Part 1—An Introduction to “VUCA” and How it Relates to Agile Leadership

The speed and interdependence of events in today’s world are overwhelming the time-honored processes and culture we’ve built so far. Once comforting constants are transforming into variables that defy predictability and challenge traditional models of leadership and management.

This is the first in a 7-part series that will look at these conditions, and what they mean for Agile leadership.

Leadership Concept

Does This Feel Familiar?

In your work, or even your home, maybe both, the problems you need to resolve and the opportunities you need to pursue are coming at you with:
• Less predictability, not more.
• Greater frequency, not less.
• Less lead time, not more.
• Windows to respond that are shrinking, not growing.

The accelerating pace and increasing dynamism don’t appear to be temporary; in fact, when you look back over the past months you notice that it’s been getting worse. You feel like you’re on a treadmill and some invisible hand keeps increasing the speed and incline. You look for advice from your corporate elders and the best that they have for you is this pearl of intergenerational, bumper sticker wisdom, “Work smarter, not harder.” You realize that the clueless, pointy haired boss in Dilbert™ cartoons is not make-believe.

What you are experiencing is the rise of VUCA, and successful operations in VUCA conditions, both personally and organizationally, requires a different kind of leadership—Agile leadership. This is what this series is about.

VUCA: What It Means & How it Originated

In the early 2000’s, Al Qaeda forces in Iraq, out-funded, out-equipped and out-manned, but not out-motivated, faced the most elite and lethal team of warriors ever assembled on the planet, the U.S. Army Joint Special Operations Task Force. Al Qaeda had success by creating conditions that the U.S. Army came to describe as “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”, thus coining the term, “VUCA”.

Al Qaeda’s VUCA ways created battle conditions with which even the U.S. Army’s elite team initially struggled because they were structured in a way that was not fast enough nor change adaptive enough to succeed in a VUCA environment.

If you are from the school of thought that believes that hard work is the key to life, then you would double-down on your existing methods and work harder. If you are from the school of thought that believes that “your altitude is a function of your attitude” then you would double-down on your existing methods, but you’d be more positive about their prospects for success.

Fortunately, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq had the presence of mind, the wisdom, and most importantly, the humility, to realize they were operating with the wrong paradigm and that is what needed to change. They set convention aside and completely restructured themselves to better deal with the reality of Al Qaeda’s VUCA tactics. In doing so, they found success.

Although coined by the military, VUCA is a condition that also apply describes today’s world in general. Consider how the now ubiquitous internet and all of its related tools have eliminated cost as a barrier to entry for so many established businesses and markets, Consider social media and its impact on physical, economic, social, and political life. Consider the global Coronavirus pandemic and its impact. Consider the George Floyd aftermath and its impact. Tell me that you, or anyone you know, saw any of that coming.

VUCA is our new norm, and conditions are only going to get more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous. Frankly, VUCA conditions are governed more by the laws of Chaos Theory than they are by any Newtonian linear thinking. However, for those who embrace Agile leadership, VUCA also presents an opportunity to achieve durable success where those who double down on convention cannot.

Agile Leadership: Achieving Durable Success in VUCA Conditions

Without humility, without doubting a little of our own infallibility, we humans are our own worst enemies. Even during pre-VUCA times we were working with a handicap. History and psychology tell us that our capacity to predict the future is limited. That same history and psychology also tells us that our capacity to believe in our predictions is unlimited. It’s irrational. We know it’s irrational. Yet, our irrational confidence in our predictions persists.

Just like the U.S. Army Joint Special Operations Task Force, many businesses, non-profits, government agencies, whole governments, and family homes need reorientation because they currently conduct themselves in a way that, while marginal in the past, is not at all capable in VUCA conditions. For those who, like the U.S. Army Joint Special Operations Task Force, have the presence of mind, the humility and the wisdom to set convention aside, adopting an Agile mindset offers a proven way to succeed in VUCA conditions.

An Agile mindset understands that responding to change is more effective than attempting to predict or prevent it; that trusting in your ability to respond to unpredictable events is more valuable than trusting in your ability to predict them. Agile is the answer to that working smarter, not harder question (feel free to share this with your pointy-haired boss).

There are two immediate problems with bringing an Agile mindset to how your organization is led, managed and operated. Problem #1 is that Agile has become faddish; whenever an innovation, good or bad, becomes faddish, important people stop treating it seriously. Problem #2 is that Agile is wrongly understood. Agile is not something you do; it is something you are. If you ever hear someone say that they “do Agile,” you immediately know that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Agile is not a program that you implement; it is a set of principles and values that you inculcate and actualize. Here is why this distinction is important.

Agile leadership is principle-centered leadership; first on a personal level and then on an organizational level—the former is a prerequisite for the latter.

It is a question of stimulus and response. There is a school of thought that believes that a person’s response to a stimulus (i.e., a problem to be solved, or an opportunity to be leveraged) is determined by their mood and/or their conditioning. Three forms of conditioning are typically cited: genetic, psychic and environmental. Genetic conditioning means that you have been conditioned by nature (i.e., your grandparents did it to you). Psychic conditioning means that you have been conditioned by how you were nurtured (i.e., your parents did it to you). Environmental conditioning means that you have been and continue to be conditioned by your circumstances (i.e., your boss/spouse/whatever is doing it to you).

Absent any intervention on your part, your response to a stimulus will, indeed, default to your mood and/or conditioning. But… But, you have the power to short circuit that knee-jerk response and be more deliberate in choosing your response. In fact, I contend that this power to choose your response is the single greatest power that an individual has—if they decide to develop it. Like a muscle, this power will grow stronger if it is exercised, and it will atrophy if it is neglected. Developing the strength of character—the personal leadership—to short-circuit your default response based on your mood and/or conditioning, and to make the conscious decision to respond based on your principles and values—to subordinate your moods and conditioning to your principles and values—is a fundamental strength of personal leadership. Developing this “choose your response” muscle, develops personal leadership. Including Agile principles and values among them, develops Agile leadership.

Agile Leadership & VUCA

Remember how stimuli in a VUCA environment are presenting themselves with less predictability, not more; with greater frequency, not less; with less lead time, not more; and with windows to respond that are shrinking, not growing?

And remember that Agile is a set of principles and values based on the understanding that responding to change is more effective than attempting to predict or prevent it, and that trusting in your ability to respond to unpredictable events is more valuable than trusting in your ability to predict them?
OK, you should now be able to see that allowing your response to default to your mood and/or conditioning, while problematic under “normal” conditions, is absolutely disastrous under VUCA conditions. This is why Agile leadership—at both the personal and the organizational levels—is essential to succeeding in VUCA conditions.

Said another way, while your fate may be a function of what happens to you, your destiny is a function of how you respond to what happens to you.

Under VUCA conditions, the ability to subordinate your moods and conditioning to your Agile principles and values is essential to improving the economic well-being and quality of life for all of those, at home or at work, who are under your stewardship.

Coming Next

Part 2—The Toffler Curve.