Sue Noble Headshot

Sue Knoble and Amy Tarrant

04 June 2020

Meet VUCA, the new normal!

VUCA (pronounced voo–ka) is an acronym for:

Volatility – things are changing quickly but not in any predictable way

Uncertainty – past experience is not a relevant indication of likely future events so planning for the future is extremely difficult

Complexity – there are countless causes to a problem, and they are all difficult to understand

Ambiguity – the causes of the events at hand are unclear and hard to establish

Whilst the original use of the acronym can be traced back to the US Army War College in the 1980s, the term was plucked from the archives by Judith Stiehm and Nicholas Townsend and is now in everyday usage to describe the more complex and uncertain post 9/11 environment. Since then, the term has made its way into the corporate world as a catch-all for the ever-changing world around us.

Despite this, we still witness executives stroking their chins and talking about getting back to ‘normal’ when a particular event has passed.

Spoiler alert – there is no ‘normal’ anymore. VUCA is the status quo.

But why does it strike fear into so many of us? If we revisit the definitions, they go hand in hand with a lack of control, anxiety and even fear. So even though some of us regard ambiguity, change and uncertainty as an opportunity, many people struggle to function at all.

Ultimately, whether you love or loathe VUCA comes down to the way we see the world around us, or more simply, our thinking style.

A yellow sign with 'Uncertainty Ahead' printed on it

Thinking styles are the basis of a psychometric tool, Emergenetics®, which accurately measures three behavioural attributes (Expressiveness, Assertiveness, Flexibility) and four thinking attributes (Analytical, Structural, Social, Conceptual). Many psychometric tools have four attributes and blend thinking and behaving to measure personality. However, Emergenetics® separates the thinking and behaving. We each have a preference for one or more of these four thinking attributes. Understanding someone’s thinking style is an incredibly powerful insight for change practitioners – it tells us how people make decisions, manage situations and communicate with others. We can harness this intelligence to develop strategies that enhance communication and drive up performance and resilience. 

Case study: you have a colleague with one dominant Thinking preference – Analytical, represented by the colour blue on the profile tool. Mr. Blue is a clear thinker, interested in data and favours an objective analysis of a situation. He will try to find one right answer to a particular conundrum and, you guessed it, is likely to struggle with change if not presented with clear evidence, facts or figures to justify it. VUCA is the stuff of Mr. Blue’s nightmares and he is struggling.  How can the Change Management function support him through the change that will inevitably be required for the business to thrive in the VUCA world?

We’ll come back to Mr. Blue later but for now, let’s consider a few of the different ways the challenges of VUCA have been successfully addressed. At an organisational level, many tech firms have adopted the Agile project delivery method, which has enabled them to switch the focus from projects to products and thereby create a near-permanent cycle of change through development. Similarly, firms are increasingly embracing agile working, with teams working from multiple locations or using office-based hot-desks.

In addition to the practical benefits of these ways of working, they serve up daily helpings of Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This, in turn, helps to embed a culture of constant change which decreases peoples’ sensitivity to the unknown.

However, as an individual change practitioner, I have very little control over corporate ways of working. One of the most effective ways to get people comfortable with constant, unpredictable change in the face of an unknown future is to embed the idea of a corporate roadmap. This helps evolve peoples’ thinking from the limitations of current projects and gets them comfortable with a forward-looking horizon scanning approach. This practice takes time to embed but it is a very practical tool for a change practitioner when supporting teams stuck in a VUCA rut.

But there is another way. Let’s consider how a coaching approach can help individuals not simply to cope with VUCA, but actually perform and thrive.

Coaching is a person-centred, outcome focused approach aiming to bridge the gap between where an individual is now and where they want to be. Focusing on a goal or desired outcome, the coach supports the individual to identify the root cause of their limiting belief (e.g. Change). The role of the coach is to listen without giving advice and suggestions. The coach will ask incisive and sometimes challenging questions to help the coaches to arrive at their own solution. If this sounds familiar, that’s because many (good) leaders instinctively deploy similar tools, without necessarily being qualified coaches.

So let’s go back to Mr. Blue and apply our coaching toolset to the VUCA conundrum. Thinking styles are key to how a person reacts to being coached. Because Mr. Blue does not like being rushed, patience and an understanding of how his thinking preference is informing on his experience is essential. He may also resist some questions which he sees as fanciful or lacking in logic, becoming quite defensive, so avoid questions like “imagine if you were CEO in 3 years time..what would you do differently?”  If you find Mr. Blue over-analysing your questions by using the listening habit of trying to make logical sense of what you mean, the response to your questions may be met with a quick and un-thought through ‘I don’t know’. Although the temptation here is to offer a suggestion or advice, do avoid this as commitment and buy-in is more powerful when coming directly from the coachee and not from you as the coach.

Analytical thinkers prefer time to think and may respond well to re-grouping a few days later with their own ideas and solutions.

4 Incisive Questions for an Analytical Thinking Preference:

  1. Thinking rationally, what sense are you making of this situation right now?
  2. What evidence do you need to support you through this situation?
  3. What three options do you have? Which one is most relevant to you?
  4. What are the pros and cons of what is happening for you?

 With the recognition that VUCA is the status quo, the need to continually support individuals within the organisation has even more importance and relevance. Managing teams in this complex arena is not easy and this is where coaching can play a big part. Having the skill to ‘be present’ with the individual, to listen with intent, asking questions which focus on the future not on the problem, showing empathy and understanding, will go a long way to building trust, rapport and resilience.

Authors: Amy Tarrant is a change practitioner within the insurance sector and has delivered many business transformation programmes. Amy is convinced of the benefits of marrying tried and tested change management techniques with coaching skills for optimum outcome. Sue Noble is a facilitator and coach with wide experience in Executive Coaching and delivering Internal Accredited Coaching Programmes to embed transformational organisational change. This paper is a preview for their forthcoming book on Coaching Organisations Through Change (a practical guide on tools and techniques for non-coaches) due out in 2021

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