It has almost become a cliché to describe the current economic and cultural environment using the acronym VUCA which had its origins in the 1980s American military. This suggests that many of the most difficult circumstances facing organisations and their leaders stem from Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Yet it is challenging also to ask whether anything has really changed? And how are we to make sense of these trends if they do, indeed, exist?

Over the last 100 years there have been many periods which, surely, could have been described in similar terms. In 1929, when the world’s stock markets collapsed, was that a period of simplicity or stability? In the 1930s, as the second world war approached, or in the 1950s and 60s as the cold war started to bite, was the world more predictable? During the 1990s, as the internet began to transform the world of enterprise, technology and communication, was the world less ambiguous than now? I suspect not.

Yet what has certainly happened lately is that the pace of change, which has always tended to accelerate, has speeded up to a bewildering level. Whatever volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity we had endured earlier seem to have been easier to endure and manage because their pace was slower. Indeed, Dean Van Leeuwen describes ours as an exponential age as new technologies and developments make others possible and the change compounds.

Reflecting on these factors, however, we can do better than lump them together. In order to get a better handle on them, we need to see how and where they affect us most. Uncertainty, for example, is largely a feature of the strategic domain. The strategic domain deals with the future rather than the present and the future is essentially uncertain: unknown and unknowable. Complexity, by contrast, hits us hardest in the operational domain. The operational domain is a world overly stuffed with facts and details that we struggle to transform into information sufficiently rapidly. In the interpersonal domain we find a great deal of the ambiguity which is born of the subject matter. People are hard to fathom because we have to make sense of ambiguous signals and unseen motives which are easily mistaken for others.

The strategic, operational and interpersonal domains are described in the Primary Colours Approach to leadership which also describes the tasks that need to be done for leadership to be effective and complete. By locating these issues in a conceptual framework, we begin to see how they might be handled more effectively although there remains volatility to consider. Volatility, reminds us that, just when we think we have understood something well, it will morph and change or will become affected by a third factor which renders previous understanding moribund.

However, the Primary Colours Approach also recommends leadership by teams of leaders made up of complementary and different contributions. In this way, those troubled by uncertainty may be able to follow a strategic lead provided by colleagues and come into their own when the need is to handle complexity or ambiguity and so on. If the team is carefully formed and becomes adept at passing the leadership baton to those whose capabilities are best suited to the changing circumstances, maybe even volatility can be tamed or at least managed.

Dr David Pendleton,
Professor in Leadership, Henley Business School, UK