Keep your Organization Vibrant

For quite a long time we have been raised in a context in which we believed the world is predictable. Running a business was much about problem solving and planning that aimed at reducing uncertainty. Nowadays, entrepreneurs and managers are facing increasing demand from multiple directions, with challenges that do not stop growing in size and scope. The myth of predictability is gone.

For a couple of years we have heard a lot about VUCA. The term is an acronym used by the American Military to describe extreme conditions. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

  • Volatile
    Things change unpredictably, suddenly, extremely.
  • Uncertain
    Important information is not known or unclear, unpredictable future outcomes, not able to be relied upon.
  • Complex
    Many different and connected parts: multiple key decision factors, emergence, adaptation, co-evolution, weak signals.
  • Ambiguous
    Open to more than one interpretation.

The term found its way into the business world to describe the challenges that leaders are facing right now. A world that requires higher levels of leadership agility and a higher level of vibrancy of the whole organization to engage actively with the VUCA elements instead of trying to control them.

Studying many articles about VUCA and its implication for modern leadership and organizations, I like to sum up the findings to four concrete recommendations how to face these multiple challenges.

  • Vision counters volatility
    Retain a clear vision what the company is all about and where it is heading against which judgments can be made, with agility to respond appropriately to rapidly unfolding situations. It is like an inner navigator that guides the direction. It’s like being captain on a ship. When the weather is nice and clear you can navigate by using external elements: shores, other ships, the stars. But when a storm comes up and you are just busy maneuvering the ship not noticing the shore nor stars you need an inner navigator that gives you an intuitive sense where to go.
  • Understanding counters uncertainty
    That is the ability to step aside of one’s own self-importance as a leader, dropping the idea of knowing all and instead: stop, look and listen. Leaders must learn to include ideas and thoughts beyond their functional areas of expertise to gain a bigger picture. This requires leaders to communicate with all levels of employees in their organization and to develop and demonstrate teamwork, conflict and collaboration skills.
  • Clarity counters complexity
    Make decisions fast and provide clear communication and direction. This includes consistent messaging, supported with the use of new virtual modes of communication where necessary.
  • Agility counters ambiguity
    Staying vibrant and able to move quickly to apply and adjust solutions. Uncertain times also bring opportunities for bold moves. Seize the chance to innovate. Anticipate risks but don’t invest too much time in long-term strategic plans. Don’t automatically rely on past solutions and instead place increased value on new, temporary solutions, in response to such an unpredictable climate. So the job is never done, it means getting used to being uncomfortable.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos writes annual letters to his shareholders that are highly appreciated especially by enterprises that are looking to transform digitally. In his 2017 letter, he focuses on staying vibrant and agile as in Day 1, avoiding by all means Day 2.

Day 2 for him is „… stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.“

His starter pack of essentials to stay in Day 1 is close to the four recommendations how to deal with the VUCA world: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.

  • True Customer Obsession
    “There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.”
  • Resist Proxies
    “The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, „Well, we followed the process.“ A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.”
  • Embrace External Trends
    “The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.“
  • High-Velocity Decision Making
    Decisions should be made with about 70 percent of the information you wish you had. Wait for 90 percent and you’re too slow. “
    “Disagree and commit. … If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, „Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?“

Is there anything that keeps your organization from being vibrant?
Resist the temptation to stick to outdated, inadequate processes or to try to control the uncertainty. It is more efficient to get used to being uncomfortable and just enjoy the adventure.

More to read:

Leaders make the future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World – Bob Johansen

Leaders in a VUCA environment  – Kirk Lawrence

Jeff Bezos Annual letter 2017