The Art of Strengths Coaching

V is for Doing Valuable Work In A VUCA World

During the past 20 years many leaders have attended seminars to explore how their organisations and people can thrive in a VUCA world. This is a world where situations can be volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous. Some events contain aspects of all four elements.

In the video above Bob Johansen of the Institute of the Future, and David Small, Vice President of Global Talent Management at McDonald’s Corporation, explain this concept. Here is an introduction to the video.

Today’s leaders need to understand the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) and how to use values-driven leadership to face the challenges with hope.

This video was recorded at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership’s Senior Executive Roundtable on June 16, 2011.

Here is another introduction to the concept. This is from an organisation called the SPICE framework. You can discover more about SPICE’s work via the following links.


In the past 3 decades we have experienced unprecedented change leading to a new environment in which leaders must now work.

The term VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and originates from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

It has been developed as a means of describing the world as it now is and it is increasingly relevant for how we describe our work and social environment.

Like many things that change it brings both challenge and opportunity. Which you choose is dependent on how you view the world. 


The rate and speed of change we are experiencing in our business and market environments demands accelerated decision making and immediate responses. The pace of change will continue to accelerate.  

The challenge for leaders is to move from knee–jerk responses to proactive, well conceived, yet fast responses to the changing environment.

Key to managing volatility is clarity of vision. Focus on the destination, and clear alignment across an organisation enables people to make decisions that help navigate through turbulent times whilst heading in the right direction.


Uncertainty is all around us and is increasing. In these times it is difficult to be clear on the present let alone accurately predict future outcomes.

Our ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and form behaviours that allow us to navigate through it is fundamental. 

Leaders need to maintain differing viewpoints on the world in order to gain new understanding, spot patterns, opportunities and hazards.


With changing and uncertain times comes more complexity. We have to consider multiple, interconnected factors in our decision making. Making sense of the chaos is a fundamental skill.  

As leaders we need to let go of seeking the one perfect and permanent solution and seek out collaboration, reflect on complexities and connect the dots of opportunity.


The effect of ever changing, complex environments leads to a good deal of ambiguity making it difficult to understand the impact and meaning of events.

Individuals need to accept that ambiguity is a part of the rapidly changing world and we are unlikely to ever have enough information informing our decisions.

Joel and Michelle Levey, founders of Wisdom at Work, have helped many leaders to tackle these challenges. Like Robert, they use another version of the acronym VUCA to suggest people can do good work by focusing on Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility or Adaptability. You can discover more at their website.


People can clarify their values and translate these into a clear vision. When faced by challenges, refocusing on our values can help us to clarify what is really important. These values can then form the basis for our future vision.


People can aim to understand what is really happening. This sometimes takes courage and patience, because the temptation may be to revert back to old paradigms. The ability to see patterns and connect the dots, however, can help us to make good decisions.


People can clarify the real results to achieve. Good leaders, for example, communicate this clarity to their people. They explain the purpose, the principles and the picture of success. People then make clear contracts about their parts in achieving the aims.

Robert underlines that this desire for clarity can be dangerous. It can lead to knee-jerk simplicity, rather than using wisdom. People may search for seemingly simple answers to challenges – such as scapegoating other people.

Leaders need to demonstrate wisdom and compassion. They then need to communicate a clear vision to mobilise people’s efforts towards achieving a compelling goal.

Agility or Adaptability

People can follow their values and keep their eyes on the vision. The values remain constant, but circumstances can change, especially on the ground.

Good leaders therefore manage by outcomes, rather than by tasks. They ensure their people are given the resources and freedom, with parameters, to be adaptable and agile. They can then do what is required to achieve the goals.

The New Zealand
Rugby Team and VUCA

Many leaders have found ways to enable their people to thrive in fast changing times. One example is described by James Kerr in his book Legacy.

He uses the concept of VUCA to describe events that shook the New Zealand rugby team. The national team were used to winning, but suddenly they faced an unprecedented crisis that threatened their identity.

The All Blacks responded by pursuing a compelling purpose. Honouring the past, they also aimed to set an inspiring example for future generations. They aimed to become what Jonas Salk called ‘good ancestors’.

James explains this called for developing a learning culture. The old model of a long chain of command – reinforced by constant supervision – will not work in a changing world. This is certainly the case when working with, for example, athletes or knowledge workers.

Great leaders create leaders, not just followers. They nurture people who can think for themselves in turbulent times.

The All Blacks adopted this approach, says James. Everybody knew their contribution to achieving the team’s mission. They were then enabled to deliver the goods.

Great leaders often take the following steps to increase the chances of success.

They communicate a clear mission – the specific outcomes that must be delivered – and ensure that people believe in the mission.

They communicate the time frame by which people must complete the various parts of the mission.

They give people the resources required and enable them to use their talents to achieve the mission.  

James underlines how the All Blacks implemented the right strategy with the right people in the right way. They selected for character, involved people in co-writing the purpose and nurtured leaders across the group.

People translated the strategy into action and practiced performing under pressure. They also developed the habit of constant improvement. This enabled them to deliver the goods when it mattered.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, are there any ways you might be affected by volatility, unpredictability, complexity or ambiguity? How can you manage these challenges successfully?

Looking to the future, how can you continue to focus on your values? How can you translate these into a clear vision? How can you aim to do valuable work?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific things you can do to do valuable work in a VUCA world. 

Describe the specific benefits of doing these things – both for yourself and other people.

Slides VUCA World.001

Slides VUCA World.002

Slides VUCA World.003

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>