Leading in Turbulent Times (VUCA)


As a Dirt World leader, you’re likely familiar with the VUCA environment, even if you’re not calling it that.

The term originated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Confronted with the new norm of the post-Cold War era, the U.S. military needed a term to describe the environment it now faced, an environment that was volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. And so VUCA was born. 

In this video, Adamchik talked with Blount about the conditions that make up a VUCA environment, the antidote to VUCA, and how these concepts can help you lead in turbulent times. 

VUCA and the world of construction.

VUCA has become a bit of a buzzword in the business world. The term is an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Here’s what each of these words mean in the context of the Dirt World environment:

Volatility. When we don’t necessarily know what’s coming next, we’re dealing with a volatile environment. The pace of change, for example, has a significant effect on volatility. When changes come quickly, the environment often becomes more volatile.

Uncertainty. When an environment is uncertain, outcomes are unpredictable. Because the conditions on a construction project are very knowable, the uncertainty in construction comes from not really knowing what’s coming next. And often, this uncertainty creates paralysis within the organization.

Complexity. There’s a difference between a complex environment and a complicated one. In a complicated environment, cause and effect are fairly easy to determine, and this means you can figure out how to deal with the situation. With complexity, you can’t determine cause and effect, and things are happening that don’t fit your traditional model. 

Ambiguity. The ambiguous environment is a little like having to move forward in a fog. You know where you’re going, but it’s hazy out there, and things are blurry. One example in the construction world comes from the plans we work from. There’s ambiguity in how we’re going to build each particular component, but it’s not an excuse not to deliver the product. 

The antidote to VUCA.

When you’re dealing with situations arising in a VUCA environment, you need more than the traditional management and leadership approaches. Bob Johansen outlined the antidote to VUCA in a book titled Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. The concepts that make up this antidote are simple and enduring (and easy to remember, as they also form the acronym VUCAl).

Vision and values

Vision enables us to see where we’re going, no matter how foggy it gets. And values say, no matter what happens, this is who we are. 

Think about why people keep coming to the United States. Our vision and our values are our beacon on the hill. Yes, we have issues, but the dream remains: liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality for all. 

Your vision is aspirational. It says, this is who we want to be. This is where we want to be. And values are the rules you’re going to play by as you work to achieve this vision.

Understanding

When there’s uncertainty, you have to figure out what’s going on, both outside and inside. You do this by understanding your environment, which can be achieved through processes like environmental scanning.

Adamchik suggested making a team of frontline  — but not low level — people like project managers and project engineers, and putting them in charge of researching and understanding some part of your market. Then, once a year, bring them back in to present their results. This keeps your environmental scanning dynamic and ongoing, rather than an onerous, once-in-four-years process. 

After-action reviews also provide an incredible opportunity for you to really find out what’s going on. “That’s the understanding piece,” Adamchik said. “You’re digging deeper into what you do, and how you do it.”

Communication and clarity

So you have a vision. You’ve done the research, gotten to the understanding. Now you need to refine it, and communicate it across your organization so everybody gets it. 

But to get there, you also need clarity. Remember, you’re in a complex, foggy environment, where you’re uncertain, and things are volatile. But even though you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve got a kind of laser clarity as to what you’re about, and who you are. 

Adamchik illustrated with a football analogy. “If only six of your guys have clarity on the play you’ve just called, it’s not going to happen,” he pointed out. “You need all eleven players having the clarity to know how they’re going to move and when they’re going to move, so the play can go exactly as it’s supposed to.”

Agility

Agility is about the ability to make a decision and move, to avoid the paralysis that can come in a turbulent environment. And within an organization, these decisions need to be made and moved on at all levels. So how do you get this piece of the antidote?

“You probe and sense,” Adamchik said. “Think of it from a military perspective. If you know what’s in front of you, you form an attack plan and you go. But if you don’t really know what’s in front of you, you probe. And you sense. And it’s only after you probe and sense that you have the agility to respond and move.”

Takeaways.

As Blount pointed out, once you recognize you’re in a VUCA environment, there’s no point lamenting over it. After all, you can’t change the environment. 

Instead, apply the antidote to help you keep moving forward despite the turbulence facing you:

  • vision and values
  • understanding
  • communication and clarity
  • agility

And as you begin practicing and applying this antidote to VUCA? “All the leadership concepts you’ve been learning — approachability, emotional intelligence, having the hard conversations, the huddle process — it all starts to comes together at this point,” said Adamchik.