Leading people can be a challenging task regardless of the industry or size of an organization. Adding volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment into the mix and the leadership challenge increases. Today’s organizations are increasingly complex, ambiguous, uncertain, and volatile because change is accelerating and intensifying. How can leaders equip themselves to manage a VUCA workplace? The first step is understanding what each terms means.
Volatile Situations describe circumstances that change constantly and unexpectedly, and a certain level of instability of a task or challenge is present. However, the best leadership approach is to use available information, be proactive, and have multiple plans and strategies in place. An example of a volatile circumstance is a natural disaster. In such a circumstance not only is the natural disaster a volatile situation, but also the constantly changing nature of the aftermath; which emergency agencies are coming and when, where are people stuck, etc. There are a lot of changes occurring in a volatile situation. Being proactive and prepared in volatile circumstances can be expensive, but that preparation is necessary to handle these situations.
Uncertain Situations are situations known for a lack of information, so on some level they are the opposite of volatile situations. In uncertain circumstances there is no reliable information about cause and effect and it is not known if change will happen, can happen, or have a positive effect if it does happen. The best approach in these circumstances is to find more information, more data, and more analytics. Once leaders have access to more data, they need to make sure the data is analyzed and implemented into new strategies and change processes. An example of an uncertain situation is when a competitor suddenly emerges that takes direct aim at your company by undercutting prices. In this case, it is important to collect as much data and information as possible to respond to the situation appropriately through new strategies.
Complex Situations have several interconnected and interdependent aspects which have a clear relationship. In these situations, there is partial information available but because everything is interlinked, it is a challenge to process the information in a way that reliably predicts the future. The approach is to reduce the number of linkages, or at least to make them clearer, so the complexity of the situation or task is easily understood and managed. An example of a complex situation is when implementing a process change affects all departments in an organization. In such a circumstance, everything is interconnected and it can be hard to predict how this change will impact everyone and to prepare for it. The key here is to make the change as simple as possible and to assess the impact it makes on every aspect of the organization before implementing the change.
Ambiguous Situations are situations which have relationships that are completely unknown and ambiguous; there appears to be no rhyme or reason. The phrase that comes to mind in these situations is “you don’t know what you don’t know.” In such ambiguity, leaders need to learn from mistakes, hypotheses, and test rounds so it is important to experiment in order to gain information. An example of an ambiguous situation is when you are launching a new product or starting a new business. There are a lot of unknowns in these circumstances so making hypotheses and learning from mistakes is essential for leaders’ success.
In order to lead in a VUCA world, leaders need to analyze these four situation types to confirm which one they are currently leading in. Next is to find the right approach in order to lead people, a department, or an organization through the volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous situation. Knowing is half the answer, so the next time you find yourself in a VUCA situation, start by not only analyzing the situation and possible solutions, but also by analyzing your own reaction to each of the four situations. Being able to understand and control your own reaction will increase your leadership skills in all VUCA and non-VUCA worlds.
-Lotte Mulder earned her Master’s of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2013, where she focused on Leadership and Group Development. She’s currently working toward a PhD in Organizational Leadership. At ASCP, Lotte designs and facilitates the ASCP Leadership Institute, an online leadership certificate program. She has also built ASCP’s first patient ambassador program, called Patient Champions, which leverages patient stories as they relate to the value of the lab.