In case you hadn’t noticed, your world has gone VUCA!
For some time before Covid hit us, business writers and academics, myself included, were warning leaders about the imminent arrival of a VUCA world – where the art of leadership would involve navigating a path littered with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.
To some degree, VUCA has always been with us, so we urged leaders to take the time to understand the implications and to learn how to cope. So, we talked about learning to accept and work with ambiguity – the paradox of ‘both/and’ replacing ‘either/or’ in decision-making. How we can grant staff autonomy while at the same time, keeping an eye on their work, for example? Freedom or control, or both? Some leaders bought into this but far too few. Until now.
Now we learn that, as lockdown is packed away for the time being, the UK economy is ‘bouncing back’. This may well be a false dawn; it’s far too early to be sure. And VUCA tells us that it’s even more risky to predict which way things will go.
But at least, we can see confidence returning to many markets so, right now, business leaders are coming to work with a smile on their face.
No doubt there are armies of researchers out there, busy analysing the ‘bounce’, seeking to discover who are the winners, who are the losers, and why.
Who are the leaders that are reacting to the changed world, listening to the changing needs of their customers; spotting the market sectors that will never recover, replaced by something new and more relevant; paying attention to the mental health scars that lockdown has left on their staff?
And who are the business owners who, breathing a sigh of relief, dusted off their pre-Pandemia website, sales literature and training manuals and sat waiting for the post-Pandemia clients to pile in through the door? And waited. And waited.
Versatility, Agility and Humility
As INSEAD Knowledge* rightly assert in their recent paper ‘Three Dimensions of Leadership Agility’:
“There is one certainty in a VUCA world: the solution that works today may not work tomorrow.”
To any student of cricket, this should sound familiar – the best batsmen know how to read the game, how to slow things down and protect their wicket and how to attack and go for the runs. Moreover, they study the pitch, the increasing tiredness of each bowler and use that knowledge to know when to change gear.
For you as a leader this should mean, for example, knowing when to trust your judgement, your instinct, and when to trust what the numbers appear to show. We call that Versatility.
To take this further, I suspect that many leaders recognise that their people out in the field could well have a more sensitive feel for how customers’ priorities are changing than they do. Do they have the Humility to see that those people are better placed to make things happen than they are?
Years ago, I was involved in work for the CEO of one of the High Street banks, a wise man who thought deeply about his business and about the bank’s role in society. This was in the days when your local branch still had a manager on-site with the authority to approve personal loans and mortgages. So, you can tell how long ago this took place.
We were charged with developing a programme that could be rolled out nationally to demonstrate the bank’s commitment to the community. The easy thing would have been a national advertising campaign in the glossy magazines offering, for example, to match-fund customers’ donations to a particular cause.
We argued that giving away money, no matter how worthy the cause, could be seen as rather patronising – the rich giving to the poor and taking all the credit – and that it would be far more effective to run a programme on a local, town-by-town basis, with the active involvement of the local branch staff, to co-fund, kickstart or restore something of real local community value.
That way, the local staff, even in the more remote parts of the country, would feel recognised by Head Office in London and by the residents of the place where they live, their own families and their customers.
There was no data to support this proposal, nothing to prove that it would work but it felt right. The whole premise was founded on an understanding of human nature, backed by a courageous CEO who had the Humility to approve something over which Head Office would have only marginal control.
It went ahead and it worked. Humility and nous – common sense – won the day.
Humanity and Artificial Intelligence, partners in a VUCA world?
Having argued for the immense value of human intelligence in a VUCA world, we only have to look just around the corner to spy an avaricious monster lurking there, eager to take over most of the decisions we make every day, and serve customers faster, more accurately, and backed by more data than you or I could ever handle in a lifetime. AI.
‘Research is an aid to judgement; it should never become a judgement in itself. ‘
That statement, coined back in the 1970s or even earlier, when the harvesting and management of information were still in the relative dark ages, is becoming harder and harder to defend in a world where AI development teams are predicting an almost total takeover of design, production, transportation, healthcare, medical diagnosis, communication, and education by ‘intelligent’ machines.
Within ten years or less, this brave new world will be all over us, threatening to dictate your life and mine, the behaviour of your staff, your customers, your suppliers, your competitors, in fact everyone on whom the success of your business depends. And I haven’t even mentioned your private life.
- The most powerful computers and artificial intelligence programmes failed to predict the Covid pandemic or its size
- We are still sending men and women to the Moon
- People still do business with people
- People still employ people
- When you boil it all down, leadership is still about people
In other words, while it is clear that the pace of technological development has accelerated how we do almost everything, we human beings, with the help of technology, are still better at solving the most complex problems
As AI-backed innovations creep ever closer, we as leaders can go one of two ways:
- Dive in head-first, grab everything that AI has to offer, demonstrate to the wider world how our company is right up there at the ‘sharp end’ of innovation. And run the very real risk of being caught out when the next tech supernova comes along and we suddenly find we’re looking a bit dated, or
- Do just what we did with the arrival of mobile phones, email, and web-based apps – recognise that we need to learn, that learning is a lifelong exercise, particularly in a VUCA world. Learn from the best, calmly assess whether and how any of this vast array of new machine-based facilities can help us lead the business, to meet the changing expectations of our market, and to offer us a better chance of predicting where the next VUCA thunderbolt will come from.
As someone said recently, in a review of the Covid crisis, “It is clear that it will hit us again. It is not clear what ‘it’ will be”.
Critically, VUCA demands that we are also prepared to challenge and question the rules of the game. Before Covid, it was ‘utterly impossible to produce a new vaccine in a matter of a few months’. But we did.
Please ask yourself, ‘What are the utterly impossibles in my field?’
VUCA is unavoidable. It sets out challenges to every enterprise, at every level. After the last year or so, your colleagues each see their own version of VUCA and that makes them understandably nervous.
In recent months, our task as leaders was to steady the ship. Job done. So, what next?
5 ways to lead in an uncertain future
- Face the challenges of the new normal in a positive frame of mind. Remember that you would never have become a leader if you were not the kind who relishes a battle.
- Accept that the qualities that got you success in the pre-pandemic world may not be enough.
- What you need to add are two vital skills – Versatility and Agility. The Versatility of the top-class batsman, sensing how and when to change the game. The Agility to deploy all the tools at your disposal – your experience, your personal touch, your instinct, your common sense or nous, all reinforced by your command of evermore sophisticated technology.
- Underpinning all this we need Humility, increasingly recognised as a core factor in leadership. The humility to recognise that, the higher you rise, the more successful you become, the more you still have to learn.
- Learn. Throughout every career, day by day, you are acquiring fresh knowledge and fresh understanding. The day you start believing you are one hundred percent on top of your role is the day you start to lose impetus. Believe me, the slope from there on down is very slippery.
While you slow down, your competitors are catching and overtaking you, your staff lose their energy and your clients always notice.
Simon Lawder, September 2021
Former CEO of the largest ad agency west of London, leadership mentor to directors at several multinational companies, leadership & change management course director at business schools in the UK and France. Author of three page-turner thrillers.