to heed environmental conditions, you may be operating at the wrong level of VUCAsity.

I have found that drawing an analogy to way-finding and maps helps illustrate how our questions should adapt to different levels of VUCAsity. This analogy also helps provide a conceptual framework for choosing different kinds of questions when you feel stuck.

The maps framework also points to something important and counter-intuitive: Inviting greater complexity and uncertainty into your thinking will help clarify what may be missing. In attempting to solve difficult problems, when we embrace VUCAsity rather than avoiding it, we benefit in three ways.

  1. We reduce the risk of missing something important.
  2. We increase the novelty of our options.
  3. We bring stakeholder priorities into alignment.

Here’s a quick guide for how levels of VUCAsity determine the nature of the questions we ask.

Following Directions

When conditions are stable and predictable, we can simply follow directions. Goals and methods have been set and the main questions we need to ask in order to make progress are:

  • What do you want done?
  • When do you want it?
  • What output quality is acceptable?

Orienteering

At a slightly higher level of VUCAsity, we may need to shift from following directions to “orienteering”, which is an activity involving a map and a compass. Goals have been fixed and we have the tools we need to reach our goals. What we lack is a path or trail to follow. We must find our way using our tools. We may encounter unforeseen obstacles or conditions requiring us to reorient ourselves. The basic question at the orienteering level is:

  • How do we get to our goal?

Map Making

As conditions continue to become more complex, we may discover that we have to reassess our goals. We are no longer orienteering. Instead, our task becomes “map making.” When making maps, we have to survey the terrain and create ways to represent our observations to others. We choose goals based on our best understanding of the environment and our place in it.

At the map-making level, new questions become important:

  • What is our understanding of the current state?
  • What is our desired future?
  • What is changing and what does it mean?

Defining the Territory

At the highest levels of VUCAsity, nothing feels familiar. Our prior experience cannot help us get oriented. We take familiar actions and get surprising results. We cannot map the terrain because we do not understand what we are seeing. Our task has shifted to “defining the territory.” To define the territory, we have to develop our ability to interpret as well as our ability to create. We are no longer staking a claim. We are no longer exploring. We are forming insights and creating.

When defining the territory, we need to ask questions like:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we aspire to create?
  • What is needed and what are we uniquely qualified to provide?

With the levels of VUCAsity defined, we can now use the framework to help us find out way.

When solving thorny problems, we sometimes feel stuck. We reach an impasse in our thinking. We find ourselves revisiting the same perspectives and trying out the same set of solutions only to find that the problem persists or that we have inadvertently made things worse. One possibility is that we are working at the wrong level of VUCAsity.

By inviting a question from a higher level of VUCAsity, we may unlock the problem. As Chilean architect, Alejandro Arevena, warns of in his TED talk on urban design, “There is nothing worse than answering well the wrong question.”

For example, you may be following someone’s directions, but finding that you are no closer to reaching the goal. The more time you invest in assessing how expertly you completed each step in the directions you have been given, the more frustrated you feel that the goal remains stubbornly out of reach. Moving to a higher level of VUCAsity means changing the question from “Which steps should I take?” to “What goal should I be working towards?”

Similarly, if you are stuck trying to identify an appropriate goal, you may be seeking the goal on the wrong map. As an example, with the advent of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, taxi companies pursuing the goal of increased passenger satisfaction with the cleanliness of the vehicle have missed the fact that the competitive landscape has fundamentally changed. On the bright side, it should be much easier to keep the cabs clean when there are no passengers using them.

Finally, you may find yourself busily surveying the environment in order to gain clarity about current conditions only to discover that the problems you are experiencing emanate from outside the boundaries that once defined who you are and what you do. Again, moving to a higher level of VUCAsity may help.

As Theodore Levitt pointed out in his classic Harvard Business Review article, Marketing Myopia, The railroad industry misperceived the competitive threat posed by the automobile. The railroads should have redefined the territory in which they operated as “the transportation business” versus “the rail business.”

 

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