This post is adapted from “Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance” by Karen Martin. Copyright 2018 McGraw-Hill Education. Reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill Education. All rights reserved.
The term VUCA is thrown around a lot today. The acronym, introduced by the US Army War College in the 1990s to describe the conditions it faced in Afghanistan and Iraq, stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and is now a term heard in corporate boardrooms, executive strategy sessions and among management consultants. It is increasingly mentioned as a business condition that requires a different leadership approach.
Here’s the problem: I hear far too many people use the term in a hand-wringing, shoulder-shrugging way, as though they’re being held hostage by conditions over which they have no control. Some use it as an excuse for not setting their sights higher, not stretching farther, not working harder to retain or regain market share and not striving for excellence.
VUCA becomes an excuse for settling for less.
Such defeatist thinking can negatively affect product development decisions, annual business plans and strategy. I’m fairly certain that’s not how the Army War College intended it, but that’s how some in business are using it.
So, what is the antidote to the negatives of VUCA thinking? Clarity. With clarity, leaders can exhibit more control than they realize over the four VUCA “realities.”
Volatility is the toughest one to control and to see coming, but when leaders are clear about internal and external conditions it is easier to recognize volatility on its way and respond accordingly.
Uncertainty is likewise a reality of business, but, again, far too many leaders assume that uncertainty is universal rather than taking the time to get clear on as many elements as they can.
Complexity, for its part, creates an opportunity to simplify, as most complex situations and concepts can be broken down, clarified and successfully addressed.
Ambiguity is the one “reality” that doesn’t belong in the acronym at all, since ambiguity is a man- made condition that exists within the other three. Nothing that’s ambiguous needs to remain so.
So really, we live in a VUC world.
Clarity enables higher productivity, better decision making, more effective and timely problem-solving, more relevant action and better relationships — all of which lead to higher levels of performance for both the individual and the organization. Clarity thrills customers, increases profits and lowers costs. It also creates deep employment engagement and builds trust between leadership and the people who deliver value to the customer.
Yes, VUC may be here to stay, but clarity allows leaders and organizations to successfully navigate this reality. Rather that accepting ambiguity as a new norm, organizations need to develop an intolerance for ambiguity. When an organization creates clarity around its purpose, priorities, processes, performance and how it goes about solving problems, organizational drag is reversed and all parties win.
Karen Martin is the president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc. and a leading authority on business performance and Lean management. Her latest book, Clarity First, is her most provocative to date. It diagnoses the ubiquitous business management and leadership problems that lack of clarity produces and outlines specific actions to improve performance.