VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The origins of the acronym are military, when it was first used to describe post-cold war conditions. It’s a pretty good description of what we face, almost daily, as leaders trying to build thriving organizations. There are few easy answers and there is rarely a straight path forward. So, If VUCA is simply the way things are now, leaders need to be prepared to navigate through it and live with complexity.
Let’s start by getting clear on what complexity is, and what it isn’t. To do that, I’m going to share what I learned from Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times—the distinction between complicated and complex.
Complicated has a solution, even if that solution has lots of steps along the way. When I call technical support, typically I bring them a complicated problem. I’ve spent hours walking through technical issues to get them fixed—there are lots of steps and we get there eventually. Ultimately, there’s a path from A to Z.
Complex, on the other hand, is when we’re not really sure how to get from A to Z. Perhaps we’re not quite sure what or where Z is! There are different paths we could take and the journey could have multiple destinations. By the time we get “there” (if we do), it’s no longer where we needed to go.
When we talk about complex, there is more than one solution or maybe none at all. How are we going to grow our business? Stay innovative? Avoid commoditization? Maintain an engaged workforce? All of these are questions that take us into the land of the complex.
Our problem-solving toolkit is full of tools to fix complicated problems. For example, we might compare current and future state and do a gap analysis. We can do SWOT analyses and work out plans to address the current threats. We can create 5-year plans. These tools and approaches can feel woefully inadequate when approaching complex problems. Just when we get it “figured out” everything changes. That’s because these tools, while often useful, are not up to the level of complexity that we’re living with. If the destination can’t really be defined (and it will shift before we arrive), then our tools need updating. Our frustration—that we just can’t respond fast enough or get ahead of the changes—might just be because we are using processes that support the complicated rather than the complex.
The tools for navigating complexity aren’t particularly difficult to understand or adopt. You try things and see what works. You conduct multiple experiments. You fail at some, succeed at others. You build on your successful experiments. You listen to feedback. You navigate towards your direction, but you let the destination emerge. You have a sense of direction to guide you and your values to support you.
As I thought more about complexity, I realized that parenting my two kids was the most complex project I’ve ever taken on in my life. It continues to be complex even though they are almost grown. We have only a vision and a set of values that guide us in setting a direction that we hope will help them to emerge as whole, healthy and happy people. There’s no blueprint, there’s no plan, and there’s no clear destination.
Most of the time when we faced challenges we had little clarity about exactly what to do, so we tried different things, or let our children try different things. We were very clear about boundaries—what was not “safe-to-fail”—and even then, our definitions were different than the definitions other parents used. Sometimes we had to navigate what was and wasn’t safe-to-fail with each other and with the kids. A simple example: the electric socket was not a toy, but the kitchen pots could be, even if there was a terrible mess to clean up as a result.
So, as you think about your next big challenge, adopt the mindset of experimentation.
What are your safe-to-fail experiments? Be clear about your guardrails. That means that you want to stay grounded in a vision and direction and a set of core values, making sure you’ve got those defined and they are not just slogans (you can read about how Zappos approached defining their values for some ideas to get you started).
For me, applying the notion of experimentation to my business has created a sense of possibility and opened up new opportunities. I hope it can do the same for you!