The leaders operating in 21st Century societies often must deal with major challenges associated with the anxiety experienced by members of their society. This anxiety can be induced in many ways—and there are multiple sources of societal anxiety. We often seem to be stranded on a boat that is caught up in the “perfect storm” of societal anxiety. Perhaps the easiest way to sum up the multiple sources of anxiety is to evoke the now commonly used acronym: VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). The challenges in a VUCA environment involve both determining what is “real” and how one predicts and makes decisions based on an assessment of this elusive reality. I propose that leadership and decision-making in our 21st Century societies has become even more challenging given the big VUCA wave that is hitting us right now—the COVID-19 invasion.
The VUCA-Plus Environment
I will dwell briefly on the meaning to be assigned to each of the VUCA terms and then suggest how we might expand on VUCA. Complexity concerns the many elements and dynamic interaction among elements that have to be taken into account, while Volatility refers to the rate and shifting rate of change among the elements. The other two terms have to do with epistemology (the way in which knowledge is acquired and reality is defined). Ambiguity concerns the assessment of both the evidence available regarding reality and the meaning assigned to this reality. The fourth term, Uncertainty, is about the stability of any assessment being made regarding reality. Does reality change over a short period of time? Why do an extensive assessment if our world is constantly shifting?
VUCA is deservedly becoming the coin-of-the-realm among contemporary organizational analysts and is certainly relevant in a world of pandemic invasions. These four terms (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) clearly capture much of the dynamics swirling around in the perfect storm of COVID-19. I have offered a similar, pre-virus description of our current environment (Bergquist, 2020). However, my categories differed a bit and expand upon VUCA. I identified four challenges: complexity, unpredictability (uncertainty), turbulence and contradiction. Two of these challenges align directly with VUCA, while the other two (turbulence and contradiction) expand on the VUCA environment.
In describing Turbulence, I turned to a metaphor offered by Peter Vaill (2008), who suggests that we are living in a “white water” world. I suggested that this whitewater world represents a turbulent system (Bergquist, 2019a). Furthermore, I proposed that this whitewater system incorporates four subsystems that are exemplified by the properties of a turbulent stream: (1) rapid change (flowing segment of the stream), (2) cyclical change (the stream’s whirlpools), (3) stability/non-change (the “stagnant” segment of the stream), and (4) chaos (the segment of a stream existing between the other three segments).Download Article 1K Club